Maths Scholars Scholarship Interview - the low down

What to expect in a Maths Scholars interview

As a Maths Scholar Scholarship interviewer I have been involved in the process for a number of years. Obviously in that time I have come across some fantastic interviewees. Sadly I have come across some less impressive candidates too. So I was asked what I would recommend to potential scholars before they begin the interview process. My advice can be summed up in a few words: prepare, prepare and prepare some more!

Prepare, prepare and prepare some more!

Prepare

It surprises me that some interviewees are incredibly ill-prepared. I don’t really understand why that is the case because the scheme sends out masses of information. The candidates receive plenty of guidance and the very best advice is to study the information very carefully. After that it needs digesting. Honestly, there are absolutely no tricks to the interview process. We are not looking to catch anyone out with clever or tricky questions. But we do expect some effort to come from someone who would like to be considered a thought leader and the very best of the pack.

We want to see process, not a ‘right answer’

Process

Another thing to remember is that sometimes there really are no right answers. What we are looking for is evidence that you have reflected upon the issue in question and have given it some thoughtful consideration. This is important because the interviewees that miss the mark are often those who clearly haven’t thought about how they might develop their answers in more depth.

Every Maths Scholar is asked the same questions

Every candidate is asked the same standard questions and currently these are sent in advance with the paperwork. Those who have read up on background issues do well and those who haven’t, well, you can imagine the consequence. It’s not a trick as I mentioned before. It’s common sense to prepare, especially when questions are given in advance. So you can see how disappointed the panel is when people say: ‘I didn’t expect to be asked that question.’ As I said before, preparation is key to success. Therefore, ensure you check the paperwork very diligently in advance.

However standard questions don’t necessarily require identical, standard answers. We all know that how you analyse the issues behind a question is as important as the final answer. Even if you say ‘Yes I’ve considered this question and it’s quite difficult to answer but I believe….’ this can give us a clear indication that some worthwhile thought has taken place.

Back up generalities. Be specific

One thing some candidates have some difficulty with is their ability to back up generalities with specifics. As an example, consider the interviewee who says that they will make maths engaging. When asked “How?” they say they will have an engaging plan or activity. Exchanges like these can often go round in circles.

What we look for are very specific ideas with examples. Really explore beneath the surface and add some depth to your response. What would you do in specific cases and how would you do it? What are your reasons? How might you do things differently with different students?

Remember to be prepared to develop an initial response into something with a bit more detail. This can be a real differentiator.

Where opinion is asked for, please be aware that there is no one correct answer. Once again we are looking for evidence of thought and reflection and the ability to develop an argument behind an idea. That’s what’s really of interest. I remember a candidate who did not like the use of the word ‘inspirational’ and told us why, developing a thoughtful and informed response. We are always looking for people who can demonstrate independent thinking.

On the other hand, a question may explore current practice (for example in relation to certain Key Stages in the curriculum). In such a case, we would expect candidates to be up to date and well informed on the issues and demonstrate this through their answers.

Some final points

The interview is not intended to a mathematical test; that ability is assessed elsewhere. Nor are any of the questions designed to trip anyone up.

The interview is not like a traditional job interview. You are not in competition with others you may meet. There are plenty of scholarships available.

The whole focus of the interview is to find out about you and your potential - and I stress the word “potential”. You may be asked about, say, experience in the classroom and it may happen that you have, as yet, little or none to draw upon. But please do not fret, as we are looking for potential and you can demonstrate that through thoughtful and informed answers.

Be aware that we also take notes as you speak to us. Be prepared for that and don’t let it put you off. It’s just a fact of life and we need our notes for our records and further discussion.

Finally, please try to relax. We are looking to discover the positive qualities you have to offer and will do our best help you to relax during the interview and give you the best chance to show your potential.

Good luck, and do remember: we really want you to do yourself justice. Prepare well in advance and try to relax on the day.

From a conversation with Dr Joe Kyle, School of Mathematics, University of Birmingham.