Monthly Archives: November 2013

Success in Oxbridge interviews: 3 mistakes and 3 tips

training-test-vs-life We wish good luck to all Oxbridge candidates at their interviews in December!

Mistake 1 : are numerical answers important?

Numerical answers have very little value in mathematics and are even less important in real life. Indeed, computing the page rank of a single web page is probably worth about 1 pence. However, the page rank algorithm (with many others) can quickly process the whole World Wide Web, which turned Google into a multi-billion company.

At a proper mathematics interview you are expected to demonstrate your thinking process. If interviewers are interested only in your numerical answers, they can get them in a much quicker and cheaper way via an on-line test.

Tip 1 : never believe and learn how to prove rigorously

A few years ago one student argued that he should have got a full mark for his solution that gave a correct numerical answer justified only by the following phrase: “I believe that my answer is correct”. Students who are interested in beliefs will probably be welcomed in theology. Mathematicians are always expected to prove new results, for instance by using previously proved theorems.

Mistake 2 : the easy ways to make a bad impression are

  • being nervous, e.g. if you didn’t sleep well before
  • talking too quiet or looking physically weak or tired
  • reflecting on your performance during the interview
  • asking inappropriate questions, e.g. how have I done?

Oxbridge interviews are usually in the morning, so you need to have a regular sleeping pattern at least a few weeks before your interview, not only at the very last night. Read our advice on physical exercise. There is no time and no point to think or to ask if you have done well before all interviews are finished.

Tip 2 : read interview stories from past students

We have collected a few useful stories from our past successful students about their Oxbridge interviews and share this first hand experience with all our current students. For instance, all Cambridge candidates and some Oxford candidates sit a written test before oral interviews.

Some of our students happily announce shortly after their interviews that they have done well, e-mail us their questions and later receive rejections. In most these cases we clearly see that the questions were quite easy. If you get easy questions, you will not be told that you are considered as a weak candidate, because the job of interviewers is to keep all candidates happy.

One of our best students last year e-mailed that he could hardly complete any question and only with a lot of hints from his interviewers. However his questions were much harder than from other students. Actually, he received a standard Cambridge offer with a grade 1 in both STEP II and III, then gained two grades S after completing our STEP courses.

Mistake 3 : avoiding proper feedback on your progress

We regularly encounter over-optimistic candidates who are self-studying without any expert advice on their progress. Then the first (and often last) feedback will be a “yes/no” from university admissions. The MAT examiners and Oxbridge admissions tutors guard hard all exam scores and STEP candidates can hope to receive only their numerical mark. So the current entrance exams at top UK universities provide little feedback to students after months of self-studies.

The education systems outside Europe and North America are quite opposite. Almost all exams are oral and students naturally get a lot of feedback. Oral exams are often harder and harsher, so it is a proper training for real life. That is why the key value of our distance courses is the detailed feedback on regular homework, where questions are usually harder than in past exams.

Tip 3 : don’t train for a test, but aim higher

A pupil told a kung-fu master: “I have been training really hard for many months, but I still can not break through that board”. The master watched his attempt and then said: “If you hit the board, you will never break through it. You should hit beyond the board.”

Similarly in any learning, if students are trained only for a specific test, they are likely to fail, read
BBC Education: most A level grade predictions wrong. The winners always aim higher (much higher than their target) and that is why they often win even if something goes wrong.

The usual feedback from our students on the distance course for Oxbridge interviews: “your Oxbridge questions are much harder than anything I have done before at school”. Here is our powerful learning principle: the harder the training, the easier the exam!

  • Riddle 9: Find all real solutions of the inequality \(x\geq\sqrt{3x-2}\).
  • How to submit: to write your full answer, submit a comment.
  • Hint: remember that \(\sqrt{x^2}\neq x\), read answers to this riddle.
  • Warning: the very first step in most common attempts is wrong.
  • Prize: free 1-year access to one of our interactive web tutorials.
  • Restriction: only the first correct public answer will be rewarded.
  • Update: Paul solved the riddle and won a prize, read our comment.

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