Applying to Oxford: Maths and Philosophy

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 Vivian, who is talking about applying for Maths and Philosophy.

Maths and Philosophy is one of the most interesting courses you can do at Oxford (although obviously I am quite biased), and if anything people always get slightly surprised when you mention it (get ready for a lot of ‘yes they are actually quite similar, you see there’s this thing called logic…’ conversations). It is counted as a Maths course by the university and I’m assuming that if you’re reading this then you’re someone who’s always been good at/going to apply for Maths and also has some interest in Philosophy, as from experience that’s how pretty much everyone approaches it.

Firstly, I know quite a few people who do Maths who wanted to apply for Maths and Phil but were slightly put off because they were intimidated by it. I’d say if you’re interested, go for it! If someone is strong in their Maths interviews but weaker in Philosophy you can be offered a place just for Maths.

Subject wise, you have to be doing as much Maths as possible; they only take someone who hasn’t done Maths Highers or Maths and Further Maths A Levels under very specific circumstances (although if you’re applying for a Maths degree at Oxford you’re presumably enjoying it enough to be doing that anyway). I think most people haven’t formally studied Philosophy before, although if your school offers the EPQ it can be really useful to get used to writing Philosophy, so doing a Philosophy-focused one of those can be helpful. Also look at college Philosophy essay prizes – they have accessible questions that can get you thinking and point you towards interesting reading. I was recommended Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Ted Sider and Earl Conee that I thought was good. If you’re really keen find a copy of The Logic Manual by Volker Halbach – this is your Philosophy textbook for the first term and if you can look at some formal logic to begin with it can really get you ahead a bit! Formal logic is the true meeting point of Maths and Philosophy so hopefully you should also enjoy it!

It’s important to think about how university level Maths is very different to what you’ve studied at school, especially with pure Maths, which is what MathPhils tend to study (you can do more on the applied side but it requires special permission from the department). There’s a lot less emphasis on working out calculations and more on proving theorems (for me this was quite nice as I always make basic arithmetic mistakes)

PERSONAL STATEMENT

When applying to a joint schools course you’re a lot more pushed for space in your 4000 characters than if you’re applying to just one subject. I structured mine as a paragraph on why I wanted to study Maths (talking about the Maths challenges I’d done, areas I’d looked into beyond the A Level syllabus – being specific is useful, talk about specific problems you’ve enjoyed or find interesting), a paragraph on why I wanted to study Philosophy (I think I read more than most in advance, but this is really your place to show off – if you’ve read something slightly unorthodox definitely mention it. Again be specific! Talk about your personal reaction to the stuff you’ve looked at. If you can talk about why you disagree with something that’s great. They don’t expect you to have fully formed theories of existence but what they’re looking for is potential), a paragraph on why you want to study the two together (talk about any Philosophy of Maths you’ve done, maybe how you’ve always had quite broad interests) and finally, a very short paragraph on any extracurriculars you do – this is fairly unnecessary as they’ll be judging you basically entirely on academic: I tried to keep mine to less than 400 characters.

So tl;dr – be specific about what you’re interested in – a more in depth discussion of one philosopher is much better than a long list of things you’ve read with no detail – and make it personal – say if you disagree with someone or why you enjoy algebra or calculus.

Also I guess you might not be applying for Maths and Philosophy at every university on your UCAS, but my advice is to straightforwardly write for the course you most want to do (for me Maths & Phil, and I got an offer for Maths with a year in Europe from Imperial with that in addition to my Maths & Phil ones from Oxford, Bristol & St. Andrews).

THE Mathematics Aptitude TEST (MAT)

This is exactly the same for Maths and Philosophy as just the single Maths course so I won’t say much, the same advice applies as with the others. The main thing I’d say is to just have fun with it. I really enjoyed practising for the MAT; they have interesting problems that go beyond the kind of formulaic way Maths is usually done in schools. As for tips, make sure you check you know everything on the syllabus, it’s not big but there might be something you can’t remember from a while back or wasn’t on your specific Maths courses. Also be careful with the multiple choice questions – you either get the mark or you don’t and it’s the same for each of them so don’t spend ten minutes trying to work out the last one – it’d be much better spent going over the more in depth questions!

INTERVIEWS

You’ll likely have four interviews, one each in Maths and Philosophy at two different colleges, the one you apply to and a random one. In both subjects the focus isn’t on what you know but really how you think, so the main advice is to do all your thinking out loud. Try and vocalise your reasoning when you can, no matter how silly you think it might seem to you. This can feel odd so maybe practise it a bit beforehand. If they see you talking through your ideas they’ll be a lot more impressed than if you just stare at them for five minutes. Although disclaimer: awkward silences are okay. They’ll be giving you difficult stuff that will require a bit of thought!

It’s important to know what’s on your personal statement as it’s likely they’ll ask you about it. I realised I couldn’t remember even what the main argument was of an essay I mentioned on mine so I read it the night before one of my Philosophy interviews and we spent the whole thing discussing it! This applies especially if it’s something a bit unusual, as they’ll be looking through a lot of personal statements and will be scanning them for something interesting.

Maths interviews are usually in the form of 3 problems of increasing difficulty. They often rely on little tricks, so brush up on little things like geometric series, conversions from fractions to decimals and all your basic geometrical formulae. They’re not looking for knowledge although, so if you can’t quite remember something specific that’s fine. I had a question about finding the maximum volume of a cylinder fitting inside a sphere of unit radius and that was the most complex problem I was given (although in a way one of the easier ones as it had quite a formulaic response – work our the volumes, solve an equation based on the constraints).

Philosophy interviews can vary quite a lot in format, but can include some sort of logic problems, a short paragraph of Philosophy for you to read then respond to, and some discussion of Philosophy you’ve already read. It’s easy to get caught up in yourself, so I guess some advice would be to try and simplify. It’s a trap that even Philosophy professors can fall into, but a simpler idea presented clearly is better Philosophy than a more complicated idea presented badly. Although I’ll restate the importance of thinking out loud – it’s often useful to just stop if you can see yourself heading into a corner.

The nice thing about having four interviews is that it’s fine if one of them doesn’t go too well. I completely fluffed my Maths interview at Wadham, which is the college I applied to. There was what was really a relatively basic question on number theory (my worst enemy) and had to be completely led through it and basically spoonfed the answer, and I ended up getting an offer from them!

Also it’s easy to say, but try to relax! It really doesn’t matter what you wear, the only thing that really does is your actual mathematical/philosophical performance. If you get an interview you’ve already impressed them. Try to enjoy the Maths, try to enjoy the Philosophy, and you should do as well as you can!

 

I hope this helped, and please comment below if you have any questions! Don’t forget to share this post if you found it useful (the Facebook and Twitter share buttons are below) and subscribe to the blog for more application tips!

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