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.