Some universities interview applicants. In the UK, the Oxford and Cambridge interviews are an important part of the application process, Imperial College and UCL tend to interview the majority of applicants. In the US, many Ivy League colleges also carry out interviews. But what should you expect, and how can you prepare?

Interviewers stress that they are not testing knowledge, which would be unfair, given that applicants come from many different backgrounds and educational systems. The purpose, says Oxford, is to ‘assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas.’

There are plenty of websites dedicated to helping you prepare for an interview, and where students ‘reveal all.’ But the main point is that, in general, there isn’t a ‘right answer’ to the question: admissions tutors are more interested in how you respond to the question and how you discuss the possibilities. What is the sort of thing you might be asked as far as maths-based courses are concerned, and how should you respond?

About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?

Well, of course, you don’t know the answer, and you’re not expected to. The wrong way to tackle this would be to say: ‘Well, perhaps it’s to do with diet?’ An answer like that tends to close off discussion. So, think about what more you would need to know before even considering possible factors. For example, you might ask where the data comes from, and hence how reliable it is. It might also be useful to know life expectancy: cancer tends to afflict older people. Then you might initiate a discussion about different lifestyles – which could include diet – in two very different countries. The important thing is to discuss the question and to show how you respond to new information and ideas.

Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall. You are looking at it side on, and can see a spot of  paint halfway up the ladder. The ladder slides down to the ground. What shape does the paint spot trace out?

Here there is, of course, an actual answer, but its not obvious what it is. There’s a whiteboard in the room, so you could try sketching the ladder in different positions, but the discussion should be directed towards a general answer. This is one more specifically for maths candidates, so in working towards an answer, maths techniques should be involved. The question is quite counter-intuitive because the actual shape traced out will be a curve convex to the ‘origin.’

I’m reminded of the story about three applicants who were being interviewed for a lecturer post at a university. For one part of the interview they were told that each of them would have a sticker put on their forehead which would be white or blue; each could only see the stickers of the other two. If they could see anyone with a blue sticker they should raise their left arm. And when any of them had worked out what colour was on their own forehead they should raise their right arm. The interviewer then stuck a blue sticker on all three. All three raised their left arms; then, after a short time, one of them raised his right arm and said: ‘I know I have a blue sticker.’ How did he work it out?

The answer will be revealed next time!!