“I want to do a Natural Sciences degree – do I need A Level Maths?”

Gardens of Robinson College, University of Cambridge

Ever wondered what studying maths at a top UK university is like, or how an undergraduate maths student prepares for exams? We interviewed Eddie Revell about his experience studying maths at the University of Cambridge and how he revised for his A Levels.

 

Tell us about your degree – how did it compare with the maths you had already studied?

A mathematics degree is quite different from the maths you learn at school. All the maths you learn at A Level would be considered “applied” maths. At university, you get the opportunity to study pure maths, which involves thinking deeply about often very abstract objects and ideas. Because of its unfamiliarity, many students initially find learning pure maths difficult and it can be quite a big jump from what you learn at A Level.

As you progress in your degree, you will tend to pick the modules you prefer and up being “pure” or “applied”. I, myself, chose to study applied mathematics, and it introduced me to many fascinating fields such as quantum field theory, general relativity, fluid dynamics and numerical analysis.

Which subjects did you take for A Level and was there a particular reason why you chose this combination?

I studied Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry, and Physics. I chose them because they were my favourite subjects before A Level, and they complement each other nicely.

Maths and Further Maths were essential for my degree; Physics was a little helpful but not necessary at all.

How did you prepare for university? Did it ever require you to study beyond your syllabus?

Some of the top universities require applicants to sit the STEP (“Sixth Term Examination Papers”) or MAT (Mathematics Aptitude Test) exams. These are designed to be a step above Further Maths and are more similar to the problems you would meet when studying a degree in maths, so they are definitely beneficial for anyone looking to study maths seriously at university.

For my university course, I had to prepare quite intensively because I had to sit the STEP mathematics exams in addition to the usual A Levels. I found that having a habit of trying to do a question a day for about 6 months building up to the exam helped me.

If you want to study mathematics at the top unis, unfortunately just A Level Maths and Further Maths will not cut it, and you need to do things like STEP, MAT and Olympiad problems to prepare yourself for interviews and aptitude tests – interviewers will generally be more interested in your ability to think abstractly and solve problems than how well trained you are at solving quadratic equations or integrating by parts.

How do you revise for maths? Have you found a particular method that works best for you?

During my A Levels, maths came to me quite naturally so I studied by doing questions, and this was sufficient. I also did STEP papers and the odd Olympiad question. For anyone revising maths A Level, the most important thing is to make sure you understand basic fundamental concepts before you try to learn the more advanced concepts. For example, if you’re struggling with differentiation then integration will seem much harder. Make sure you’re an ace at differentiation before you start revising integration.

When I got to uni, my “just do questions” approach was no longer helpful because there was much more content and it was significantly harder. I struggled to learn maths properly for quite a while and only really mastered it in my final year of study (my fourth year!). To revise maths well, you have to make sure you understand every detail, every special case, memorise proofs and make sure you can recall everything from memory. Only once this content is second nature to you can you really start practising solving problems.

I found that splitting my revision between studying notes and solving problems in a 70:30 ratio worked best for me.

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