'Mathematics is the language of modern science, technology and finance. Its is a language that is beautiful and fascinating in its own right.' (University of Bristol website) Three or four years of single-minded intensive study of Mathematics isn't for everyone - but if you find Maths 'beautiful and fascinating' then this is probably the course for you.
Most University courses follow a core first year that typically covers the fundamentals like Calculus Analysis, Linear Algebra & Geometry, Number Theory & Group Theory, Probability, Statistics, Mechanics, Computational Mathematics etc. Fundamentals of mathematics are usually taught alongside topics such as operational research, statistics and quantitative methods. In subsequent years you will do more specialised units such as Mathematical and Professional Skills, Discrete Maths and Algebra, History and Philosophy of Mathematics, Maths and Operational Research, Modelling and Mechanics, Graph Theory and Applications, Medical Statistics, Topology etc.
Many Universities now offer Study Abroad as part of a Maths degree - you don't need to be good at languages as many offer destinations like USA, Canada, Australia or Ireland. Others offer Work Placements in industry or government departments. Both are a big bonus. These opportunities are always a great experience in themselves, and future employers will like the sense of independence and 'can do' attitude it will give you so always opt for a course with study abroad or a placement if you can.
Applications and Admissions
Universities offering Mathematics
- The UCAS course search tool can be used to find a list of universities offering mathematics as an undergraduate subject.
- Another useful site is What Uni which allows you to search on predicted A level grades or UCAS points.
- The required grades are usually lower for combined or joint subject courses (Maths with... or Maths and ...). This isn't because they are 'easier' or worth less, simply that fewer people apply for them. Maths with something vocational like Statistics, Finance, Economics or a language has obvious career benefits, but there are 100s of other possible combinations - Music and Maths is a surprisingly popular combination.
BSc or MMath? What is the difference?
In the UK there are two different types of Maths degrees. Besides the three-year BSc (four years in Scotland), most leading universities offer a four-year degree called an MMath (sometimes called MSci). Even though the first M stands for "Master", this is still an undergraduate degree - it is not the same as a postgraduate Masters degree which will contain a substantial research competent.
The first two years of MMath courses are more or less the same as the BSc, but the final two years are more demanding, and take students closer to Maths research. It is still possible for someone with a BSc to get a sensible job or to go on to do further study so you shouldn't see it as a worthless degree compared to MMath. In reality, many Unis accept all students only onto a joint BSc/MMath pathway and the final choice between courses is only made after the first, or even second, year.
All Universities will insist on an A level (or IB equivalent) in Mathematics. As an example for BSc Maths, the University of Reading asks for 'ABB/AAC from three A levels including a grade A in Mathematics' or 'International Baccalaureate 32 points overall including 6 in higher level Mathematics' (2014 entry), and Plymouth University asks for '320 points from a minimum of two A levels including grade A in Mathematics' and 'International Baccalaureate: 30 points with HL mathematics at grade 5' (2014 entry).
Further Maths? Other Universities will also require Further Maths at either AS or A2 level. However, many Universities accept that not all applicants have this opportunity. The statement from Durham University is : 'We recognise that not everyone has the opportunity to take Further Mathematics beyond AS-level and we have designed our first year accordingly. If your school or college offers double Mathematics you should follow this route. If it does not please ask them to state this explicitly in their reference. We will then consider your application for an alternative offer including AS-level Further Maths'. If it isn't clear from the 'Admissions Requirements' what Maths subjects a University expects, then email the University's Admissions Office and ask. Even if your school/college doesn't offer Further Maths, ask if it possible for you to study FM at another local school or by distance learning.
Other Subjects? Supporting subjects beyond just Mathematics are important, especially for 'top' Universities. These show that you are very focused on numerate subjects and that you can apply maths concepts to other areas. The obvious subject is Further Mathematics (by far the most favoured) but other sensible A level subjects to have are Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics or Physics. Statistically, you are more likely to get into a 'top' Uni for Maths by offering at least one, or preferably two, of these other subjects (For Bristol for example, over 90% of its 2013 entrants offered Maths plus two of these other subjects.)
