Mathematics: Nick Baskerville, First Year

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Name: Nick Baskerville

Year: First

Subject: Mathematics

What A-Levels did you take?
Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.

Why did you apply to Christ’s?
My decision to apply to Cambridge came to me rather late in Year 12 and I thus ran to the open days website in a bit of a panic and booked the first maths open day I saw, which, fortunately, was Christ’s. Thereafter, chance played no role. Caveat lector, here comes a cliché: as soon as I walked through the Great Gate and into first court it just ‘felt right’, whatever that might mean. I spent a few hours being talked to by various fellows and students and just walking round the place and I just felt comfortable. Okay, so I didn’t look at any other colleges, but I really didn’t see the need; they’d have only suffered in comparison to Christ’s!

What were your interviews like?
I actually applied to Mathematics with Physics and therefore had three interviews: two maths, one physics (I switched to straight maths within a day of arriving). While I was certainly nervous, for whatever reason, on the actual day of the interviews I didn’t actually ‘feel’ nervous viz., ‘butterflies in stomach’ etc, which was fortunate. My first interview was the ‘applied’ maths one and lasted about 40 minutes (I think it was only s’posed to last half an hour). There was no nonsense about why I applied for maths or what books I’d read or whether I’d got my bronze Duke of Edinburgh, we got straight to the maths. He started off by asking me to differentiate and integrate a big list of things from the basic stuff like cos and tan and built it up to more complicated things that I hadn’t seen before and had to actually work out. Then there was some graph sketching, but not graphs I’d seen before, so I had to think about them and work out what they should look like. Then there was a mechanics question at the end and like a lot of mechanics questions, there was a bit of mechanics and then a lot of trig and algebra. Next I had the physics interview which involved a discussion of the forces on a simple pendulum and a problem to do with point charges and Coulomb’s law. The final interview was the ‘pure’ maths one which was conducted by two interviewers, but that’s not as intimidating as it sounds - mathematicians are nice people! This one involved some funny algebra i.e., where rules other than those of the ‘normal’ algebra you’re used to apply a sketch of a proof by induction and a bit more graph sketching.

What’s the work like?
There’s no getting around this: you’re going to have to work hard if you come to do maths at Christ’s. But this isn’t working hard as you know it - practicing essentially the same question 500 times until you’ve memorised the method and doing all the past papers several times - oh no, this is spending hours on end grappling with new concepts just trying to understand them. But if you’re thinking of applying for maths, then you already know that there’s no better feeling then when you finally do understand something. And as far as ‘official work’ goes i.e., stuff that you have to hand in, the bulk of it is in the form of ‘example sheets’. These are sets of problems - usually around 11 to 14 - that the lecturers hand out and are designed to help you get used to the new ideas but also contain questions that you’ll actually have to think about. Some of the questions are intended to be very hard and it’s not at all uncommon to have to spend many hours thinking about a question before you’ve even got a single intelligent line to write. But even if you can’t do the really difficult questions, the idea is that you can still get a lot out of just thinking about them long and hard. I will usually spend at least 6 or 7 hours outside of lectures and supervisions working and it’s usually quite a bit more than that. Keep in mind though, that I really do enjoy doing maths more than anything else and the reason I worked so hard to get into Cambridge was that I wanted to be able to spend my days doing wonderful, beautiful maths in arguably the best place in the World for it. All that being said, if there’s something other than maths I want to do (hard to believe, I know) I can find the time, it just takes a bit of careful time management.

What about supervisions?
I have two supervisions a week and they’re usually two-on-one. Supervisions are an hour long (in theory, though they often overrun) and are spent mainly going through the example sheet to which we’ll have in handed our answers the day before. The supervisor will usually ask you what you want to go over and may well ask you to explain something you did on your in your answers. They’ll give you better ways of answering problems than the ways you came up with, point out mistakes you’ve made and help you understand things that you’ve been struggling with. If there are questions you’ve not been able to answer, they might show you how they would answer it, or they might give you a hint and send you off to think about it again. In general, supervisions are your chance to really focus on those areas you’re having the most trouble with. Something that might be covered in 2 minutes during lectures could be the focus of 20 minutes of a supervision.

How many contact hours per week?
Lectures: 2 hours per day, 6 days a week. That makes 12 hours, I believe.
Supervisions: An hour each, two per week.
Classes: An hour and a half, once a week.
Total: 15 and a half hours.

What are classes then?
Classes are hour and a half long sessions given by one of the fellows to all the first year Christ’s mathematicians. They alternate between pure and applied and we send in question and topics beforehand and the fellow will address them. They’re yet another chance to go over those things you’ve not fully understood or maybe find out about something a bit off-syllabus that interests you.

And how about non-maths stuff?
While the work is intense, I’ve never had to turn something down because of it. I manage to fit in a weekly game of tennis (assuming no rain) and badminton too. I’ve also been able to play in Christ’s pool team and I’ve been able to go to plays and suchlike when I’ve wanted to. For instance, I managed to find time for a day trip to London to see one of my friends in a show there, I just had to work a bit more in the days before to make sure I wasn’t behind.

How was the transition from A-Level?
One of the great things about Cambridge maths is that they make you take STEP. You may hate STEP for the next few months but you’ll be grateful for it eventually. STEP pushes you beyond A-Level and forces you to think about difficult maths problems as opposed to the formulaic questions encountered at A-Level. As a result of this, the transition to university maths is not as severe as it could be because you’re already used to tackling hard problems and indeed to having to work very hard at your maths. Nevertheless there is a significant change of style and pace at university. You’ll have to learn how to construct rigorous mathematical arguments in a way that is simply not taught or required at A-Level and even in STEP. You’ll also find yourself having to work very hard just to keep up. Every lecture and swathe of new ideas will be thrown at you and it’s your job to make sure understand them in two days’ time, ready for the next lecture. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll actually rather enjoy all this, it’s exhilarating!

Typical day - Thursday:
07:30 - 09:50: Wake up, coffee and breakfast, gym (assuming I can motivate myself), shower and get ready to go out.
09:50 - 10:00: Walk to lectures, only 3 minutes or so away from Christ’s, and get a good seat!
10:00 - 12:00: Lectures.
12:00 - 12:45: Walk back to college and go to Upper Hall for lunch.
12:45 - 14:00: Review the day’s lecture notes and make sure I understand everything or have at least identified those things I need to spend some time on.
14:00 - 15:00: Supervision.
15:00 - 18:30: Work on the example sheets on my own or sometimes with fellow mathmos.
18:30 - 19:00: Dinner in Upper Hall.
19:00 - 01:00: Mainly work and perhaps a short break to watch something on iPlayer or go to the JCR etc.
01:00 - 01:30: Non-mathematical reading and bed.

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