15th February 2014
Advising students on choosing a university course: Maths
A maths degree can lead to a wide range of careers, and is highly valued by employers who view it as proof of good logic, problem-solving skills and ability to work hard. When you are helping a student who is thinking of applying for a maths degree, here are some good questions to ask them:
Do you love maths?
This is the most important question: studying the subject at university is very different from learning it at school, and when faced with a list of difficult questions and an afternoon alone to solve them, it helps to be powered by real interest in the subject – be that for its logical and problem-solving aspects, its applications in the real world or simply its beauty. Students who like maths without feeling passionate about it, or simply want to use their ability in the subject, could explore the ‘Maths and ...’ course options. The possible pairings cover a very wide range, from Business, Physics, French, to Philosophy.
What type of maths do you enjoy?
Broadly speaking, there are three areas of maths: Pure, Applied and Stats. Most universities will have a fixed programme covering these three areas for the first year or two, with a lot more choice in the third year. Students should look out for the range of modules and subjects offered, and the emphasis placed on computing and technology, which can vary a lot from one university to the next. This information will be detailed on the department page of the university’s website.
There are two ways to study a maths degree – either a three-year Bachelor’s (BA or BSc), or a four-year MMath, which is more rigorous in its last two years. The maths degree at Cambridge is slightly different – the MMath there is a fourth year (called ‘Part Three’) tacked onto the BA degree, which students from other universities can also join. Because the first two years of a Bachelor’s and MMath are the same, it is possible to switch from one to the other and students don’t need to make their final decision before applying - though it is harder to switch from the Bachelor’s to the MMath than the other way round.
What kind of learning experience are you looking for?
To get a better idea of what a specific course will be like, students should find out the size of the university’s maths department and of the maths student intake, the number of hours of lectures, and the number of hours of tutorials and small-group teaching. They can also research league tables, famous maths alumni and present lecturers.
Universities are often ranked on the level of their academic research, and a strong research department means lecturers who are passionate and inspiring, and graduate and phD students to give students small-group classes where they might feel more at ease asking questions. A well-regarded ranking is the RAE, which places the Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick and Imperial maths departments at the top.
Do you have the right entry requirements?
Virtually all universities ask for a Maths A level or equivalent, and some courses – though a small minority – require Further Maths as well (note that it is possible to study Further Maths in a school that does not offer it, through the Further Maths Support Programme). A few universities require additional entry tests like the STEP paper. If you have students who are applying for a course which requires an additional entry test you should make sure they have the opportunity to study for it, as the style of questions can be very different from that of other exams (like the A levels).
Students applying to universities which conduct interviews should be prepared to talk about why they enjoy the subject and what attracted them to a particular course. Maths interviews tend to be a lot more subject-focussed than most, and students will be asked to solve questions in front of their interviewers. These are not designed to test whether a student can apply what they have learned perfectly, but rather to see how they react when faced with a new problem – and perfect answers are not expected.
By Coralie Colmez, maths graduate and author of Math on Trial.
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