BTECs : these are generally regarded as 'not academic enough' for University entrance for a Maths degree - certainly for anywhere regarded as a 'top' University (ie. asking for A grades at A level). Lower Universities will be more flexible and you should email each Uni to find out their individual policy and the BTEC grades they might accept. For anyone over 21, Universities will take other things into account, such as relevant work experience - always email potential Universities for advice.
STEP : For entry to Cambridge, Warwick and some other Universities, the STEP examination is either a requirement or gives you added advantage. Other Universities accept that not all schools offer this opportunity.
GSCEs : for many Universities, a C grade (or occasionally a B grade) at GCSE English is essential. If you don't have a C grade by Year 12, you should retake this GCSE. Even if a University doesn't require this, many future employers will.
UCAS Form & Personal Statement
For a successful UCAS application a well written personal statement is essential. (This is not true for many of the higher ranking universities such as Cambridge though, who have explicitly stated that they do not put any weight on the personal statement as a means of assessment of a candidate.) If you need help or ideas there are several sample mathematics personal statements in our Personal Statement Library which may give you some ideas. (but please don't plagiarise them by copying and pasting them).
The most important thing to cover is 'why do you want to study Maths at University level?' Remember that you are addressing the PS to someone who studies Maths, so explaining your A level syllabus is a waste of space. Just explain what it is about Maths that interests/intrigues/excites you.
They also want to know that your interest in Maths goes beyond what you are taught in school. Going to any relevant Public Lectures at local Universities or Institutes is one good way of expanding your knowledge and understanding beyond a very narrow A level syllabus. It will also give you something interesting to include in your PS or talk about any interview. Some Unis will have podcasts of past lectures on their websites or on You Tube. A Google search with some appropriate keywords should help you find some.
Don't panic - only the very top Universities interview for Maths. Others may just invite you for an 'informal chat' at an Applicants Day. If you do get interviewed, it won't be as scary as it sounds. Here is some ideas for preparation:
- Sort out any problem Maths topics/concepts, however small, with your Maths teacher.
- Have an area of interest to talk about.
- Do some of the old Oxford Maths Tests from the 80's on www.mathsexams2.tk as well as obviously the ones on the Oxford website.
- Some Universities, such as Oxford, set written tests at the interview. You will be sent details of the format in advance.
Useful books to read
Available from Public Libraries (ask about inter-library loan if you library doesn't have it), bookshops or online sites like Amazon.
- 'Bridging the Gap to University Mathematics' by Hurst & Gould (2009) (approx £15)
- 'Fundamentals of University Mathematics' by McGregor, Nimmo and Stothers (2010) (approx £45)
- 'How to Think Like a Mathematician: A Companion to Undergraduate Mathematics' by Houston (2009) (approx £18)
- 'How to Study for a Mathematics Degree' by Alcock (2010) (approx £12)
- 'Studying Mathematics and its Applications' (Palgrave Study Skills) (2001) (approx £14)
Life as a Mathematics Student
As a maths student you will have a decent number of contact hours and directed study time. You will not have as many contact hours as people doing sciences due to not having countless lab sessions, but also you will not have hours of private study and reading time as much of the teaching will be through lectures and seminar classes. Overall you will have a nice balance. Generally, do not expect any days off from timetabled teaching, but at many unis you will be unlikely to have any full days of lectures either though this will certainly depend on where you study.
Outside of formal teaching, a lot more of your time will be taken up with study questions. The amount you have and how long this takes you will depend on the university, the module, the topic and your own abilities. Be prepared to spend hours on some questions and get nowhere with them while on others you could get the desired results and full marks through very little work. This may seem a little unfair, but it's the very nature of what maths is like at high level and you'll soon get used to this. These people will probably be useful to you as they can help you with basically any question.
