Maria is from Madrid, Spain and wrote this at the end of her first year of Mathematics at Christ's College, Cambridge. She took the Bachillerato, choosing to take science subjects: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Technical Drawing, as well as the compulsory Spanish Language and Literature, English language and History of Spain.
What attracted you to Maths at Cambridge?
Mathematics was the subject I enjoyed most at school, and I want(ed) to be a mathematician. The maths course at Cambridge is much more flexible, and more demanding than other courses. By the end of your third year you can graduate, and your profile will be really strong when applying for jobs. If instead you continue, the fourth year will prepare you for research/a PhD much better than other universities.
I wasn’t sure to whether or not to take the option with physics. I didn’t choose it in the end and this was the right choice for me: I still did lots of physics while doing a pure mathematics course though.
How did you choose Christ's College?
I visited different Colleges with my family, and none of them felt completely right. But when we walked through Christ’s, I decided it was the one! Of course, I then did some research and found that Christ's was close to my lecture theatres, and known to be very friendly yet academically strong, especially in Mathematics.
Christ's has more than lived up to what I expected. It is very central and if it weren’t for my desire to attend dance classes at Colleges further out, I wouldn’t need my bike. It is indeed friendly, and I have been able to make good friends with students from other subjects and other years, despite the fact that I’m quite introverted. It's great to live in a nice community, even if it's just for having dinner in Upper Hall (our canteen) with your friends. Everyone is willing help you when you need it; for example after doing what felt like a really bad exam at the time (it turns out it wasn’t actually that bad in the end!), I needed to cry a bit, and the porters were so supportive and very happy to listen to me. You even get to know the academics as some of them live in College and are around at College social events.
In Mathematics, Christ's does stand out. All my supervisions are in College, which means that I don’t have to move to other places in Cambridge. What's more, in first year you get weekly ‘example classes’ which, along with supervisions, help you to consolidate your knowledge and you can ask questions about any doubts you may have - most Colleges don't have these as far as I know. Finally, the collegiate system allows a more individual education, because your Director of Studies and your supervisors get to know you really well.
How did you find the application process?
The application process was long and felt over-complicated in some parts, but it is well explained on UCAS website / Cambridge website. I was worried that having Spanish national qualifications rather than A-levels or the International Baccalureate would look bad on my application, but that was no problem at all - at Cambridge, they look for the best students. The interview was what I expected it to be, and I prepared by doing past Olympiad papers and MATs (Oxford Maths Admission Tests).
What specific advice would you give prospective applicants?
Practice with papers mentioned above, and if possible try some STEP Paper 1 questions before the interview. There are also three useful mock interviews on a Trinity College webpage. If you get the offer, start preparing for STEP immediately, and don’t ever give up despite how hard it may seem.
What was your first week here like?
Before I came, I was mostly looking forward to meeting like-minded people, but I was worried about the British weather and food!
Fresher's week had lots of events, I can’t remember them all, and most sound quite odd at first: like “Informal formal” on Sunday, “Matriculation” photo and dinner, meeting with my Director of Studies, Freshers' Fair, ‘College families’ dinner etc. My favourite was the evening subject drinks and playing games with maths students from other years. As an aside, it is worth saying that you don’t need alcohol to enjoy fresher’s week: I was 17 so I couldn’t go out partying, but I don’t particularly enjoy going out at night anyway. I don’t drink, neither do a significant number of mathematicians. It is okay if you do, but it is okay too if you don’t.
On the academic side, the first lectures were on content we already knew, so it was a good recap. I didn’t expect the lectures to go through the material so quickly, and by the end of the first week we had learned lots of new things! People are usually afraid of the first supervision, but to me it just felt like a nice chat about interesting maths questions!
How have you found the Maths course so far?
Most things are mathematically beautiful and it is a pleasure to learn them! It is impossible to describe with words the feeling you get when you solve a hard problem. One of the best things about the maths course is that you can do well at examinations without being good at one of the topics. The hardest thing is to get to the end of the problems, which usually require creative thinking, or applying your previous knowledge in unexpected ways.
