A student asks: what’s it like to do a maths degree?

A student asks:

I'm currently studying further maths A-level - and I love it! I want to obtain a degree in it. Could you provide an insight into what it's like?

I'm happy to share my experiences, although they're probably specific to St Andrews, for me, in the late 90s - and rather stream-of-consciousness. I hope it's helpful all the same!

I found the first year in maths pretty easy going, as it was mainly getting everyone up to the same level - but that did give me the chance to do some modules in French, philosophy and computing. (I'd recommend trying some different subjects if you can; it's always good to have broad interests). Teaching was largely lectures (~100 in a big hall) and tutorials (5-10 people in a smaller room talking about that week's exercises). Socially, it was great - it's easy to join societies and find like-minded people.

That's not to say it was all plain sailing - I was a long way from home, occasionally quite lonely and lost, socially awkward and unsure of myself, and I found it hard to handle being around people I didn't much like. I think those things are normal, and they pass.

An easy first year lulled me into a false sense of security a bit - I started skipping some lectures in second year and not doing homework like all the cool kids and it really came back to bite me in the exam. I got through it by way of some inspired bluffing, but it's not an exam I'd care to repeat.

I took the chance to do my third year in France, which was a mistake academically (and probably for my health), but very good for my French; luckily, I took it as an enormous kick up the backside for my final year, which was a blast: the maths was interesting and challenging, I was working my socks off, and I finally got the balance between the social and academic sides right. Classes were much smaller in final year, too.

Looking back at what I'd change: I wish I'd been braver about asking questions throughout, and generally less shy (chances are, if I had a question, so did five other people who didn't want to ask it, who would be grateful for it being asked). From my point of view now, the more students interact, the more they get out of a class.

I hope that's of some use to you - good luck with your studies, and I hope you enjoy wherever you wind up!

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

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Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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