So, you have a place on the Oxford Maths course. You've seen every packing list for university going, reminding you to bring paracetamol, an extension lead and coat hangers.
But once you're all packed up and driving to university, your over-full car bursting at the welds, you realise you've been missing one crucial packing list.
What skills do you need to bring from Maths at school to your Maths degree?
So here is my packing list of transferable skills to bring to the first year of your Oxford Maths degree, plus some tips for preparing over the summer before you start.
Oxford Maths Essentials:
A complete understanding of A-Level mathematical concepts:
You've probably heard it a million times before, but it's true:
Maths at university is very different to maths at school.
However, the concepts you've learnt at A-Level are still incredibly important. They are expected to form a sturdy foundation for all of the further mathematics you will study in your undergraduate degree.
- It is important to have a good grasp of matrices and matrix operations, so you can understand the more complex theorems introduced in Linear Algebra.
- You must completely understand functions, ranges, domains, invertible functions and how to differentiate and integrate them, as this is taken for granted in the Analysis courses you will study.
- It is likely that you will do more differential equations at university, so look over any A-level work you have done about them already.
- You will also do more advanced calculus, so ensure that your simple calculus learnt at A-Level, and the more complex chain rule, product rule and quotient rule are all understood.
- Similarly, probability theory is a staple of first-year Maths at university, so make sure you understand all of the probability covered in A-Level.
- You also won't have the comfort blanket of a formula booklet when studying Maths at university, so try and familiarise yourself with as much of the A-level formula booklet as you can (although you will grow to just know the equations without thinking over your first year).
If you have an offer to study Maths at Oxford, you have a pretty cracking A-Level grade, so you know the content. That said, I would still definitely recommend revising it before you go to university. The break between university and your A-Levels is long, so don't let your mathematical abilities lie dormant.
Revise the content that it will be presumed you know and understand at Oxford!
Problem Solving Abilities:
Problem solving abilities are the most crucial part of Maths at Oxford. All those UKMT questions your Maths teacher forced you to practice, and Maths Challenges you reluctantly attended, will come in useful! These are the most transferable skills when it comes to answering Oxford maths problems.
If you haven't had much exposure to this style of question, I would recommend trying to solve some more wordy problems than those in your A-Levels before university. Also, look over MAT papers, and STEP papers, as these are the standard of maths you will be expected to be at.
Thorough methods of explaining your working:
At A-level, your teachers inevitably would always nag you to "show your workings!" Well, this has never been more important to bear in mind than when setting out on an Oxford Maths undergraduate course.
Unlike in your A-Level studies, where lots of the questions would have a final answer that could be ticked or crossed, lots of Maths at university is all about the method. For example, on your weekly problem sheets, lots of the questions will be statements expecting you to show a proof.
Proving things is all about the method, and your understanding of each step, and not about the final answer.
Try to get into the habit of clear and detailed workings when studying your A-Levels. If this isn't your forte, perhaps spend some time over the summer working through an A-Level paper (ideally Further Maths) in as much detail as you can, justifying each step of your reasoning.
Ability to study independently:
This is a skill you will have honed when revising for your A-Level Maths. Although Maths at university is a high-contact-hour course, most of the time you are expected to study independently.
No one will force you to go to lectures, or complete the sheets on time and meet the deadlines. To succeed at Oxford Maths you have to be self-sufficient, studying off your own back and out of your own desire.
A love of maths:
It therefore follows that, you need to love maths. If you don't have a love for maths, then you will struggle to find the motivation to put in hours of independent study, when you could be watching the football with your friends.
With intense revision and numerous exams concluding your time at school, it's very normal for your love of maths to wane. Over the summer I would recommend reading some entertaining maths books, and perhaps solving some problems from your favourite areas of maths, to help restore you faith in the discipline!
The summer leading up to my first year studying maths at university, I read Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem again (especially as the Oxford Maths Faculty is named after Andrew Wiles, the man who proved Fermat's Last Theorem!) and read for the first time Strogatz's The Joy of X.
I also solved some calculus problems, as at the time this was my favourite area of maths.
Remember to take a break over the summer too! This will go a long way to restoring and developing your enthusiasm. A-Levels are intense and you need some time off the numbers!
Other things that you might need:
You will barely use your calculator when studying maths at university, as, especially at Oxford, it is very pure. However, it is useful to have for checking your results, especially if you have a fancy scientific one that can differentiate and draw graphs and the like.
Your A-Level textbooks (especially Further Mathematics ones):
I would recommend bringing your A-Level textbooks. Although hopefully you will have a thorough understanding of all the concepts, they are useful to look over if you forget something or get stuck. They are probably only useful for your first term, however.
Oxford Maths is all about having multiple attempts at a question, or a proof. You will generally spend a lot longer per question than at school.
I often spend up to 2 hours on just one question.
Therefore, I would definitely recommend bring a rubber for all those drafts of questions you will inevitably have!
I would definitely recommend packing:
- A thorough understanding of A-level concepts
- Problem solving skills
- An ability to study independently
- A love of mathematics
… as well as your calculator, A-level textbooks and a rubber when setting off on your journey to study maths at university!
It is an exciting and nerve-wracking time, studying your undergraduate degree, but if you take all of these things with you, I'm sure you will love it! Good luck, and enjoy it all!