As you travel to Oxford or Cambridge for your maths interviews, it’s difficult to know what to expect. Here are some logistics of the interview process, as well as details of the structure and style your interviews will likely take, to try and make the process a little less intimidating.
How many interviews will I have?
- Oxford: You’re expected to go up and stay in a college, usually for two or three nights. You will then be allocated to interviews while you are there, and you may be called for more interviews during your stay. Generally, you’re likely to have two or three interviews at the college you’re staying at and one at another college. You’re interviewed at another college so that they can standardise the calibre of applicants they accept across the university.
- Cambridge: Generally speaking you don’t have to stay overnight unless you live far away. In that case, you will be offered college accommodation. You will probably only have one or two interviews, and they are usually back to back. You will know the times of your interviews before you arrive, and will not be called for interview at other colleges. You may spend the morning doing a pre-interview test, and then have an interview in the afternoon. The pre-interview test usually last hour, although it varies between colleges – some colleges don’t have them at all.
How much are my interviews worth?
It’s important to remember that interviews form one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Your personal statement, admissions test result, and predicted grades all enter into the equation as well. However, this is the only opportunity the admissions tutors get to meet you, and it is therefore your biggest chance to really show off your mathematical abilities, and make them want to teach you for three or four years!
- Oxford: Fewer candidates are invited to interview at Oxford because the tutors cull a larger number following the MAT results.
- Cambridge: At Cambridge, more candidates are invited to interview, and more offers are made than at Oxford. This is due to the pesky STEP requirement in the offer. As a result, the biggest culling of candidates at Cambridge occurs on results day in the summer, whereas at Oxford it occurs before the interviews.
How long will my interviews be?
Interviews generally last half an hour, or slightly longer. The tutor wants to give you sufficient time to work through and explore the problems they’ve set. If you’re performing well, your interview may run over slightly, as the tutor will want to see how far they can push you. But half an hour is the normal time, and any variations in this are likely to be minimal.
Where will I have my interviews?
If you submitted an open application, you will be assigned a college and interviewed there. This is also where you’ll stay if you’re required to stay overnight. If you applied directly to a college, you will likely be interviewed there; if they had an excess of applications but yours was still desirable, you may be sent to another college.
At Oxford, you will also be interviewed at another college anyway. They, or your original college, may make you an offer, or you may receive an offer from a a college that you weren’t even interviewed at. The same applies to Cambridge: you may get an offer from a college where you weren’t interviewed.
Who will be interviewing me?
The maths tutors from your respective college will be the ones interviewing you. Usually there are two tutors in the room, and it is often the case that one asks the questions and engages with you whilst the other takes notes. Sometimes there is only one. Sometimes there can be up to four or five, if the maths department at your college is particularly large, or if they have someone they are training up to do interviews in the future.
It may be worth researching the maths tutors at the college you know you will be having interviews at. Although not crucial, this may give you an insight into the overall areas the tutors are interested in, which may indicate what type of questions you are likely to be asked in the interview.
What form will the interviews take?
Maths interviews are very technical. They follow a pattern of the tutor setting you a question, you attempting to answer, the tutor developing it further, and so on. Usually, they will start with a fairly doable preliminary question, such as curve sketching or solving a simple equation. From here, the questions will become more developed, and the tutor wants to see how you attempt the harder parts.
You will either have pen and paper to answer the question or a big whiteboard where you will be expected to show all of your workings.
Often in an interview, you will only be presented with one question that will be broken down into parts and developed by the tutors. Sometimes, however, you may have a couple of unrelated questions testing two different skill-sets.
If you’re applying to Cambridge and sat a pre-interview test, there is a chance they may go through some of these questions with you as the basis for the interview. Alternatively, at some colleges across both universities, you may get given a problem sheet to attempt before your interview. These problems will then be the ones discussed and dissected in your interviews. At Oxford, the tutors may pick up on some of the questions you struggled with in the MAT, and see if you can attempt them better with some guidance.
Will they want to know stuff about me in general?
In the maths-specific interviews, they are unlikely to ask you any questions about yourself or why you want to study there. At Cambridge, you may have a “general interview”; you probably won’t be asked easy questions about your interests, but more complexly framed questions like:
- If you were in my position, would you let yourself into Cambridge?
- What achievement to date are you most proud of?
- What do you expect to get out of this degree?
- What is your favourite number?
- What is your biggest weakness?
- How many toilets are there in Cambridge University?
Will they try and catch me out?
The most common misconception of maths interviews is that the tutors are determined to trip you up. This is simply not true. The tutors are there to guide you through the problems and to give you hints. They are trying to work out how teachable you are, and they want to see how you adapt to new information thrown at you. If they give you a hint, they are generally trying to help you. Don’t ignore them!
How can I know how the interview has gone?
It is pretty nigh on impossible to genuinely know how your interview has gone. If your interview was a walk in the park, this could be because you were well prepared and didn’t find it taxing. However, it could also be because the interviewers lost interest in you as a candidate and didn’t make an effort to challenge you.
Remember, if you’re being led down a difficult path in your interview, it’s because your interviewer is enjoying challenging and thus teaching you. This is what you want! Your interviews should be difficult, and if you come out of them feeling as if you were completely lost by the end, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I cried after two of my interviews because I thought I’d answered questions in completely the wrong way, and I was completely lost at points, but the interviewers were just trying to challenge me.
Interviewers can be harsh and mean or charming and friendly; they’re a varied bunch. Try not to go into your interviews with too many expectations, as everyone has a different experience. Just remember that you deserve to be there, and if you’re well prepared, keen, and genuinely passionate about maths, this will shine through.
If you’d like an idea of what to expect, take a look at our example interviews! STEPMaths also run Maths interview practice courses, lead by specialist maths tutors, which can be invaluable experience.