Group study sessions can also be very helpful (and at the start of the year a great way to get to know others on your course). Hearing how other people are tackling a question can mean you spot something in the question you didn't pick up on. This can allow you to go on with the problem questions and use what you've already done to get one step further to the needed solution. The group study can also help significantly with your own ability to communicate and explain complex situations. While the maths might be clear in your head and even appear clear on paper to you, getting someone else to understand what you mean and what you have written can be quite tricky at times!
At most universities you will be allocated time each week with a lecturer/professor, PhD or 4th year student. Don't feel embarrassed asking stupid questions, they are there to help.
I'd also advise not to leave work close to the handing in deadline. It is often hard to determine just how long some maths work can take until you are well underway with it. And if you fail to grasp one of the basic pieces or don't get that shot of inspiration you could leave yourself with a mountain of work to climb and only a couple of hours to finish it.
At the very least start the work in plenty of time. Get your head around what is required. This will often leave you time to ask a lecturer about it or get some books from the library to read more around the subject. It might just have been me, but I often found myself thinking of certain questions I was stuck with at other times, like on the bus or lying in bed in the morning. Often I'd get that break through with the work at these unusual times. So I was pleased to have looked at the work early in the week to give me this time to think over it all.
The best piece of advice I could give you though is not to give in too easily with work. It will challenge a lot of you. Maybe not always, but some of the time. You might not spot the best method to solve the question or prove the theorem straight off. But keep trying. Look at different approaches. Start from scratch again (you could have made a slight mistake). You have the time, so to stand the best chance of succeeding, make sure you keep at the work!
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
A large majority of Mathematics graduates go into work immediately after completion of their degree. Maths graduates generally find themselves very employable due to the open-endedness of their programme, and because the skills acquired on such a programme are largely transferable to many aspects of employment. Most significantly in Business and commerce. Nearly a third of all mathematics graduates who go into employment become "Business and Financial Professionals and Associate Professionals". Specifically many maths graduates go on to graduate training schemes to be an Actuary (a profession concerned with calculating risk, especially for life insurance and pensions), or Accountants. A variety of roles in Investment Banks are also popular. Increasingly the middle office role of risk analysis (which is highly mathematical) is in demand (for obvious reasons!).
As well as the core transferable skills learnt in a maths degree, specific skills including statistics and operations research are likely to give a wider choice of careers. Many mathematics courses also include numerical analysis and scientific computing and these skills are very much in demand, for example in the oil industry, the nuclear decomissioning and energy industry and high tech engineering companies generally.
As with most academic degrees, a number of graduates go on to do higher degrees. This would entail studying for a masters degree degree in a related subject e.g.. maths, astrophysics, nuclear engineering, scientific software, or a PhD either in maths or again a related subject . A fairly high proportion of maths graduates carry on studying for a teaching qualification such as a PGCE. Qualified teachers with maths degrees are in high demand and would expect to have wide choice of which teaching job to accept.
Many maths student do not know what they want to do when they start their degree but know that it leaves a very wide range of options. The government survey of "first destinations" often used by newspaper league tables can be a deceptive for maths as it is taken only six months after graduation, and many graduates are still traveling or doing temporary jobs while still deciding what to do. While a strength of a maths degree is the variety of possible careers, this often means the choice is rather overwhelming.
- Maths at Uni (Sheffield Hallam University) A basic guide
- Why Maths? (Cardiff University) A basic answer to 'Why study Maths?'
- The Guardian Guide to a Maths Degree (2012)
- Career options with a Maths degree, from The Guardian 2010
- Why study maths? by Ronnie Brown Tim Porter at Bangor (now a bit dated but still interesting)
- Does It All Add Up? Why Choose A Mathematics Degree Stephen Burke, Institute of Mathematics (what can you do with a Maths degree?)
- Why maths equals opportunities The Independent, 2006. Interesing examples of 'life after a Maths degree'.,