Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Cambridge (Medicine) Interview

The Cambridge University admission interview, the one filled with so much stories, mysteries and myths.

Hello there! :)
If you are not one of my very few usual readers, you must have stumbled here by googling something for THE INTERVIEW (congratulations for the courage to even try! :D) or perhaps just trying to figure out if you even have the chance to realise this dream which you've been keeping it a secret to yourself for years. Welcome! I was suppose to blog about this interview 3 years ago, when I just finished mine, considering the fact that I have benefited a lot from my predecessors. But then I remember reading something in TheStudentRoom about we shouldn't be blogging about it, or else we'll be lectured by the admission tutor if they find out. It has been 3 years since mine happened, so I guess the content of the interview should be completely different by now (if the procedure still stays the same) and therefore, since I have nothing better to do this summer holiday, I think it's safe to share with you my experience now. Warning: This is NOT an official, rigid guide of how the interview is/should be like, for each interview is different and is guided by how you respond to each question. I am just here to share with you, my personal experience and my thoughts if I still remember them clearly  from that wonderful first encounter with this magical institution - Hogwarts Cambridge. Besides, there are so many posts about the interview experience of candidates that interviewed at their respective college itself, with so few from the international students interviewing at their home country, I felt obligated to contribute back to this special circle, especially to those in Malaysia. There is indeed a very strict quota on the no. of places for international medical students being admitted to the UK medical schools each year, with only about 1-2 places for internationals in each college in this University. So, I guess it is important to have a rough idea of what to expect and to prepare for potentially THE MOST IMPORTANT INTERVIEW IN YOUR LIFE. Be rest assured tho, it is not that scary. Don't worry, don't drive yourself to the brink of insanity. Keep calm and think.
There are of course many other helpful websites, esp those from the university admission team themselves, that you ought to visit to prepare if you haven't done so!

Apart from the UCAS application form, personal statement, the BMAT/UKCAT and your A-levels or equivalent results, the interview with Cambridge tutors is perhaps the most important factor in the admission process. This is because most of the candidates applying for this spot will look almost the same on paper: columns of straight A*s, consistently across several years, and a brilliant personal statement that shows as if you were born/have been preparing for decades for this spot, this degree. An easy way to distinguish one candidate from another is thus, the interview. For those who are unable to fly halfway across the globe to the UK just for an interview, we are very very fortunate that the university has been sending professional interviewers (who are possibly your future lecturers) to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong for the past few years. The interviewers may not be from the college you applied to, but they will make a report to the college and have the whole interview recorded. I had my interview at HELP College, Selangor, one day before my A2 exams started (which I had both Pure Maths P3 and Biology P4 the next morning after my interview day) UK candidates get 3 interviews with their future/potential supervisors in their respective college, stayed in the college and even dine there during the interview days. (unfair? Haha they flew over. consider the logistics involved and hey, interviewers are humans too, they need to rest) As an international student, you will have to pay 100 pounds for a 25-30 mins session to show them all you've got! The good news is, most people get interviewed after meeting all the deadline for the application form submissions and payment if you are a candidate that shows reasonable potential on paper. So why not just grab that chance?

Unlike most medical school admission interviews, you do not get ethical questions or questions that ask about your personal experience in a previous hospital attachment. So books like Medical School Interviews by Picard and Lee may be helpful for all other interviews, it is less so for the Cambridge interview. This interview focused mainly on your scientific and mathematical knowledge. This is because the syllabus is still in the traditional style in cambridge, so for the first 3 years, you do not go to the hospital/have frequent patient contact, you are basically learning how to be a scientist. You still do the things like you do in A-levels: go to lectures, supervisions (the special learning system in Oxbridge, equivalent of tutorials but with a ratio of 1-3 students to a supervisor), do your homework, write essays, have exams etc. Your scientific foundation is pertinent for your survival here! It is important that you have a strong grasp in your basic sciences to do well here. After the first 3 years, you will need to go through another round of interviews to get into clinical schools. That is when they focus on your experiences and assess on your attitude and principles as person. For this interview, it is...hardcore science, so know your stuff!

Do I need to know the syllabus for the first few years of med school to be admitted? How much do I need to know?
No! You can try, but I find it impossible for normal human beings to perform such mighty stunt when you have AS/A2 coming up at the same time. Although it is a good idea to look up what are we studying to know if you are really interested in this course and check out if you like the way we are taught (as compared to other styles of teaching in other med schools, not everyone like this traditional way of teaching. You shouldn't be here if you want to get into action, talk to patients on the first day of med school), you are not required to know med school stuff. No one expects you to know them, not even all 3rd years know them very very thoroughly because there is just too much to learn here! Save those worries for another day, ok? This is what you are required to know very well and in detail - your A levels syllabi. The questions they asked me were relevant to the syllabi and suited to my level. I will talk about this later. I had slight advantage during my interview because I was an A2 student, when majority of the students who are interviewed in my batch were AS students, so I could answer the questions in a greater breath and depth.

But considering the fact that I answered almost every single question wrongly, I think a more important factor is to show you are able to think on your own. We Malaysians are very prone to memorizing stuffs and 'vomiting' all out without digesting during exams, when we are suppose to think! (Ah the days of memorizing 36 nilai-nilai moral!) This bulimic way of learning may have brought you smoothly through our Malaysian education system, but it is a different story when you reach the tertiary level. For this interview, I think they also assess your ability to think, or rather, your ability to show that you are thinking. So when answering the questions, explain to the interviewer logically and clearly how you come up with you answer, show him/her your thought process in any way you could. Imagine explaining how cellular respiration works to your little brother or sister, and using appropriate words, explain it to the interviewer. I know this sounds easy, but many people failed miserably in ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS CLEARLY.

