Preparing students for Oxbridge interviews

Thursday 9th December 2021

In late September, I received a request from a teacher at St Mary’s Catholic High School, Chesterfield, to run a professional development event for teachers in her school on “helping students with Oxbridge interview prep, including what universities are looking for during interviews.” In response to this request I, with the help of my AMSP colleague Phil Chaffé, wrote a three-hour event to address this. In early November, I ran this event at St Mary's Catholic High School for eight teachers, from six different schools. The event was very enthusiastically received by the participants.

While I can’t cover everything we discussed in this article, I’d like to focus on a few aspects that were covered at the event. To answer some of the important questions, I spoke to Professor Julia Gog – who is a Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Cambridge and a Director of Studies in Maths at Queens’ College, Cambridge – about what she is looking for when she interviews students and what students should expect at their interview.

What is a Director of Studies in Maths looking for?

Professor Gog made the following salient points:

  1. Interviewers have a real engagement in the process – they're recruiting their own students/problems for the next three years.
  2. Interviewers need to get every student stuck at some point or other. They want to see how students think and whether they can cope with the Oxbridge teaching styles. For this reason, they need to take students out of their comfort zones.

Important points for students

On the subject of what students should expect and what they should do in their interview, Professor Gog suggested:

  1. Don’t fret afterwards about what you could have said.
  2. Everyone says something stupid in the first ten minutes – move on.
  3. Keep talking – though a couple of minutes of silence for thought is fine, say what you are thinking or explain what you've just done.
  4. Freezing is the thing to avoid.
  5. Don’t look bored – stay engaged and eager for new stuff. Interviewers want to teach people who are enthusiastic and curious.
  6. Researching the interviewers’ own research specialism is likely to lead to embarrassment all round – don’t do it.
  7. Interviewers will be taking notes, ticking boxes etc. Ignore this.

Detailed question choice

On the subject of which questions to practise, Julia Gog said:

  1. An obvious place to start is lists of previously asked questions (you can find some examples on DrFrostMathsOpens a new window), but another good option is exploring why some established piece of A level technique actually works. For example – the derivatives of trig functions, adding solutions of linear homogeneous ODEs to obtain another solution, or solving ODEs by separation of variables.
  2. Graph sketching is good too – but not popular with students.

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

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