Last June I finished my Mathematics and Computer Science degree at Oxford.
It took four years, a lot of work and much resilience.
As the time I spent in Oxford was one of the most formational periods of my life, I figured it would be a good idea to write a summary of the my time there. Not just for me, so I could move on with my life, but also for others, who might consider applying or are simply curious.
The caveat, of course, is the below is my experience, i.e. one subject to my interests, personality quirks, strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know what how to write about Oxford from another person’s view. And frankly, I wouldn’t even want to even if I could.
Because university is (used to be?) for learning, I’ll begin with the academic side of Oxford.
In Oxford there is a big separation of the way degrees are structured between STEM and non-STEM.
Reading maths, I was mostly concerned with problem sheets, department lectures and classes/tutorials. My peers in science and engineering followed a similar pattern, only they had lab work thrown in the mix as well.
(In contrast, humanities tend to base their degrees around essay writing. Medicine is a whole other story.)
Now, I could go deep into the details of my course, but that is probably best left for another post. I’ll concentrate instead on the big picture of education at Oxford.
The iconic Radcliffe Camera. I spent my first year revision mostly here. I love this place.
Firstly, the tutorial system. The way Oxford is structured, each student lives in a college. You can think of a college as sort of like a walled mini-city which houses, feeds and looks after its student-citizens.
As far as education is concerned, the college is responsible for tutorials, revision, mock exams (or collections, in Oxford speak) as well as general performance reviews.
Most of those functions are handled by your tutors who are expert researchers in your subject area. They are the ones who monitor your progress and ensure you are well-prepared for the end-of-year exams.
Now, tutorials are what Oxford is famous for so they certainly deserve a mention. What tutorials are is basically a institutionalized guarantee that your tutor will give you some personalized attention and help you solve the problems you as an individual have met with.
In practice, Oxford does this by allocating (bi)weekly meetings between a tutor and two or three students of a given subject. So, for example, as a mathematician I had weekly one-hour Algebra tutorials with another student from my year.
Each week I would have problem sheets set by the department and would present my solutions to my tutor. He would mark/comment on them and we would discuss the kinds of issues that had surfaced in the problem solving process.
The benefits of the tutorial system are obvious. You get personalized attention, feedback and teaching from some of the best researchers in the world. Unfortunately, the system is highly time inefficient so for maths it was only available to us as first and second year students. Beyond that, we had classes, which are gatherings of around 10-15 students from different colleges and which are much less personal.
Still, even with this caveat, the tutorial system was a great way to build relationships between students and tutors.
Overall, albeit only lasting for the first two years, I definitely enjoyed and benefitted from the tutorial system. It certainly helped me understand the material better and often provided me with insights it would have taken me much time to come up with on my own. (truly valuable!)
Now, let me say something about the philosophy of education at Oxford. But first, a step back..
Growing up, the high school I attended would pretty much test us constantly. Every few weeks we would have a graded test / exam. Combined with the sheer number of different and often unrelated to one another subjects, the result was often a lot of unnecessary anxiety mixed with frequent boredom with the current month’s topics. Moreover, cramming for tests is not exactly how lasting learning happens either.
Seen against this background, Oxford was (fortunately for me) markedly different.
Firstly, although tutorials were due each week, they never affected your final mark. They were between you and your college (by proxy of your tutor).
Now, it was true that some colleges and tutors would confront you if you handed in your scripts late and/or not at all. Still, that was a system enforced by the specific college and tutor and not a university-wide policy.
This was fortunate for me.
There were many times when I would get behind with work and I would end up not finishing my assignments on time. In my case this was mostly because of depression (Oxford is amazing for this, by the way) or the sheer workload for the term.
But those were not the only reasons one could be late. Oxford was a great balancing act between personal, professional and academic life and sometimes the former two would take priority for many students.
For example, some students around me willingly accepted a lower academic standard for themselves and instead chose to optimize their Oxford experience for CV or job opportunities.
Others focused less on the future and instead preferred to party or went into as many sports / societies as possible.
Personally, I felt lonely in Oxford and I could never get to like the partying culture there. As a consequence, I ended up focusing a lot on my work and a few sports I liked. Solitude and exercise were a way for me to cope with the isolation, frequent depression and the stress of my life in Oxford.
The result was that I held my academic work to a high standard but I couldn’t always finish it on time. And this is where I am thankful for the way Oxford was organized.
In Oxford, by the end of term I would pretty much always get behind on work. Now, if Oxford were like high school, and we had constant exams in each subject over the course of the academic year, I would very likely have failed. Or, at the very least, have performed much worse than those around me who always seemed to absorb information much faster.
Yet, Oxford was not like high school. Fortunately, tutorials didn’t ultimately matter and you can fail as many of them as you want and still get to the one (true) decisive final exam.
Put differently, even though I was behind on work during terms, I still had the vacations to catch up and revise. By the end of each year, I would know as much or more than many.
It worked for me. I graduated with a first. Having just one exam per subject per year was amazing to relieve the stress of always having to perform, of always being tested.
So, as far as I am concerned, being bothered by the necessary evil of examinations just once per year was a gift sent from god. It allowed me to concentrate and do well without losing my mind (which would have happened if exams were going on all the time; in fact, it always did happen — I would always need two, three weeks to recover emotionally after two months of intense sitting in libraries in May and June… totally unsustainable and unhealthy)
On the flip side, the fact that exams were once per year had its downsides too.
Firstly, having one exam determine everything might have meant peace and quiet most of the time, but it also carried with it great stress and anxiety once the exam date approached. This is why I would always burn out at the end of exam season.
