Preparing for your Maths Degree

If you have just been offered a place on a maths degree course then you are probably feeling excited. You might also be feeling a bit unsure about what to expect and how best to prepare. Here are some ideas to help you get off to a flying start:

1. Don’t let your brain go rusty

It is a long time between your last A-level exam and freshers’ week. This is why some universities issue students with revision work which needs to be done in the long summer break. If your university doesn’t do this then try and go over key A-level topics such as Calculus, Logarithms, Trig Identities and Algebra.  You may even choose to dust off some past A-level papers.

2. Reading, reading, reading

You are going to be doing much more independent study once you are at university, and reading in the long summer break is a good way to prepare.  Your university may have issued a reading list, but some mathematics books can be expensive so look for second-hand copies. Many pre-university reading lists aren’t mandatory, meaning that you might want to select just a few books to get your teeth into.

The University of Cambridge has an excellent reading list which groups books according to whether they are popular maths books or introductory text books. In addition to this list we would like to recommend Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart. In this book acclaimed mathematician and author Ian Stewart talks about what he wishes he had known as a student.

It is a good idea to visit your local library’s science section where you will be able to find popular maths books by authors such as Alex Bellos and Marcus du Sautoy. You don’t need to start studying everything which you are about to learn at university – there will be time for that later!

Reading a maths book is also very different to reading a novel. Even with a maths book which is aimed at the general public you will probably want to get out a pen and paper and have a go at some of the maths.

maths degree books

3. YouTube contains a surprising amount of maths

It’s time to stop watching videos of dancing kittens and start looking at some of the amazing mathematical videos which are on YouTube. One of the best channels is Numberphile which contains maths videos on every topic under the sun.  This kind of video can help you gain a broader understanding of how mathematical topics fit together as well as introducing you to those you haven’t met before like topology and knot theory.

4. Work experience – don't wait until you start your maths degree!

You haven’t even started your course yet – but it is never too soon to start exploring what you might like to do once you graduate.  If you can secure a work experience placement or part time job over the summer then it will give you lots of valuable skills. You should try and see the mathematics in whatever you are doing.  For example if you work in a supermarket then start to think about stock rotation, logistics, and how the supply chain works.

Take a look at our article on work experience during a maths degree.

5. Check your expectations

Before you start your maths degree you will have lots of expectations about what it will be like. Some of these expectations will be helpful and others might make your transition to university more difficult.

The worst rumour which circulates is about the mythical students who got a double A* in their Maths and Further Maths A-levels and then went on to find a maths degree so hard that they had to drop out.

The truth is that you have been accepted onto your course because you have the right grades, and therefore you do have the potential to succeed at your course.

However…maths at university is a big step up from A-level maths. At some point in your first year, you will find the mathematics very difficult, perhaps even extremely difficult. At this point you will need to remember that you are good enough to succeed – however you will need to work hard and be sure to seek as much help and guidance as you need.

Some students won’t have experienced being really stuck on a maths problem before. Surprisingly this can be one of the most exciting parts of doing a maths degree – facing a problem which you think is impossible before reaching a solution sometimes days later! Remember that most of your professors will also be stuck on their own maths problems as part of their research. Researchers are still working on countless unsolved maths problems.

The mythical student who succeeded at A-level maths but then struggled with their degree was probably used to putting in very little work at A-level and continued to do the same once they were at university. It is not possible to succeed at a maths degree unless you work hard and seek help. For some very able students this is different from their experience at A-level.

Some students can also struggle in their maths degree if they experience personal problems and don’t seek the help they need. Remember that your university will have lots of support services such as counselling, and most students will have a personal tutor so don’t just suffer in silence.

6. Help – are they all cleverer than me??!

You will also meet some other very talented students (just like you!) This can be really unnerving for students who have always been top or near to the top of their school or college.  You need to remember that you are good enough to study on your course and that the other talented students are probably feeling exactly the same as you!

maths degree whiteboard

At university you are likely to get a much better grade and experience if you don’t just work on your own.  Mathematics is a subject which is often best done with other people. Many universities have blackboards or whiteboards dotted around the building to help students discuss mathematics together. You will also probably make some friends for life if you don’t just work in isolation.

7. Join a Professional Body

Most professionals belong to a Professional Body. For example doctors might be a member of the British Medical Association and solicitors might join the Law Society. As a mathematician you are able to join the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA).  While you are an undergraduate you have two options for membership:

  • Join as an eStudent, our free undergraduate membership scheme.
  • Or join as a full student member for just £10 per year.  It will look great on your CV!

Benefits of being an eStudent include:

  • Electronic newsletters
  • Networking with other undergraduates and professional mathematicians working in industry, commerce, schools and universities
  • Learn about the work of mathematicians in the UK and worldwide
  • Share your views and interests
  • Take your place in the Mathematics Community

Sign up now to be an eStudent with the free online application. You can sign up even before you start your degree.

Extra benefits of being a full student member of the IMA:

  • Our member magazine ‘Mathematics Today’ which you will receive six times a year. Student members are welcome to submit letters and articles to the magazine.
  • Additional discount on all IMA conferences including a £10 discount on attending Early Career Mathematicians conference.
  • Discounted IMA Journal Subscriptions.
  • The opportunity to take part in shaping our policy and direction by voting in our elections.
  • Student Members receive three years of Associate Membership for £10 a year on graduating from university. This entitles you to use the post nominal letters AMIMA. This demonstrates a commitment to professional development which is well received by future employers.

Apply now to become a full student member of the IMA at only £10 per year

If appropriate why not ask your parents to treat you to a Student Membership as their congratulations for your achievement of starting your maths degree!

Once you graduate you will then be able to join the IMA as an Associate Member.  You will also be able to work towards becoming a Chartered Mathematician. This will help any employer recognise your mathematical skills and will be great for your career.


Image credits

Featured image: Finals by DTBurket@Flickr

Whiteboard wall by Derek Bruff@Flickr

Cam University Library by Chrisgel Ryan Cruz@Flickr