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A maths degree is a lot of work. You have lots of contact hours and problem sheets every week. In your first year at Oxbridge, you will generally have: 

Oxford

  • 12 lectures per week 

    Lectures are an hour long, and you will usually have two per week for each of the modules you are currently studying. The lectures fly by, so don’t expect to understand every minute of every one. They require reading before and after, and consolidation of all the topics covered. The lectures for first-year maths are usually held in the morning – you’ll have to get used to daily 9ams!

  • Problem Sheets: 4 or 5 problem sheets due weekly.

    Each problem sheet covers one section of one module. They vary in difficulty, but generally get harder as you go through them, ending with some optional or extension questions. You are expected to spend 6-8 hours on each of your problem sheets in your first year, although don’t be surprised if they take you a little longer, as you will also have to consolidate and assimilate all the lecture content before attempting the questions.

  • Tutorials: 3 or 4 tutorials per week.

    A tutorial varies from one hour to two, and varies from two to six people per tutorial. Generally, in a maths tutorial, you will go through the questions on the corresponding problem sheet. Sometimes, you will have to work through your solutions on a big whiteboard at the front.

Cambridge

  • Worksheets: At Cambridge you’ll be set four worksheets per course.

    You will cover four courses per term, so that’s 16 worksheets in total, typically two per week.  You are expected to spend an hour per question, and each worksheet has 14 questions on it. A worksheet is thought to be three days’ work. If you do manage to do each question in an hour that’s excellent, but expect it to take a bit longer!

  • Supervisions: Two hour-long supervisions every week.

    Like with the Oxford system, the supervisions will be in small groups, and you will go through the worksheet for that course that you have handed in. This is an opportunity for you to really consolidate the content of the lectures, so make sure you are engaged and ask questions.

What’s it really like to be a Maths student?

Especially in the first term, I found studying maths at a university level quite a shock. The content and pace is very different from school. You will be expected to do a lot of independent study following lectures to solidify any of the topics covered. The lectures go fast! The content is also immediately a lot more advanced, and you will be expected to use a level of mathematical rigour that is not necessary at A-Level. 

It’s also very common for you not to be able to complete the entirety of a problem sheet. Generally, the last few questions will be a lot more involved and taxing, and it’s normal not to be able to find a solution to all of them. As long as you have attempted them and understood as much as you can, and presented this in some form on your problem sheets, you’ll be doing fine. 

Tutorials and supervisions are designed to strengthen the weaker areas of your understanding, and your tutors will take time to go through the questions you didn’t understand from the problem sheets. After a tutorial, it’s also a good idea to try to solve the questions you couldn’t originally do, without your tutorial notes, and see if you can then reach the correct solution.

Will I have any free time outside my academic work?

Studying a maths degree is intense, but you do still have time for other things. Although the workload is heavy, if you are organised and efficient, you can still enjoy lots of socialising and join different teams and societies. The problem sheets, and the reading you are expected to do for them, is meant to take approximately 40 hours of focused study a week. Therefore, if you study for six hours a day from Monday to Saturday, and then four hours on Sunday, you will be comfortably on top of your work, with lots of spare time to get involved in other things.

I’ve also found that lots of my actual mathematical understanding and learning happens in the holidays. As the terms are so fast, you rush through the topics, often leaving a topic before you completely understand it. So I would definitely recommend spending some time in the holidays consolidating and going over the areas you found tougher during the term.

“Cambridge is more fun, but also more work than I was expecting. It’s just a lot more intense than other places and you’ve got to be up for it if you’re considering applying.”

Nick C, Cambridge

Conclusion

A Maths degree is an intense, difficult experience, that means grappling with very abstract, very theoretical concepts. But it also comes with huge rewards! If you’re getting ready to start a Maths degree, why not look at our guide to bridging the gap between A-level and university maths, or our top tips for making the most of the summer before your degree?

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