Maths @ Churchill, Cambridge in 2018

Interview format

STEP; 2x interviews

Interview content

Interview 1: subject-related; Interview 2: subject-related

Best preparation

Practice papers, and attending university STEP help days

Final thoughts

Treat the interview like a learning experience

Remember this advice isn't official. There is no guarantee it will reflect your experience because university applications can change between years. Check the official Cambridge and Oxford websites for more accurate information on this year's application format and the required tests.

Also, someone else's experience may not reflect your own. Most interviews are more like conversations than tests and like, any conversation, they are quite interactive.

Interview Format

Test taken: Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP)

Number of interviews: 2

Skype interview: no

Time between interviews: about 2-3 hours

Length of first interview: 30 minutes; Length of second interview: 30 minutes

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

Both interviews were exclusively maths questions.

In the first, I was asked to sketch a series of graphs, the first of which was a basic A-level one which was extended and added to several times until I had to draw quite a difficult graph. I then had an interesting probability question and then one related to game theory, both of which were completely off-syllabus but I coped quite well with them. The interviewers were also really helpful and nice and tried to help me when I seemed unsure. I left the interview feeling pretty happy with how I’d done as I didn’t have any massive problems with anything asked.

The second interview started with a pretty challenging integration question which I managed but it was difficult. This was followed immediately by a literally impossible differentiation question. I started trying standard methods but was quickly told that wasn’t going to work.

I then tried something slightly different but was told this wouldn’t work either. At this stage I had no idea what to do so they gave me a hint but I really didn’t see how it helped and continued floundering for a bit. They then tried to help me further but I just didn’t get the question. It was pretty awkward but I made sure I carried on trying things and suggesting ideas even if I thought they were long shots. I never actually finished the question and we eventually moved on.

The interview finished with a question on proof which was really quick and felt like it was asked just to make it to 30 mins. I left this interview thinking I’d completely messed up my application because of the second question, but upon reflection I feel like very few would have answered it without problems and what they were looking for was how you dealt with something you couldn’t do and whether you gave up or kept trying things.

I also wonder whether the second interview was so hard and the interviewers more intimidating because I’d done quite well in the first but honestly I don’t know.

I also then had an at-interview test which went really well and was in the MAT style. </p"

How did you prepare?

My early prep for STEP (end of year 12 to Christmas year 13) was basically just working through the exercises on the STEP support programme, and working through the Siklos booklet Advanced Problems in Mathematics (available as a PDF online for free). At this stage, you don’t have an offer yet, so the real focus should be on A levels and interview prep to get an offer. But given that the interview consists of maths problems, a bit of STEP prep can’t do much harm.

The real STEP prep should start in January as soon as you get an offer. I started working through the oldest paper 1’s on the internet without a time limit, just trying to answer each question no matter how long it took. Then I moved on to paper 2’s and then 3’s when I was ready. This obviously relies on you being comfortable with the Further Maths content by about February and the Maths content by January, so I worked ahead to finish both courses around December.

The majority of my time between January and the A-Level exams was spent working on STEP through basically every paper (1, 2 and 3) from about the 90s to the present day. I think I started timed mocks from the 2012 series onwards, under conditions as close to exam conditions possible. I did a few A-Level papers to keep familiar with that format.

I’d recommend attending the STEP help day at Cambridge, the Warwick STEP days, and any other outreach STEP events available. Check with your local uni or any nearby private schools to see if they’ll help.

I also recommend stalking the STEP prep thread on the Student Room forum for some useful tips/info. And if you’ve got time, read through last year’s thread, as a lot of it will still be relevant and useful.

For the interview, I contacted a local private school and asked if I could join in with the mock interview evening that they were doing and they were great and more than happy to accommodate me. This was probably the most useful thing I did as it was genuine interview practice from people who knew what the interview would be like. It’s also really helpful with it being with people you don’t know because this is another element of the interview and can help you keep your head in the real thing.

I also did practice interviews with my dad, but he didn’t really know what he was on about and I was comfortable around him, so I don’t think these were as helpful (still worth doing though, it’s better than nothing, and some people also find this more helpful).

Other than this, practicing maths problems on the MAT or the STEP support program is all going to contribute to you being more comfortable with problem solving, which is what the interview is about for maths.

Looking back, what advice would you give to your past self?

I’d advise reading around the subject and not putting anything you don’t understand on your personal statement. I didn’t get asked about my personal statement during the interview, but I’ve heard from people who did and found it awkward because they weren’t really experts in topics they’d spoken about on their PS.

My main tip is to try to stay calm. If you go into the interview trying to learn something and treat it as a supervision then you’re more likely to succeed. Good luck!