The course is mostly what I expected when I applied. I wasn’t sure what applied maths was, but now it is my favourite part! For example, Probability combines the rigorous approach of pure mathematics, and the real life problems of applied maths. The questions are really interesting and involve mathematical knowledge from other courses like Analysis or Vector Calculus. Looking back over the year I have learned a lot of maths, my problem-solving skills have improved a lot too.
In each year of the maths course, everyone sits the same papers (except those doing Maths with Physics in first year). The papers in second and third year include lots of questions from different options, so you can do the ones from the options you have chosen. I will be focusing on applied maths: Statistics, Quantum Mechanics, Fluid Dynamics and Complex Methods.
How are you taught? And how do you manage the workload?
Beyond the weekly College example classes I mentioned earlier, we get two lectures a day, 6 days a week (including Saturday!). In these, lecturers write their own notes and we copy them down. We also have about two or three supervisions a week. We need to solve questions on an ‘example sheet’ for each supervision which our supervisors mark and we then go through them at the supervision.
Compared to school, I need to do more work on my own. I usually work in the library in the morning then in my room after lunch. I need to spend time trying to understand the material (rather than knowing everything by the end of a school lesson) - I have to think hard about the questions, sometimes for hours. I always aim to finish each example sheet a couple of days before the deadline. This means that I usually don’t work in the evening, so I have free time for other stuff, like dance classes. Instead, I like to wake up early to get ahead!
There is some work to do over the vacation too, but I also have time to travel. I normally go back to Spain, and do the extracurricular things I used to do there (e.g: sports training). This year I have also taken driving lessons.
Is there anything you would change about Maths at Cambridge?
University-wide, I believe that 17% of the students in my year at Cambridge studying Maths are women, and I wish that there were more female mathematicians! Having said that, the maths community at Christ's is quite close, and last year I had very good relationships with Christ's 'mathmos' across the years and even including some postgraduates. My best friends from Christ's are male mathematicians (the gender difference hasn't really mattered). I do also, of course, have female (as well as male) mathmo friends from other Colleges. We have a Emmy Noether Society that holds lots of events with female mathematicians (and free food!). I also have many good female friends at Christ's from other subjects, especially natural scientists (who learn related stuff). On top of that, if you attend the events of non-maths societies you end up with more friends with common interests (I have lots of friends from the CUTAZZ Dance Society).
What would you say to a female student considering an application for Maths?
Academically speaking, there is no difference, and no reason at all why you should not study maths when that is what you really want to do. For what it's worth, I have never felt out of place for being a woman! If you are considering studying maths, you may be interested in attending the Women in Maths residential that Christ's holds around Easter time (I helped with it this year!), or come to one of the open days! The numbers at Cambridge will only change with more female applications, and you shouldn't miss out!
What have you enjoyed most about life at Christ's?
The thing I have enjoyed the most about life at Christ's is the ‘Green’ community and meeting so many people interested in sustainable living. Christ's is one of the most eco-friendly Colleges of Cambridge - there are recycling bins in all rooms, and you get a discount in the Buttery when buying coffee with your own cup! It was not done last year, but I know that in the past Christ's has competed in Energy saving competitions and done quite well. The green officer for the College students union organised a fantastic Green Week with events such as a Green Vegan Formal [Dinner] and a second-hand clothes sale. There are vegan and vegetarian options in every meal at Upper Hall (our canteen), and recently Christ's undergraduate students voted on a referendum to introduce 'Green Monday' to reduce Christ's CO2 footprint and give more vegan and vegetarian options! There is a strong campaign for Christ's divestment, and lots of Christ's students also campaigning divestment uni-wide. If you have a green mindset, you will meet like-minded students at Christ's! I personally represented Christ's last year at the Cambridge University Foodbank Society, taking care of a box for donations of non-perishable items, to avoid food waste.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
Being with my friends again, meeting new people and going to interesting events. I am also looking forward to more maths!
" I need to spend time trying to understand the material (rather than knowing everything by the end of a school lesson) - I have to think hard about the questions, sometimes for hours."
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.