Patrick Gilbert – UCAS Undergraduate

Patrick Gilbert's essay 'Talking Mathematics and Chasing Tornadoes' was a runner up in the 2013 UCAS/Times writing competition.

19, from Larbert, Scotland

Studying Mathematics at the University of St Andrews

Talking Mathematics and Chasing Tornadoes 

If your heart lies in chasing tornadoes, origami or music, mathematics may not seem the obvious choice of study. However, equations, theories and logical structures underpin all these phenomena – so to understand them, you need mathematics.

University-level study equips you with the tools to do this. It marks a move from using intuitive ideas to applying abstract concepts. When introduced to sines and cosines at school, for example, you probably didn’t learn that these simple functions can add infinitely to describe how a plucked string on a violin behaves.  Very often, the more abstract a theory is, the more relevant its applications are.

As a result, what we study tends to have a narrow focus. While a school syllabus strings together a range of hand-picked topics from the broad field of maths, university study concentrates on specific areas. This lets lectures develop advanced ideas and probe beyond the boundaries of our familiar territory.  But, in order to be sure that unfamiliar material is indeed correct – not confusing – teachers place emphasis on proof. Instead of demonstrating methods to answer questions, lecturers first look at the core structure of a problem. From here, they piece together a watertight line of reason that leads to concrete theorems. While this attention to detail may earn maths’ reputation as challenging, it produces accurate results that lie at the heart of many human and natural systems, and indeed those of mathematics itself.

Despite new study material becoming more rigorous, it offers plenty of opportunity for active engagement. Consisting of only a handful of students, tutorial groups encourage the sharing of ideas, interpretations or concerns about lectures. In charting new mathematical territory, you’ll always have somebody in the same boat as you – whichever boat that might be.

Being taught by multiple professors enables us to experiment with different approaches to studying a certain topic. We discover which styles of teaching suit us, which don’t, and which we can use to improve our own learning experience. Even in testing, we are invited to explore a problem before reaching a final answer. A two-hour exam composed of six questions is a fresh experience from one consisting of twenty or so that marked the end of secondary maths. The same holds true in assignments or collaborative projects. We are shown to use what we know to generate new ideas or inquiries: room for a personal word in this universal language.

University’s explorative treatment of mathematics, combined with its vast scope for study, is what keeps this ancient academic field alive and expanding today. As a university student, you are taught by those at the forefront of this growth, in an environment set to nurture your own. So if you wish to understand why statistics says your friends are, on average, likely to be more popular than you, or why we owe footballs to the Ancient Greeks, then university mathematics may well be the subject for you. 

UCAS/Times writing competition article