Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.
Today’s post is written by Aditya who studied Maths and Computer Science as an international student.
Mathematics and computer science is a fascinating and challenging undergraduate course offered at Oxford, giving students a thorough grounding in both subjects. The emphasis is on the connections between the two, and so there is a focus on pure mathematics and theoretical computer science, but you will also obtain excellent programming skills and the knowledge to work in a more applied area of maths.
The personal statement is the place to demonstrate your interest in the course. What makes you like mathematics, and problem solving in general? Why do you want to do both maths and computer science? For example, I was fascinated by the connections between the subjects: computers help us visualise mathematical concepts and problems, while mathematics lets us rigorously check that programs are correct and efficient. Check out the course outline, and show the reader that you’re genuinely excited about learning what’s on there!
Having shown your enthusiasm for the subject, back it up by talking about any mathematical experience that goes beyond doing well in school. Any written mathematical work, significant programming experience, or scientific project is worth mentioning. I started preparing my statement a few months before the October deadline: at the time, I was working on an Extended Essay in Mathematics focusing on calculating distances using numerical methods, so I wrote about what I’d learned from it, and how it was relevant to both mathematics and computation.
Mention any maths books you’re reading to show what areas you’re interested in, but focus on what topics you liked and why, rather than trying to list loads of books. I was never asked about books I mentioned on the statement, but I still made sure to brush up on them a little bit before the interview. If you mention extracurricular activities on your statement, it is sometimes possible to draw a connection between them and the subjects you’re applying for: I did this with music and web design. That said, avoid making up connections when there are none!
THE Mathematics APTITUDE TEST (MAT)
Register for the test on the Admissions Testing Service website well before the October deadline, and make sure your school (or a suitable test centre close to you) also registers well before then, so that a copy of the test is sent to you. (I sat mine at my school in India, so it’s fine if you’re an international student; just make sure you and your school register for the right test on time.) The best resource by far is the Oxford Mathematics page on the MAT. This has the syllabus, telling you all the topics you need to know about, and past papers, which are the best way to practise. Brush up on the maths you’ve learned in school. Check the syllabus for unfamiliar topics and learn those too (you may find Khan Academy, Underground Mathematics, or any of the other resources on the website useful) – IB Maths HL didn’t cover numerical integration or conic sections, for example, so I had to quickly teach myself those topics. Finally, do as many past papers as you can from recent years (2007 onwards is on the website) to get used to the format. (It is possible to find much older papers, but don’t bother with them – the format is different and some of them are ridiculously hard, much much harder than what you’ll get!)
There are multiple-choice problem solving questions to start with. The longer questions start with simple problems and then ask you to solve more complicated variations of the problem, explaining your reasoning in words. The computer science questions make you think logically: I had questions on programming a robot to escape a maze and using logic to figure out which out of a set of five statements are lies. The goal is to show your ability to tackle unfamiliar problems and write down your reasoning coherently. Don’t worry about getting full marks – the average score among successful applicants has recently ranged from 62 to 71 out of 100, and it’s very hard to get everything perfect in only two hours.
Most interviews take place in Oxford, where you will probably have multiple interviews at one or two colleges. For international students who can’t come to Oxford at the time, colleges should be willing to interview over Skype or phone. Before the interview, I went over key concepts from school maths, and looked at a list of sample maths interview questions on The Student Room, going through them with a teacher to practise thinking aloud and solving each one.
I had a 35-minute Skype interview with the tutors at Magdalen College. I had never experienced anything so intellectually challenging, and I came out of it feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. There were three tutors – two for maths and one for computer science – and each asked one main question. Each of these main questions started out with a simple school-level problem (how do you check if a number is divisible by 9? What is the sum of a geometric series?) and then developed into a series of more complicated problems. Explaining your thought processes and reasoning matters more than getting all the answers right. You want to show how you respond to tricky, unfamiliar problems, how you use the solution to easy problems to help you tackle harder ones, and what potential you have for learning more advanced ideas. I asked them for help or admitted when I wasn’t sure my approach would work, and they were very happy to guide me. They were also very sympathetic when the connection was poor and I couldn’t hear their questions! Towards the end I had the chance to ask questions of my own, and so I asked about tutorials and opportunities for undergraduates to do research. It’s not necessary to have questions of your own prepared, but I personally find it useful – it shows that you’ve been thinking carefully about Oxford, and it’s a great opportunity to find out anything you would like to about the place. Don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic and interested!
I hope that you consider applying and find this information useful! Please feel free to comment if you have any questions.