Secondly, you better pray to God you sleep well before an exam. But not too much lest you oversleep! You better ask Him to keep you healthy too.
In short, luck is definitely involved. I almost overslept for an exam once. I also sat two other ones on less than four hours of sleep because of anxiety. So there is that.
As far as term structure is concerned, Oxford divides the academic year in three terms of eight weeks each. Exams are mostly at the end of the third term, although that depends on subject.
Compared to other universities, Oxford has much shorter terms. Therefore, a lot tends to happen in the space of weeks 1 through 8 of each term (the measure of time in Oxford).
For me, this meant that I would have to study several subjects each week solving a separate problem sheet in each of them.
Personally speaking, this system didn’t work well for me. I like studying a subject by immersing myself in it for a few complete days until I get bored. When you have 5 problem sheets to complete in the space of 7 days, that way of learning is impossible.
Of course, the first problem sheets were always easy and I could manage to do them without much additional reading. But as term went on, I would get behind. The term structure was definitely a contributing factor. Switching from one subject to another had a clear cost to understanding.
As I hinted at above, vacations were when I usually caught up. In large part, this was mostly because I was allowed uninterrupted solitude (no lectures, no classes, no meetings, etc.) and time to immerse myself for hours and days into a subject.
Overall, I presume that learning styles are highly individual so I cannot generalize a lot from my experience. However, if you identify yourself as even somehow similar to me, the above is definitely something to think about in the context of institutions like Oxford.
A view from the botanic garden. Great place in spring / summer 🙂
It is often remarked that university education is only as good as you make it for yourself.
Oxford definitely takes this approach as its guiding principle.
Although tutorials and lectures were great, they were rarely the time when most of learning happened. As far as our learning was concerned, Oxford expected and encouraged us to be on our own.
Such autonomy worked out pretty well for me.
Oxford provides great libraries and study spaces so immersion in a subject is made as easy as possible. Perhaps the only minor nuisances for me were the early closing times of some facilities. I have always been a night owl…
Another great thing about Oxford was the number of events and talks given by all sorts of experts, artists and overall interesting people.
Naturally, some of those were academic in nature. Although I never really attended many of these myself (they often seemed to me either too specialized or too trivial and always inadequately short), I am sure others benefitted from them. If nothing else, at least people got some photo shoots with their heroes.
(This side of Oxford was probably way more attractive to those studying politics or economics, for example. Imagine having prime ministers and senators regularly coming to speak at your university!)
Due to the collegiate system, many Oxford students got to live and befriend people from other subjects. This was certainly great because there is always a natural tendency to drift off and only move within the narrow circle of your subject group, especially if you are not much of a party-goer.
To be completely honest, because of my introversion and the isolation I felt at Oxford, I cannot claim to have benefited as much as possible from the above.
However, I nevertheless made a few friends from different backgrounds.
Relationship-wise, that was great. It sure made Oxford easier to bear when times got rough. I certainly miss many of those friends now.
Academically speaking, however, there was little benefit. Undergraduates just don’t get that many research opportunities or do not yet know enough to require interdisciplinary knowledge. So, relationships with others were rarely of much academic interest.
Still, good conversations could be often overheard on many interesting topics. Philosophy, science, literature, etc. — whatever your interest, you could always find somebody to speak with. Yet, being frank, if attainment of knowledge is your goal, you are probably better off reading a book than speaking with somebody else.
In high school, I was often made to study many subjects which never interested me.
That had the unfortunate effect of making me think the subjects were boring in themselves. As it happens, oftentimes I would have to rediscover a passion for many such “unattractive” subjects through my own curiosity. Such was the case for history, music, even parts of geography, for example.
Moreover, high schools seemed designed to punish specialization and passion. At least in my high school, being a specialist was a sin; being a mediocre generalist — the ideal.
In Oxford, everyone gets admitted to study a particular subject so this latter problem is practically non-existent. Sure, sometimes there would be mandatory courses which were a bit boring, but generally those were over past the first one or two years. Oxford was generally good at accommodating and listening to students’ course preferences in later years.
(It needs to be said that I was definitely disinterested in my research project in my final year. I would have instead much preferred to do further coursework. Coursework and research were a bit like water and oil for me and I found them hard to combine)
As for the first problem, Oxford never really made me hate a subject. Although there were certainly teachers of varying abilities, the fact that I was studying the subject I was interested in ensured a baseline of satisfaction from get go. Moreover, most of the time the courses were up to my choosing too, so in general I was always following my curiosity.
Once again, the autonomy Oxford allowed worked well for me.
In conclusion, academically speaking, Oxford was amazing.
I certainly learned a lot of new things and acquired a greater appreciation for my subject.
Crucially, Oxford rarely conflicted with my curiosity. Even now that I have graduated, I still retain a love for knowledge and seek out to further my understanding of the universe.
Of course, no institution can be trusted to develop such curiosity on its own and there is certainly a part of me that would always stay interested in the universe and its wonders regardless of my environment.
However, I know that before going to Oxford, certain mathematical techniques were difficult for me and impeded my learning.
Today, I might not know much more (a degree really only serves to highlight to you how much there is to know!) than when I started. However, I know enough to be able to delve deeper into the subjects that really resonate with my interests.
And in that sense, I think Oxford fulfilled its academic mission. It gave me a great start and built in me a solid base for exploration of the world.
At the end of the day, that’s probably one should realistically hope for in any university, let alone one of the calibre of Oxford…