Really? How do you know for sure?
Here's my experience! I was an A2 student. I did not have much time to prepare for the interview itself except to view several Cambridge related videos online and read some seniors' experience on their interview because I was preparing for A2. I knew some other candidates even read The New Scientist to prepare themselves, but I did not have the time nor the resources in my college to do so. But I was not expecting anything,'s okay... I applied and paid for the interview because I have friends who had made it there and just by paying 100 pounds (or about that), you will definitely be interviewed (as compared to Oxford's interview which only very few candidates get and you have to be in the UK to be interviewed - this is actually one of the reasons I chose Cambridge over Oxford in the first place). Taylor's College Subang Jaya, where I was from, also had a very dedicated university centre where they hired professionals to give us a mock interview and feedbacks, few weeks before the actual day. On top of that, I was very curious about this famous admission process, so why not go for the experience of being interviewed? Why not give it a shot?

On the day, I 'attempted' to dress like a professional and arrived on time at HELP. I was the first to be interviewed at that centre on that day. (There are several centres in Selangor and KL) When I met my interviewer, I was not particularly nervous but when I was seated, I saw the next candidate's photo and CV, I did panicked a little inside.

The interview was a very very friendly man (who is actually my lecturer for my first year's course and still remembers me on the day he walked into the lecture theatre). He greeted me with a warm smile, and started the interview by asking questions like 'Why Medicine in Cambridge?' to break the ice. I just gave a very honest answer: it is a prestigious uni, it is known for its quality of education in Medicine, I want to learn there etc...

After that, he started the real interview process by showing me a graph of foetus' weight over the whole gestation period. I was so afraid because the only thing I knew about pregnancy is the connection between the mother and the foetus is at the placenta via the umbilical cord. What am I gonna do? That feeling of impending doom was almost unbearable.

Based on that graph, I was asked to derive another graph for the growth rate on the spot. That's mathematics, so it's alright. It did scared me a little because for the negative plotting points, there wasn't a negative y-axis on the answer sheet I was given, so I had to extend the line on my own, which I thought looked really weird at first. But it turned out to be correct.

That was the almost only part I was able to answer correctly. For the rest of the interview session, I was asked questions like, 'why do you think the baby's growth did not occur exponentially?', which of course I have no idea. I explained my answer based on principles. For most of them, he replied, 'Interesting idea. Principally it is correct, but this is not what happens in nature. It is actually...' He patiently explained the correct answer to me everytime I answered wrongly. The whole process was very interactive and fun. I was so grateful to be able to learn so much in that 25 minutes, which isn't what I expected out of a typical interview! (I guess that fee paid to cover the interviewers' flight over was so worth it even if I did end up being rejected)

We ended the session by discussing about esters' structure, which was what we learned in A levels Chemistry, and that was about it. I was glad I was there, but I wished I had done better for all the wrong answers I had given. But the damage was done, so no matter how devastated I was, the only thing I could do at that moment was to go home, study for tomorrow's papers and hope for the best. Who knows, the good news came as a complete surprise in one of the quiet nights in January...

Thank God for His grace, after all that had happened, after so long, I still think this was a miracle. :)

So here you go, the story about my interview, which I guess is a typical Cambridge interview process, depending on which subject you are applying. There were myths of weird questions being asked like 'how many atoms are there in the world?' I do not know if that is true, but even if it is, I wouldn't be surprised. Why would you ask a textbook question and expect a textbook answer anyway? Reality isn't like textbooks most of the time (esp in med) and uni is to prepare you for the real life out there. You are suppose to think critically yea, don't be shocked if something completely out of this world pops up during your interview. Just keep calm, and work it out logically based on what you know; if you don't know, try; if you really don't know, just admit you don't know. The interview process simulates the actual supervisions we have, so they also want to see how 'teachable' you are, and if you have the passion, hunger and humbleness to learn! You can't teach a person who thinks he knows it all. After all the more you learn, the more you realise you know nothing.

All the best for those who will be having their interview and A levels exams soon! Do leave a comment below if you have any questions :)


  1. Hi christine... I'm a malysian who wants to apply to university of cambridge this year. I'm currently studying as level. I would like to ask that is it a must for me to take IELTS before my application to cambridge ? Can't I take MUET ? But, my MUET results will be after my application to did you apply to cambridge ? Did you take IELTS or MUET?

    1. Hi Jessica, it depends on which college in cambs you are applying to. For some colleges (eg. the college I am in - Gonville and Caius), IELTs is optional but for others, it may be a requirement. I think most UK universities requires us Malaysians to have IELTs as well, so it's better to have the results ready when you are applying, whether to cambs or other UK medical schools. I did A levels in Malaysia. I am not very sure about MUET because I do not have friends who did Form 6 and are currently studying in UK. You have to check out the UCAS form when you are applying. I think MUET is recognised, otherwise you have to clarify that it is the equivalent of IELTs and use a predicted result when you are applying. Hope it helps!

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    3. Thank you Christine. I truly appreciate your kind effort to reply me. Thank you once again.