It’s autumn, we’ve just packed away our Halloween costumes and the firework paraphernalia, and so now inevitably our thoughts turn to university admissions interviews. Teachers frequently ask me for advice on helping their students prepare for these. In the past twelve months, I have run two professional development events on this issue, and I’ve found that there are sometimes misconceptions about the process.

The most salient point is that interviewers at Cambridge and Oxford have a real engagement in the process; they are recruiting students they will be working with over the next three or four years, and so they have a vested interest in getting the sort of students who they think will benefit from the teaching style at their university.

Another point that students need to understand is why it is important that interviewers get them stuck sometimes. It is not because interviewers have a masochistic streak that means they enjoy tricking their interviewees. Rather, they need to see how their interviewees think, and the only way of doing that is to take them out of their comfort zone – to get them stuck.

To allay the anxieties of your students before they attend an interview, remind them of the following:

• Tell them not to fret afterwards about what they could have said.
• Remind them that everyone says something stupid in the first 10 minutes – move on.
• Remind them to keep talking – although a couple of minutes of silence for thought is fine, candidates need to explain what they’re thinking and what they’ve just done.
• Don’t freeze – keep talking and thinking.
• Don’t look bored – stay engaged and eager for new stuff.
• Avoid researching the interviewers’ own research interests – it leads to embarrassment all round.
• Inform your students that interviewers will be taking notes, ticking boxes, etc. – ignore this.

Understandably, students are interested in practising questions before the interview. An obvious place to start is a list of previously asked questions – you can find some examples on DrFrostMaths . Another good option is exploring why a piece of A-level Maths technique actually works: for example, deriving the derivatives of trig functions, or adding two solutions of linear homogeneous ODEs to find a third solution. Graph sketching is also a popular interview question.

If you’d like me to talk to you about any of this – in particular, if you’d like me to come to your school to work with you or some of your teachers on this matter – then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

By Chris Luke