Applying, interviews, Japanese

Interviews – My Experience

EDIT: I was recently alerted to the fact that Cambridge don’t really like people revealing the specifics of interviews until a few years have passed, so I’ve had to reduce the level of detail in some places. Sorry about that, but I hope it’s still helpful!


It’s commonly known that interviews are simultaneously the most exciting and most terrifying part of the application process. You’ve got your grades, done your wider reading and admissions assessment and gone through the excruciating wait for an invitation.

There’s also a lot of mystery around interviews and how they work, especially for AMES. One thing I must make clear is that every interview is different – just because I got asked a certain thing doesn’t mean that you will be too! And I’m by no means the only authority on the matter.  Also at some point I’m going to try and get some more stories if I can to broaden the pool (especially for the people doing languages other than Japanese!).

Before I tell my story though, some general advice for interviews:

  • Read up on your reading. This sounds silly but if you’ve mentioned something you’ve read in your personal statement, make sure you know it pretty well. I put a book on that I did an essay on, but didn’t know that well, so I reread it to make sure I was 100% certain. Often interviews are pretty centred around your personal statement so be prepared for that.
  • Check with your college for specific details. This might be the room and location of your interview, or whether your college offers accommodation the night before, or who’s interviewing you. AMES interviews are usually a college interview, with the admissions tutor or Director of Studies, and a subject interview in the faculty with your DoS and a faculty staff member. It’s good to know who you’ll be with, as their research interests might suggest what your interview will be focused on (but it might not!) However it’s the college who provides you with the information about it all so check with them if you’re unsure. Make sure you bring what they want you to bring!
  • Think out loud. If you don’t say what you’re thinking, the interviewer can’t work out what you’re thinking. So you might have some amazing ideas but not get any credit for them! Even if you think your first answer sounds stupid, say it anyway, as the interviewer will often guide you through it and tease out the bigger idea you’re alluding to. Of course, if your first thought is “oh my god I don’t know this” then it’s probably not a great idea to say exactly that, but you could actively ask where to start or provide your own starting point for discussion.
  • Don’t stress! Okay, the interview is nerve-wracking, but ultimately this is your chance to gush about your subject with experts in the field, especially for a niche subject like AMES where other interested people are few and far between. Let yourself enjoy it, you deserve it after working so hard to get an interview!
  • After your interviews… go and have a Chelsea Bun in Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street as a reward. Honestly. They’re amazing.

A quick note about AMES faculty interviews in general: they are really quite varied. Mine had a bit of a focus on history (potentially because I don’t do history at sixth form), but other people I’ve spoken to had a language aptitude test or were asked more about modern society. So as with the admissions assessment, expect the unexpected!

So what were my interviews like? Well, I had two interviews – a college interview followed by a subject interview. I stayed in college the night before and got to have some meals as well, which was quite nice as I got a good feel for the college. It also meant I didn’t have to travel a long way and get up ridiculously early. Double plus good.

Funny story: I decided I was going to be sociable and say hello to people while I was staying in the college, to help me feel a bit more relaxed (I can recommend this, it worked). So in the dinner queue I said hello to the person in front of me and asked which subject they were applying for… needless to say they were a third year. It was embarrassing, but ended up being quite good because they were very friendly. I ended up sitting with them and their friends and learned quite a lot about life at Selwyn.

Anyway, I slept the night away and woke up bright and early the next morning feeling like I’d woken up in Hogwarts. It was really cold but the view from my room was nice. I put on some clothes (warm, but smart) and had breakfast, then made my way to the Selwyn bar where some other applicants were waiting. To be honest they were all really stressy and not very talkative so it was pretty uneventful until I realised I’d forgotten to bring my AS results with me, at which point I had to bat my eyelids at a current student to let me use the college library to print it off. Thanks nameless second year, you were a lifesaver.

