Many Oxford Maths and Computer Science applicants ask the question: how is this different from the Oxford Maths course or the Oxford Computer Science course? And what is it like to study any of these subjects at Oxford?

Well, here are some of your queries answered by a first-year Oxford Maths and Computer Science student.

What is the length of the Oxford Maths and Computer Science degree?

For Maths and Computer Science, you can choose to either study for 3 years to obtain a Bachelor of Arts, or for 4 years to obtain a Master in Mathematics and Computer Science. However, to enter the 4th year, you must have gained a 2.1 across your second and third years.

(A 2.1 means a mark of around 60% or above – that might seem low, but Oxford exams are deliberately made so hard that 60% is already a very good mark. For comparison, 70+% is a 1st – the highest grade available.)

Is the joint honours course more like the Oxford Maths degree? Or like the Oxford Computer Science degree?

The courses in the first year are split between the aspects evenly. Even though the Oxford Mathematics department's courses outnumber the Oxford Computer Science department's, the latter ones take more effort.

For my first term, I studied Linear Algebra, Analysis and Probability for Maths, and Function Programming for Computer Science. While the courses for Maths were tough, the Computer Science one was about a language called Haskell, which requires a lot of time to digest and learn.

Haskell Monad Oxford Computer Science
Screen of Haskell code introducing Monads.

No, even the Yorkshire accent doesn't cheer me up.

(In case you're wondering if the Oxford Computer Science department has gone crazy and is teaching Monads to first years – no, it was entirely optional.)

What's the difference between Maths, and Maths and Computer Science?

Oxford Maths and Computer Science students are taught knowledge from both aspects, but not necessarily in full. Straight Maths students are taught more in-depth knowledge in their area, AND have the chance to easily transfer to Maths and Stats or Maths and Physics in the 4th year (but are maybe less likely to take any of the Oxford Computer Science topics).

As an example, I don't study calculus specifically for my first term! (Yes, I'm not making this up.)

Oxford Maths and Computer Science Courses
First year courses for Maths and Computer Science
Oxford Maths Courses
For comparison: first year courses for Maths

…But it just means you're expected to learn the concepts beforehand (or in Continuous Maths).

What's the difference between Computer Science, and Maths and Computer Science?

It's similar to above, except the other way around. Moreover, there appear to be fewer commonalities between these two degrees because most Mathematics courses taken by Oxford Computer Science students are replaced with courses by the Maths department for Maths and Computer Science students.

For example, both Maths and Computer Science students and Computer Science students take Linear Algebra courses. The catch is that they are actually different courses held by different departments, with different content and vastly different progress. Currently we have just finished inner product spaces, while the pure Computer Science students are solving underdetermined and overdetermined linear systems.

What materials do Oxford Computer Scientists work with?

We have:

  • Lectures (2 per week per course)
  • Problem sheets (1 per week per course)
  • Tutorials (1 per week per course)
  • Practicals (2 per course)
  • … and books (depends)

Lectures

Lectures are my primary way of learning. During them, the lecturers define and explain the main concepts, do some demonstrations, and go through proofs. Often they will include things not mentioned in the handouts, and most of the time they are quite useful.

For example, during the last lecture of probability, the lecturer gave us a quick summary of the topics we learnt, which proved to be quite helpful as a refresher. This was not included in the lecture notes.

Probability Lecture Oxford Maths and Computer Science
Final probability lecture.

Problem Sheets

Problem Sheets are the equivalent of "homework". While they don't contribute to your marks in any manner, they are pretty much the only way for your tutors to know your progress. I usually dump most of my time into solving the problems.

Linear Algebra Homework Oxford Maths and Computer Science
My linear algebra work.

While you might be tempted to directly copy another's answer, it doesn't help you learn at all. Plus, you might get caught.

The way to "refer" to another's answer (or just when you're stuck) is to discuss it with other students in the subject, (hopefully) reach a conclusion, and write up the answers SEPARATELY.

I was stuck on a question and decided to seek help from another student studying the same subject. After looking through the answer, I decided to generalize it to obtain a less specific answer.

(In case anyone's interested…)

Question Oxford Maths and Computer Science
The question I was stuck with…
Answer Oxford Maths and Computer Science
and my answer to the question after getting the help.

Tutorials

Tutorials are one hour-long sessions with a tutor and typically two to three students, where the problem sheet and the students' learning progress gets discussed.

Not only does the tutor go through my work and corrects the mistakes, they also go through my partners’ work so I can learn from their methods / mistakes as well. It’s also a great time to ask questions because I’m a bit too shy to do so in lectures.

Practicals

The practicals are a sort of Oxford Computer Science "coursework". For these, there is a central goal, e.g. to make a program to do some mathematical task as quickly and efficiently as you can, and to be able to prove it's always correct. To accomplish the task, you have to follow a set of instructions, write code, or give proofs.

These can be done in the comfort of your home (your real home, not just your room in Oxford), although you have to explain it to one of the Oxford Computer Science assistants on site in order to "sign off" and have it ready to be submitted in Trinity Term (3rd term).

Practicals don't count towards your grade significantly, but you do have to pass them to move onto the next year.

Books

Books, or reading lists, are what the courses are sometimes based on. They serve as a great way to fill in the gaps and find answers outside of lectures and tutorials, and also contain a lot of useful examples and explanations. But a lot of times I can’t manage to find the time to read them during term.

Personally, I read the books I need before the term starts. Not only does it give me a bit of a head start, but more importantly, it allows me to make an expectation for the rest of the course. This way, I know when to brace for the worst.

For example, I read Graham Hutton's book "Programming in Haskell", which was one of the course textbooks, before the start of the first term. It proved to be very useful since I was able to understand the content for the first couple of weeks with ease.

"Programming in Haskell" by Graham Hutton Oxford Maths and Computer Science
Book cover of "Programming in Haskell" by Graham Hutton.

How do you revise?

Undoubtedly, each Oxford student has their own style of revision and their own schedule. One of my friends at my college wakes up at 10 (or 12!) and practically skips every lecture! Others may prefer to work at night, but I physically can't pull all-nighters.

I go to the lectures and take notes: both what the lecturer writes on the board, and also important things that are mentioned verbally only. When I go back to my room, I start by converting my (messy) lecture notes into something legible and useful into my notebook.

Afterwards, I start dealing with the problem sheets at hand, which usually involves me Googling and thinking for long periods of time.

Notebook Lecture Notes Oxford Maths and Computer Science
From illegible lecture notes (right) to slightly legible notes (left)

When that's done (or I meet a roadblock and decide to put it down for now), I'll start going through my notebook and try to pick out the important concepts. For example, when revising probability, I'll pick out the definition of a probability space, random variable, probability mass function etc.

If I have time left over, I'll do a couple of questions from the exams as practice, but there's only so much I can do at the moment.

What tests do you have to take during the year?

At the end of each year, we get a formal examination on a university basis. For first years, they're called Prelims, which do not contribute to the final degree. For later years, they're called Parts A, B and C (for years 1, 2 and 3 respectively).

Whatever paper we take, it's over 2 hours long, and we get to choose around 5 questions from a total of around 10.

Moreover, we get collections at the start of each term, which are mock assessments held on a college basis. They have a similar format to our final exams, but don't contribute to our grade whatsoever.

Gotta go!

I'm pretty sure you have more questions, but as a fresher who has only studied for a term in Oxford, that's pretty much it from me.

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