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Are you applying for maths at Oxbridge? If you’re trying to improve your application, we have loads of articles covering personal statements, admissions tests, and interviews. Here we’ve created three applicant character profiles for you to dissect. Can you work out which applicant has what it takes to study at Oxford or Cambridge? And what lessons can you learn from each student’s story?

Applicant 1: Lola, 18

Before her interview: 

  • Lola is in her second year of A-Levels, studying Maths, Further Maths and Physics. She is predicted A*A*A. She has 10 A* GCSEs. 
  • Lola spent a lot of time preparing for the MAT. She looked over all of the required content, and made sure she knew all the details. She practiced a lot of A-Level questions, and did a couple of MAT papers, but focused more on the content
  • She is interested in all of the syllabus, and often reads ahead in her A-Level textbooks, something she puts on her personal statement. 
  • To prepare for interviews, Lola reads lots of colloquial popular maths books. 
  • In her personal statement she goes through a lot of the A-Level content she has covered, detailing the stuff she has studied and which bits she enjoys most, and which bits she doesn’t really enjoy. 

In her Interview: 

  • In her interview, Lola performs well in the early parts, having a good foundation of A-Level knowledge. 
  • She attempts the harder parts, with the guidance of the tutor, but the questions do not become very developed. 
  • She finds her interviewers easier than she was expecting, as lots of the content sticks to more preliminary introductory questions. 

Applicant 2: Will, 17

Before his interview:  

  • Will is predicted A*A*AA in his A-Levels: Maths, Further Maths, Computing and Physics. He has 5 A* GCSEs. 
  • Will has prepared thoroughly for the MAT. He has consolidated all of his A-Level practice, but spent more time looking through the MAT past papers, doing some in timed conditions. 
  • He has also worked through some of the extra MAT-style questions available on the STEPMaths course, following on from a day course he went to in the summer. 
  • His personal statement includes examples of lectures he has been to, extra reading he has done, and an online course he completed, following up on an interest in geometry he discovered during his A-Levels. 
  • To prepare for interviews, Will practiced lots of interview-style questions, and practiced vocalising them and working through them on a whiteboard. 

In his interview: 

  • Will’s college has a preparatory problem sheet he has to complete upon arrival. He spends a good amount of time on this, trying to work through each of the questions. He cannot complete all of the harder parts of the questions, but writes down things he thought about doing, and how he could potentially solve it. 
  • In the interview, Will is guided through some of the harder questions he couldn’t answer by a tutor. He realises his mistakes, and actively leads the discussion throughout. He listens to the hints from the interviewer and takes them on board, applying them to the questions. 
  • Will really enjoyed his interviews, even though he didn’t always reach a conclusive solution to the problems attempted. 

Applicant 3: Molly, 17

Before her interview:  

  • Molly loves maths, and is predicted strong A-Levels including an A* in both Maths and Further Maths. 
  • Molly applies to Cambridge at the last minute, so doesn’t have much time to think about her personal statement. She writes about a few books she has skim-read, and write that she has been to a lecture and enjoyed it – which she is actually planning to go to next month.
  • To prepare for her interviews, she practices vocalising her thoughts to her family and friends, chatting about A-Level concepts and other stuff she has heard about. 

In her interview: 

  • Molly has a test when she arrives at Cambridge, and she thinks it goes okay, although she leaves a few of the tougher questions. 
  • Molly’s interviews go okay, although she still hasn’t read some of the books on her personal statement. She worries this was apparent, as she couldn’t properly comment on one when asked. 

After her interviews, Molly is made an offer, as her overall application was strong. However, Molly doesn’t prepare fully for STEP. She just prepares for A-Levels and hopes STEP will be much of the same. Molly gets a score of 2 in both STEP II and STEP III, so is not accepted by Cambridge. 

Who is the best candidate? 

Will is the best candidate here. Although Molly’s application is strong in places, it is never a good idea to lie on your personal statement. Even though Molly received an offer, lying about reading a book will never work in your favour. 

What did Lola do wrong? 

  • Lola did a lot to prepare for the MAT, which is good, but she didn’t prepare in the right way. Knowing the A-Level syllabus is important, but it is far more important to practice the right style of questions, as they are incredibly different. Her MAT score will have reflected this lack of thorough preparation.
  • On top of this, Lola’s personal statement doesn’t focus on things she has done outside of her A-Levels. She therefore shows a passive rather than active interest in the subject, with no evidence of independent study.
  • Because she hasn’t deepened her understanding by reading challenging mathematical texts, Lola can’t solve the harder questions in her interview. This means the interviewer can’t develop the discussion.

What did Molly do wrong? 

  • Molly’s obvious downfall was not reaching the STEP grades. She was originally on thin ice due to the flaws in her personal statement. However, a good STEP score is crucial to a successful Cambridge application, and if you don’t reach the grades, it’s nearly impossible to appeal for your place. STEP is designed to filter out the weakest candidates. The boundaries are set so that only 50% of offer holders will get the grades required to be accepted. 

What did Will do right? 

  • Will did a lot of preparation for MAT above and beyond the A-Level content. Practicing the style of questions you will get on MAT is the most invaluable preparation you can do. 
  • His personal statement also explains all the ways he has explored his mathematical interest. This is just what the admissions tutors are looking for. 
  • He also did a good job preparing for his interviews by working through the right style of question aloud and on a whiteboard
  • Will also allowed himself to be guided in the interview, which is important. They are trying to help you! However, he was engaged rather than complacent, not letting the interviewer just walk him through everything. 


For more help, why not check out our example interviews? We’ve also got a comprehensive guidebook to the MAT, including answers to every question you could possibly have, and plenty of preparation materials.

But – now it’s your turn. Make sure you can back up everything you write on your personal statement, and prepare yourself for the demands of admissions tests, exams and interviews. Good luck from all of us at STEPMaths!

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