A short article written by Tom for the St Edmund Hall access newsletter which goes out to high school students interested in applying to study at Oxford and Cambridge. You can download the full newsletter at the link below.
Hello maths fans! I’m Dr Tom Crawford, one of the Maths Tutors here at Teddy Hall and the face of the Tom Rocks Maths YouTube channel. If you’re really into your maths you may also recognise me from Numberphile, where I often appear as a guest explaining topics in Fluid Mechanics, Mathematical Biology and Engineering/Physics. Today, I’ve been asked to tell you a little about what we are looking for as tutors, and what you can do to help to boost your application to Teddy Hall – and it just so happens that YouTube is a great place to start…
The general advice to applicants is often to engage in ‘super-curricular activities’, but what does that actually mean? I’ve always thought of this as a way to demonstrate that you really do love your subject – so much so that you go beyond what you are learning at school. This means searching for YouTube videos that explore topics you’ve seen at school in more depth, or look at completely new areas related to your favourite subject. As a personal example, I remember hearing about the Millennium Maths Problems during my GCSEs – a set of 7 unsolved problems that each had a $1-million prize – and finding a brilliant book by Keith Devlin which explained them in terms that I could understand. This was of course in the days before YouTube, although books are still an excellent source of information, particularly when aimed at a non-specialist audience.
Other ideas are to enter competitions, join societies (or set them up if one doesn’t already exist at your school), or just generally interact with other people that have the same subject interests as you. Ultimately, the admissions interviews are an opportunity to talk to experts in your chosen course about their field – so getting practice in talking to your friends beforehand is a really great way to prepare!
In terms of what we (as tutors) are looking for specifically, this will differ a little across subjects – and individual tutors – but generally we want students that are passionate about their learning. Do you have that spark of curiosity when you hear about something new in your subject? Does it make you want to go and learn more about it? Are you genuinely excited when learning about new topics? Not only are these the kind of questions that you should be asking yourself when deciding which subject to study at university, these are exactly the kind of character traits that we want to see in potential applicants.
Studying at university – and Oxford in particular – is hard work. In fact, you can almost think of it as a full-time job: 40 hours per week spread across contact hours (e.g. lectures, tutorials) and self-study. So, if you want to not only survive, but to really thrive and to enjoy what you are doing, passion for your subject is absolutely essential. The admissions process is undoubtedly tough, but that’s because we want to be sure that you’re the right fit for the Oxford system – and enjoying what you do is an incredibly important part of that.
All this being said, being passionate doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be quite as excited as I appear to be in my YouTube videos when talking about maths, but from my experience enthusiasm is contagious, so it’s certainly a great place to start!
Dr Tom Crawford
Early Career Outreach and Teaching Fellow in Mathematics