So, it sounds like you have your Cambridge university interview coming up and you’re wondering how long the dreaded moment will last. If I’ve got that right, this article – hopefully – will make for an interesting read.
Let’s start with some context: In 2019, I applied to read for BSc Computer Science at the University of Cambridge; more specifically, at Trinity College. After this application resulted in a swift rejection and some fairly eye-watering feedback, I took it upon myself to apply a second time for the same course but at an alternative college: Magdalene College.
Although my latter application also resulted in a rejection (albeit with an entrance into the winter application pool) I think it would be fair to say I have plenty of Cambridge University admissions experience when it comes to both interviews and pre-interview examinations.
Now that you know a snippet about me, my personal Oxbridge application process, and why I am well informed to write this article, I will transition to directly answering the title question about how long a typical University of Cambridge interview can be expected to last. If you wish to read more about my personal application journey, feel free to check out some of my other articles on this website.
The short answer
If you are here for the quick answer, University of Cambridge interviews typically last between 30 and 45 minutes*. This of course has the caveat of varying massively dependent on both the college you apply to and the course you are applying to read for.
When I went for my panel interview at Trinity College, one of my interviewers quite literally placed a timer on the desk and set it for 40 minutes. As you may have already guessed, that is exactly how long the interview lasted.
(*) This number hasn’t been obtained from a university source ,but is instead based on my personal experience combined with the knowledge gained from conversations I have had with many other undergraduate Cambridge applicants over the years.
Are online interviews the same duration as in-person interviews?
As you may have remembered from my introduction at the start of this article, I have taken part in both online and in-person interviews. Therefore, this section will reference from my personal experience and nothing else.
When contrasting each of my applications to the University of Cambridge, online panel interviews tended to be shorter in duration than in-person interviews.
The reason for this was due to the in-person interviews being a different style and format than the in-person interviews. Although that is a topic for another article, I will quickly say that my in-person interviews focused primarily on going over my pre-interview admissions assessments* and not on solving novel abstract problems. In contrast, my online interview gave me never-seen-before problems and I attempted to solve them alongside the interviewers**.
(*) For one of my in-person interviews, I took the CSAT about 30 minutes prior to my interview. You can see what the CSAT papers look like here. My post-exam interview focused solely on my reasoning associated with the answers I gave in the aforementioned CSAT examination.
(**) It is important to note that all of my in-person interviews were at Trinity College (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) whereas all of my online interviews were at Magdalene College (a year later; during the COVID-19 pandemic). This is likely responsible in the changes of format between the styles of interview, although I cannot confirm this. Additionally, Magdalene College was not issuing the CSAT examination at that time.
Can the duration of a Cambridge interview be changed dependent on early-on performance?
Let’s say you walk into your interview and your first 10 minutes go terribly; you trip over the chair on the way in, accidentally swear, and then fall of your chair – a complete disaster if you will.
Will your interviewer (or interviewers) simply terminate the interview early if they deem you to be below the Cambridge standard? In contrast, if you perform extremely well early on, will they stop the interview short as you have already met the criteria they are looking for?
In my experience, neither of these scenarios would ever happen.
Despite what you may think, Cambridge interviewers do, generally speaking, try their best to give each candidate an equal chance to show their skills off. Many students will be disadvantaged by their anxiety for the first half of the interview and will take time to warm up and get comfortable. The interviewer will be aware of this fact and will not make their determination of a candidate solely based on only one part of the interview.
Similarly, if a candidate is performing very highly at the start of the interview, it is likely due to the content they are being exposed to being familiar. In this instance, the interviewer will continue the interview, with progressing levels of content difficultly, until the candidate starts to struggle. At this point, and likely only this point, the interviewer will assess a student’s ability to approach and solve novel problems.
The perception that the University of Cambridge give is that their stance is one of not simply testing a candidate’s ability to remember existing knowledge, but instead, apply the knowledge to unfamiliar problems and academic scenarios.
An example: instead of simply remembering Pythagoras theorem and applying it to a pre-diagrammed triangle, you may be given an abstract shape that you must first split into triangles and then apply the theorem. The idea being that on first sight, the problem is not familiar without manipulation. A rather crude example I know but hopefully the overarching message is getting through.
A final note on your upcoming University of Cambridge interview
Whether your interviews result in an acceptance or a rejection, I truly believe that the process will provide you with experience that will become invaluable to you later in your life.
You will take significant steps in learning how to perform under pressure. Contrary to what you may think, this lesson will be learned to at least some extent irrespective of whether you actually perform under pressure in your interview.
Wishing you the best of luck.