Nikola (2016)


Nikola is a 3rd year undergraduate student in Jesus College, studying Mathematics and Statistics.


1. How is teaching being done for maths? Compare it to your experience in Bulgaria.


Mathematics in Oxford is mainly taught through lectures, tutorials and classes. In the first and some of the second year you have about 10 lectures every week and all courses are obligatory. Students are required to submit their solutions of the problem sheets for each course to their college tutors. The sheets and the relevant material are then discussed in tutorials (classes taught in small groups – usually with 2 or 3 students only). Throughout the next years lectures continue, but now students are allowed to choose their courses. A lot of the later courses feature inter-college classes of 10-15 people rather than tutorials. Students also have the option of writing a dissertation or an extended essay as a part of their degree.


Compared to my experience in the Sofia High School of Mathematics, I found the mathematical education in Oxford far more diverse – there are many options that cover interdisciplinary material and a lot of the courses are quite applied (so can also be less mathematically rigorous). However the options in pure mathematics strongly resemble what I was used to at school – a lot of careful, rigorous proves.


2. Explain the college and tutorial system in Oxford from your point of view.


The college is the place where the student eats, sleeps and socializes. It is also where your tutorials take place. In particular all colleges provide accommodation for the first year of your degree and some of them also provide it for later years. A lot of students also go for meals in the Hall of their college.


For me the college system is one of the best things about Oxford. The college is much smaller than the university, so it feels like a community. In particular you can socialise with people from different courses and you get to meet a lot of people in other years. It is also what makes the tutorial system possible.


Most of the senior members of the university are also members of some college. As a result, there will be a couple of professors working in your subject in your college and some of them will be giving you tutorials. These classes with 2-3 people proved extremely useful for me. The atmosphere is far less formal than at school and you get a lot of time for questions and a lot of feedback. You can directly discuss the material you cover with a person who is a renowned specialist in the area. Do try to get the most out of a tutorial. These are not exams, but an opportunity to learn more.


3. Describe your experience with the admission process and the interviews in particular.


The application procedure for mathematics included the standard UCAS form, an exam in mathematics and an interview stage. For the UCAS form I needed to fill in some information, to write a personal statement and to send details for a referee. The personal statement was something I was writing for a long time and I definitely think that it is quite important – do spend some time on it and make sure you are 100% happy with it before you submit it. There is plenty of advice given from UCAS and also thousands of sample letters online, which you can use these to get an idea of what information you should include.


I sat the exam in the British Council in Sofia. You can also sit it in your own school if you to arrange it. The material that was required was slightly different than the Bulgarian syllabus for mathematics. In particular I had to learn integration and some analytic geometry myself. However a lot of the problems are all about logical reasoning. I also found it particularly important to spend some effort on describing my solutions well. I think it is a good preparation to always write up your solutions under time conditions when doing past papers – it will prevent you from losing points that you deserve on the exam. Also make sure you are comfortable with all the terminology you need.


Applicants who do well on the UCAS form and the exam are invited to an interview in early December. I had 3 interviews in 3 different colleges. They were all very different in style and the questions ranged from obvious to some really hard ones. Some questions required knowledge of high school material, others did not and were entirely about logical reasoning.


4. What advice would you give to prospective applicants?


A very important thing if you are applying is to check the exam syllabus very carefully and make sure that you know all the relevant material. Also do spend some time on the way you write your solutions – it is important to be precise and accurate to get the full marks. In particular make sure that you know how to translate the terms you need in English.


For the interviews, do not get discouraged if you can not answer a question. Often interviews are meant to be hard and it is more important if you can use the hints you are given rather than if you can immediately answer or not. And of course, try not to get too stressed about them.


5. What advice would you give to new students?


Make sure that you take advantage of the incredible amount of opportunities to meet new people and discover new experiences. However do spend the amount of time you need for studying – if you fall behind it will be hard to catch up, since the courses are quite intense.