I’ve recently received a conditional offer to read mathematics at Balliol College. There are a lot of things I wish I knew sooner and as such I’m gonna share them here. You may prefer reading the pdf document that contains all that I want to say instead. (The pdf document is more frequently updated than this webpage)
Besides the official information that you could easily find, there are a couple of resources that I’ve found to be immensely helpful. The most important of all would probably be the archived course materials. It contains every course and their respective materials for some particular academic year. It’s comforting to know what learning mathematics at Oxford would be like. The lecture notes you would read, the problem sheets you would do etc
The above is critical in making sure you pick the right course! Don’t pick “Maths and Computer Science” just because you’re interested in both mathematics and computer science! Make sure you know exactly what you’re sacrificing and what you’re gaining with every course option you can take.
Other than that, you could also read the UG mathematics handbooks to have a detailed overview of the course itself.
For the choice of colleges, I would recommend looking into the size and location of the college, the number of students admitted in your subject per year, the number of tutors, the accommodation facilities and welfare funding. College matters an awful lot in your first year as most people spend a lot of time living in college / using college facilities. As such it is important to base your decision on objective, quantifiable data.
I would also recommend you to look at the glossary. It’s very easy to get confused reading anything about Oxford due to the sheer amount of jargon!
The Admission Process
Considering how personal the teaching is at Oxford, I would imagine that throughout the admission process tutors are only interested in one question: whether they would want to teach you over the next two years. To answer this question for them, you would need to show a few things about yourself.
Firstly, you show that you’re technically capable. The tutors need to know that they could start teaching you without spending too much time going over the basics.
Secondly, you show that you’re interested in mathematics. Imagine being a tutor enthusiastically talking about their favourite bits of mathematics, only to find students waiting for the class to end! It would be tremendously frustrating.
Thirdly, you show that you are committed to mathematics. It’s difficult to withstand studying mathematics all the time for four years. You have to show them that you’re ready for such a commitment and wouldn’t give up halfway.
Finally, you show that you could be changed for the better. It means that the tutor would be able to help you become better at mathematics through teaching. If the former could not be achieved then there would be no point in tutorials and classes!
To me, everything in the admission process is about testing one or more of those four aspects mentioned above. The personal statement demonstrates your interest and commitment, the admission test demonstrates your technical ability and the interview demonstrates whether you could be taught.
As always, do your best in every part of the application. While the personal statement may seem less significant than MATs or interviews, MATs could be cancelled (It happened in Hong Kong at 2022 due to weather conditions). Interviews could be plagued by internet connectivity issues. The personal statement could play a larger role in your application than you expect.
I’ve written more on how to make your personal statements more personal. Yet remember that ultimately your personal statement is yours truly! You should ask for advice from others but ultimately you should make the final call.
Mathematics Admission Test
Do past papers
Doing all the past papers is perhaps the best way to prepare. You should do some of them under timed conditions. However, doing some questions is always better than doing none at all, so don’t force yourself to do every paper under timed conditions if you don’t have the time for it. You should also check out the official MAT livestream. If you really want to do more exercise, do the STEP foundation modules. They are really fun and teach skills and ideas mostly relevant to MAT.
(By the way correction tape is not allowed in the MAT. Be used to using pens and crossing out wrong answers!)
Use the previous subparts
All the subparts of the question should be logically connected. If you get stuck, try to use the results you got from the previous subparts.
Even if you are sure something would work yet it doesn’t use the previous subparts, you should still try to think of an alternative solution that uses them. It would usually be more elegant and less time-consuming.
Every keyword/condition that appears in the question should be mentioned/copied at least once in your answer. You should also clearly state the results you’ve proved in the previous parts, and why they are applicable to your situation.
Doing so helps you realise whether you have used all of the information given, and lets the marker know that you are rigorously answering the question.
Some questions (Usually Q5) have a lot of cases to consider. You need to be very careful about them as there are often exceptional cases.
While there are exceptions, most questions could usually be answered without many steps. If you find yourself painfully expanding terms, you are probably not noticing something you should’ve. This is especially important in graph questions. Usually, you need to spot some rigid transformation.
In general, I’d recommend thinking about interviews after your MAT test date. However, do try to find ways to have practice interviews. You could try finding teachers or alumni of your secondary school who have got into Oxbridge interviews.
As a final touch
Don’t let university applications get into your head too much! Ultimately, mathematics should be the thing that you pursue the most. Don’t let your interest in mathematics die out or all would be pointless!Next career post
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