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Chris Luke, AC for Derby, Northamptonshire and Rutland

In December, three students who attend the Year 13 problem-solving course at Brooke Weston Academy in Corby attended interviews in Cambridge. The three candidates, who were attending state-funded schools in Corby and Kettering and applying to read mathematics, gratefully accepted help from me when I arranged for them to sit mock interviews.

The purpose of sitting mock interviews is to give students a taste of the experience they are likely to meet in an Oxbridge interview. To that end, I arranged for them to sit the interviews in the formal setting of a school board room, taking them out of their comfort zones.

In an earlier role, I built up a lot of experience of preparing students for applying to Oxbridge in maths, engineering and physics. I drew from my own experience of sitting a Cambridge interview and from talking to a lot of contacts at the UKMT, some of whom interview candidates themselves. This experience has taught me that, for maths candidates, few references are made to their personal statements, and so the focus of the interview are stimulating maths questions, such as:

  • Five horses race each other. Including ties, how many possible results are there?
  • Let n be an integer greater than 1, such that the number 2n + 1 is prime. What can you say about ?
  • There is a pile of 129 coins on a table, all unbiased except for one which has heads on both sides. You choose a coin at random and flip it nine times. The coin comes up heads every time. What is the probability that it will come up heads the next time you flip it?

Conducting a mock interview is a delicate balancing act. The questions must be challenging enough to make the exercise meaningful, but candidates should still leave the interview feeling confident. It’s best to offer plenty of support and encourage them to express their thoughts verbally.

I believe that, more than anything, Oxbridge interviewers are looking for potential in candidates. They are asking themselves:

  • Could I teach this candidate?
  • Is this candidate self-motivated?

I stressed to the students the importance of expressing their thoughts to interviewers and of listening carefully to hints.

The students who sat the mock interviews reported that they found the experience useful. I am glad to report that two of the three subsequently received offers from their respective colleges. Now the real work of preparing to pass STEP exams begins. Fortunately, they are still attending the problem-solving classes and receiving a lot of intensive help.

In March, I will be starting problem-solving classes at Brooke Weston for Year 12s. The focus of this free course, which will last for approximately 14 weeks, will be MAT, TMUA and STEP exams. Please get in touch at [email protected] for further information.

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