Cambridge interviews

There is a bit of mystique about interviews at the University of Cambridge, most of it total nonsense. There was a time, many decades ago, when the cult of the amateur reigned at some colleges and eccentric dons would put bizarre and embarrassing questions to undergraduate candidates. It’s a bit like the story that at All Soul’s College, Oxford, all candidate (it’s for fellows only, no students) must attend a dinner where they’re given cherry pie in a rimless bowl. The challenge is, what to do with the cherry stones? Allegedly it doesn’t matter what you do (ie there is no single right answer) so long as you do it with self confidence and panache. One candidate apparently just swallowed them, with dire digestive results later.

I’m not sure how true the All Souls story is but I do know that most of the stories about Cambridge interviews are old myths. Both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, most interviewers want to as fair as possible to the candidates and are mostly interested in their academic ability.

On the MFin we have two “filters” we apply in assessing applicants. The first is evidence of the ability to successfully complete a tough and demanding degree. The main data here are from prior academic results. GMAT might shed some light but is less relevant than for an MBA, which is why we don’t currently require it (but that could change in future). The interviewers will check for evidence that the candidate is bright enough and diligent enough to pass the degree.

The second “filter” is the evidence of relevant work experience and success in it. Students’ experiences are an important asset for the whole class and support a more professional atmosphere. It’s also very important in the job market later on. We don’t take people only on their ability to get jobs in future but neither do we think it does anybody any favour to admit them if they will probably struggle to get the sort of work they want. The MFin qualification alone is not enough to impress employers; they want evidence of prior experience and achievement, so that’s what we look for. Getting a good job afterwards is not the only criterion of success but it obviously matters a lot to most candidates. In my experience, finance recruiters also put a lot of emphasis on academic achievement. A former boss of mine used to describe himself as a “self-proclaimed academic snob”. He was American by the way. And he built a first class team of research analysts. Academic success, in his view, is a necessary condition for success in finance. But it isn’t sufficient – commercial aptitude, personal presence and impact, ambition and an ability to get on with people all count too.  Assessing these qualities is unavoidably subjective but we do also take them into account in making decisions about who to offer places to. Employers told us to.


This blog post from a professor of macroeconomics at Oxford University suggests Oxford and Cambridge interviews for undergraduate are unfair and inefficient. I think that is probably correct. There is a reasonable case for scrapping all interviews for academic courses and relying on previous academic achievement. It would save a lot of work and a lot of stress for interviewees. The only remaining reason for MFin interviews would be that they often involve a discussion about motivation and the applicant’s goal. We’re very keen to make sure that the MFin is the right thing for the applicants and the interview is sometimes important to establishing if that’s the case.

15 Responses

  1. Sameer Merchant

    Thanks for the wornderful insight on the Cambridge MFIN interviews especially the classification of the two filters. However if you had to choose between the two filters I wonder which of the two filters will you weigh more when selecting a candidate.

    • taylors

      I wanted to emphasise that we use two filters and that both are essential! So it would be misleading to say which is more important. But the logic is that a strong first degree performance is the first filter, because it is somewhat easier to identify (and we use a lot of information from the Board of Graduate Studies at Cambridge to check the quality of universities worldwide, including those with grade inflation). Then and only then do we look at the second filter, of successful and interesting work experience. I don’t think that really answers your question but it might help illuminate our thought process.

  2. Rohit

    Hello Sir,
    First of all, i would like to thank you Mr. Taylor for interacting with aspirants like us on such a forum. It gives us a lot of clarity.
    Mr. Taylor, in some cases where the students have not been able to perform good in their academics for some reasons but have demonstrated their performance and ability to learn with having some additional degrees like FRM or CFA.
    Here there one might not see any consistency in the past academic performance but certainly a pick up with such degrees. Kindly share with us your views on it.

    • Simon Taylor

      FRM and CFA are not degrees. Professional or semi-professional qualifications can have value, and the CFA is a useful signal (if you are a full charterholder) to an employer that you have learned a lot of finance and worked hard. But a degree from a recognised university is a different matter -it’s inherently harder to get into and requires a higher level of intellectual challenge and achievement. I’m quite sympathetic to people who didn’t fulfil their potential on their first degree for reasons of health, personal circumstances or other things beyond their control. Such people are often highly motivated in later life to show that they are smart and can be very valuable employees. But it’s very hard to distinguish these cases from those where somebody simply didn’t work hard or wasn’t up to the challenge. We are forced to use the first degree result as a primary filter and very rarely admit people who don’t fulfil our standard criteria.

  3. Jin

    Rohit, I don’t know why Mr. Taylor never replied you.
    But I’m pretty sure credentials such as CFA/FRM won’t turn your resume gold suddently when applying for postgraduate programs. There are tons of thousands CFAs & FRMs, I have both of them, frankly. But let’s face it, none of these credentials goes beyond a really indepth postgraduate finance degree program. Be it in OxCam or Princeton. Modern finance require much higher level analytical and quantitative skills than these credential programs require. To me, CFA is simply something attached to my name that can be convincing for less-financially-educated clients.

  4. Rusheel Somaiya

    Thank you for your insightful post.

    The criteria for the programme states that a first class or high 2.1 is required, please could you comment more about the ‘High 2.1’ and what percentage this would be?(from a UK institution 67%/68%/69%?).

    For example in your undergraduate degree if you got a first class in the quantitative modules such as econometrics, statistics and mathematics, would this be taken into account?

    • Simon Taylor

      It’s not possible to say exactly because British universities don’t have exactly the same grading. Many universities award a 2.1 in a range of 61-70%, in which case we’d be looking for mid-60s upwards. But a slightly lower score might be acceptable if accompanied by a strong academic reference. We don’t give any priority to quantitative subjects because the MFin includes both quantitative and essay-based assessment.

    • Simon Taylor

      Cambridge economics interviews seek only to identify candidates with the best potential to do well on the Cambridge economics course. Apart from a few questions on maths, the questions are entirely about economics, trying to assess a candidate’s ability to think like an economist. The best way to prepare is to study economics and think hard about the key principles.

      • Alex Smith

        When approaching qualitative economics interview questions, does it matter whether the candidate has extra knowledge? Or rather, does the way they approach the question and apply their current knowledge only matter? I’ll define extra knowledge as knowledge which is not taught in high school economics. Thank you for answering my previous question.

        • Simon Taylor

          Different candidates have different levels of knowledge (some haven’t done A level economics, some have done IB). So it’s not a test of knowledge or memory, but of analysis.

          • Alex Smith

            Okay, I see. Thank you. How long do you think qualitative responses should be? I imagine there’s a sweet spot you look for between saying too little and waffling for 2 minutes or more.

  5. Mark Wood

    Thank you very much for the helpful post Dr. Taylor. Can you please clarify if candidates will be asked very technical questions like doing calculations to solve problems during the MFin interview.

    • Simon Taylor

      The interview would not mormally involve actual calculations but could involve technical questions in other ways, depending on what the interviewer needs to find out about the candidate.

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