A Level

How is maths different at university?

When it comes to applying to university, few courses are as misunderstood as maths. When you tell people that you are applying to medicine or engineering, they know exactly what you mean. Maths at university level, on the other hand, is completely different from the geometry and calculations we’d usually associate with the subject.

Before you decide on a degree in maths, here are some tips for prospective maths’ students from one of our top maths tutors.

Is it right for you?
When starting maths at university you might expect it to be similar to A-Level. However, Maths A-Level is more similar to physics or engineering, in that it is based almost entirely on calculations. The maths you knew and loved at A-Level is entirely different to maths at degree level. For some, this change is an exhilarating and much longed for improvement. For some, it proves to be a challenge. With this in mind, do not be afraid to make the switch if you find yourself on the wrong course.

It’s not about finding answers 
When you study maths at A-Level, you’re usually asked to explain concepts or provide numerical answers to questions. Whilst you are still asked these questions at degree level, they become far less common. Maths at university is about proving the validity, or falsehood, of statements called conjectures. Once these conjectures have been proven they are referred to as theorems. One theorem you will be familiar with is Pythagoras’ Theorem. This was popularised by Pythagoras, but was actually discovered as early as 1800BC by the Babylonians. At A-Level you might be asked to apply this theorem – at university you will have to prove it.

It can be tricky
You might have to spend hours on a question before making any progress. Assignment questions are never particularly similar to each other, so it is difficult to practice a particular topic until you’ve mastered it. Instead, you have to practice problem-solving, and patience.

It can get crazy
Once you accept that maths is about proving things to be true, you start to learn some statements that are truly amazing. In maths there are things that are true but cannot be proven, there is more than one type of infinity and it has been shown that there is no completely fair voting system. If these facts interest you, maybe you should consider studying maths at university.

An excellent book that will help improve your approach and attitude to maths at university is ‘Thinking Mathematically’ by J. Mason. The book covers approaches to problem-solving that will not only prepare you for a degree in maths but any degree that you wish to take.

mat v
Written by Mat V, who tutors Physics and Mathsat MyTutor.

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