It’s a huge mistake for Cambridge to hold entrance interviews online – I would know
The Cambridge University interview is infamous and necessary. But recently, a failure to recognize the interview process as an access initiative has led to the university’s latest mistake: putting it online.
I went through the interview process at Cambridge in December 2019. It was General Election Day – I remember it like it was yesterday. When I first entered the waiting room, there was only one person other than me who was not in formal attire. All the other boys were wearing costumes, and several were rehearsing lines from notebooks.
I was not disturbed, however. A rule I’ve always followed is that if you’re the only person in a room who isn’t in costume, you’re not the problem: the room is. The point of the interview is to make you memorable, and wearing a black suit was a one-way street to being overlooked by the time the door closes behind you. Then I was pretty happy with how it all went. “If I don’t come in,” I reasoned, “that’s a sign that I wouldn’t like to be here anyway.”
Fast forward three years and I am now in my senior year. I suspect my ability to stand out in a room that screamed at me to be formal may have helped me get the golden ticket.
But in-person interviews are no longer the norm – they haven’t been since before the pandemic in 2019. The only college offering face-to-face interviews is Trinity. For all others, it is online interviews, which are considered more convenient for the student. But getting students to face-to-face interviews was never a problem before the pandemic. I know that my university offered me free trips and overnight accommodation. And online interviews were an option anyway: it was just rarer and mainly for international students.
However, one of the biggest problems is the online interview news. I spent my second term in Cambridge at home and had to join my seminars and supervisions via online calls. I live in a rural area, in a family of five, and my father also worked from home. So obviously that wasn’t ideal. Calls were interrupted by noise and poor internet connection, supervisions were delayed, seminars abandoned. The same can be said for interviews. Some students will have the luxury of having better wifi, a desk to call from, or being an only child. Others will have it much worse than me.
The argument that students feel more comfortable calling from home than from an unfamiliar city depends of course on being comfortable at home and having the time, space and the bandwidth to do the maintenance. A large number of candidates, however, do so from the offices of the principals, or even worse in the common rooms. It’s no more comfortable than in Cambridge itself.
Beyond the logistics, there’s an important social aspect to in-person interviews: I like telling myself that I’m really good at interviews, but I hate talking on video calls. There is apprehension because you never know if the other person is about to start talking.
The static nature of the video also helps those who have prepared the most for the interviews. The interviewer asks a question. There is a pause. The students respond. In person, the conversation flows and meanders more, allowing for a bit of creativity in responses. It would be nice if the repetitive nature of a video interview didn’t unfairly benefit privately educated children, who likely received the right kind of responses from teachers. And if that didn’t stifle the personalities either.
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Then there is the question of presence. Before my interview, I had never been to my college and Cambridge was unfamiliar to me. But private schools are more likely to organize city trips, and privately educated children are more likely to attend one of the university’s many expensive summer schools, or even attend one. return fairly regularly. This familiarity leads to an understanding of Oxbridge (especially if your school regularly sends more than a few children there a year) and a desire to get there. If you’ve never been there and are suddenly offered an online interview, Cambridge remains in the abstract and seems less accessible than if you’ve already walked the halls of the university. You just can’t bother with all of this because it seems too out of reach.
I don’t believe this is a plot to attract private schools or financial hustle to save money, but rather pure lack of thought. But by holding interviews online, the university risks diminishing an interview process that has worked for decades; a process that is only strong because it throws everyone in the deep end, and all applicants are treated equally based on their mental character.
In my view, the university’s decision to move away from in-person interviews is a step forward in the digital age, but two steps backward in terms of accessibility.