Olivia Bonsall / Varsity


There was a time before the Zoom interview. Memory of it may still exist among some third year students who deferred their all important Cambridge place to find themselves for a year. In this prehistoric era, students from around the world would congregate in Cambridge, move into a college room that housed an exhausted, unwashed fresher only days earlier, and sit in anticipation of one of the most seminal moment of their young lives.

Trapped in unfamiliar settings, surrounded by other 17-year olds with two ring binders full of interview prep, these poor applicants would sit and wait for their big moment. Luckily, a global pandemic forced the ever-reluctant monolith of Cambridge University to reform its tormenting ways and offer online interviews taken in the comfort of a student's home or school. On my big day, instead of nervous small talk with other jostling applicants, my interview was wedged in between a driving test at 9am and an A level statistics lesson at 1pm - two equally mammoth tasks next to which a 25 minute chat over zoom seemed comparatively doable. But, of course, nothing good lasts. One college - Trinity obviously - went back to in person interviews last year. This year another five have joined. The tide seems to be turning. 

The case against in person interviews is extensive. It costs the applicant financially, at a time when access is meant to be a leading priority of the University, as well as educationally through missed days of learning. Perhaps more subtly, however, in-person interviews favour those comfortable with the environment, those to whom the splendour of Cambridge architecture does not alienate, those of whom who have been trained for these formalised academic settings, those from privilege. If Cambridge is truly a beacon of meritocracy then why not level the playing field? Let everyone interview from a space they feel comfortable in. And stop dragging teenagers across the globe to Cambridge for two days, in the depths of Winter, only to reject 4 out of 5 of them anyway.


My online interview experience was a prime example of Murphy’s law, in that everything that could go wrong certainly did. Torn between doing my interview in an empty classroom at 9am, hoping that screaming year 8s wouldn’t put me off my discussions of Frankenstein, or completing it in the boxy spare room where we store our ironing, I opted for the latter, only to find that my home wifi was woefully slow (my DoS who interviewed me later told us that when students’ wifi cut out, they played the game “which Jane Austen character is your type” - something I had no knowledge of as I stress-sweated my way through poor connection, kicking myself for not doing the troubleshooting that had been offered to us the week before). 

In the end, it all worked out quite well for me - and it’s probably safe to say that the stress that comes from lagging wifi is nowhere near the stress of the Sheffield-Cambridge train commute, which always seems to get delayed around Peterborough. But it feels tough to claim that online interviews, especially for students who have to choose between lagging wifi at home or possible disruptions at school, are better than (in an ideal world) fully-reimbursed in-person interviews. At the very least, if something goes wrong in the interview, you and your interviewers are on the same page, rather than you looking flustered and weird over a zoom call because your cat is trying to get in.

One of the main consolatory phrase that gets floated at you as a prospective applicant is that regardless of whether you’re successful or not, the Cambridge interview is ‘an experience’. While the interesting academic conversations remain the same, in some ways, maybe the experience is somewhat dulled when interviews take place under the fluorescent lights of an empty classroom, rather than in an historic college. Personally, if I had to choose between bawling my eyes out after a disastrous poetry analysis in a castle or in my crumbling geography classroom, I know which one I’d pick.