Then I had my college interview. This was with the Admissions Tutor at my college. Before I went in I was given a short article to read, although I wasn’t told what it was for. After that I was invited into the interview room, where my interviewer explained that it would mainly be focused on my personal statement and wider reading, followed by the article. We discussed my personal statement in depth, such as the books I’ve read, what I thought about them, the concepts surrounding them, etc. I referred to the wider reading I’d done as part of my EPQ quite a lot, which were quite short and to the point and left me lots of room to discuss them further. A big discussion was about Soseki’s I Am A Cat, which I had read and written an essay on; we used that to discuss how different values are balanced in Japanese society.

After that we moved onto the article. She asked me what I thought the underlying philosophy was, then why I thought that, and also whether I agree with the article. So that was a bit random but also interesting.

I had a fairly big break between the two interviews, so I went to the Selwyn chapel for a bit to chill out away from stressy applicants before walking into town for some lunch in a cute cafe opposite King’s (edit: it was called Benets and had really nice sandwiches). Then I went for my faculty interview, which was (surprise surprise) in the faculty.

I was greeted and shown in by a tall but friendly Dr Anderson (Selwyn Director of Studies, he does Arabic), who introduced himself. Professor Adolphson (Professor and Chairman of Japanese Studies… no pressure!) then introduced himself as well and we began.

I was asked a few questions about the subject and what I thought about it. Some were more general, like ‘why Cambridge’, things from my personal statement or stuff about how useful certain aspects of the subject are. Others were more challenging – I got asked a classic Cambridge question of the kind you’d see in newspapers and panic that you’d never be able to answer it. But it’s all right if this happens – in my case the big question was preceded by a discussion of the topic that sort of led up to the question, so I’d had a chance to think about it a bit. The interviewers also helped prod me in the right direction after my initial answer was a bit vague – the important thing was thinking out loud so they could get a sense of my thought process. I also got asked various things about myself, including what I thought my strengths and weaknesses were and what I enjoyed doing outside of studying. These surprised me a bit as I wasn’t expecting anything about extracurriculars, having been told that Cambridge doesn’t really care about them. Maybe they just got through everything too fast!

Overall I quite enjoyed my interviews – they were challenging but the opportunity to discuss my subject with people who ‘get it’ about wanting to study a culture was really valuable. So as much as you hear horror stories about them, it is possible to enjoy them too! Naturally they’re important, as they let the admissions people know if you’ll suit the supervision style of teaching, but they’re not the absolute be-all-and-end-all of your application – Cambridge takes into account all aspects of the information you’ve given them. So be confident – if you’re passionate and you can show it, you’ll do just fine. 🙂

6 thoughts on “Interviews – My Experience”

  1. You said the course was quite history-focused, but it says on the Cambridge website that “The first year focusses mainly on language learning, as almost 75 percent of your time will be devoted to the study of Japanese…” and “The second year continues to offer extensive teaching in the language…”. Could you maybe clarify this for me?

    Also, do you have any idea what kind (and how much) independent study you might have to do for the history modules in addition to lectures/seminars/supervisions?

    Your blog is great and don’t worry if you can’t answer my questions 🙂


    1. Thank you!

      With regards to it being history focused I meant other than the language – the language is focused on mainly, but in terms of the optional modules you can take it’s quite history focused. So in first year you do language and history, then in second year language with history and then a few other options. In comparison, other universities might focus on things like linguistics or economics.

      I haven’t started at Cambridge yet so I don’t know about the independent study, sorry! But I could ask a current student if you’d like 🙂


      1. Hi! So I’ve been at Cambridge for a few weeks now so I can tell you more about the workload for history. Usually we get assigned reading for the lectures, not a huge amount but definitely something. The best time to do this is the weekend before the lectures as this is when there’s the most time spare without having to worry too much about getting language things done! The length of time readings take varies a lot from a few minutes to a few hours. It’s good to think critically about what’s read as well, especially for the seminar where we get asked questions about the texts. We also have essays to do – there are only five across the year though. Again the length of time it takes depends on the task but for reference, the first one took me two days over the weekend. I think they’ve redesigned the course this year so there’s less history to do alongside the large amounts of language things we have to do. Hope this helps!


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