Simon, A-Level graduate

Simon is 17 years old. He has completed his Russian education together with Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics A-levels, achieving outstanding final grades. Last fall, he went on to study Mathematics at the University of Oxford – one of the best universities in the world. Simon is driven by his curiosity and the desire to absorb all the knowledge he possibly can, regardless of the field of study.

I want to get an education, but apparently nobody is offering education in the sense I’d use the word in. I want a kind of comprehensive worldview; I want a lot of subjects, like in school, and a deeper understanding of the world. I enjoy reading, but I primarily read articles on the internet; I try to collect information on things I’m interested in, such as linguistics, heliography, evolutionary biology.

Speaking about Algorithm, Simon found the vibrancy and variety of students and programmes to be his favourite thing about the school.

Not that I communicated with the students a lot, but they are a truly diverse bunch. I learned a lot just by sitting in the common room, that was amazingly enriching. If you’re talking about the UK programme, it’s got to be something like course flexibility or, perhaps, capacity for individual approach.

Why did you settle on the British programme? 

Well, I don’t really have a preference, apart from some cultural aspects and the fact that in the US in 4 years you get a Bachelor degree, while some British universities offer an MA in the same time. I guess I also like the accent.

What led you to choose Mathematics?

The last thing I want to be is something down to earth and practical, I want to be abstract, I want to be solving problems that aren’t really practical but more theoretical. Mathematics; because it’s beautiful, because it’s pure. It doesn’t have to do with some kind of concrete practical job, and that gives me choice in the job market. It just so happened that I have a strong education in Mathematics at my Russian school.

My first choice university didn’t offer me a place for the course I applied for, but for one of the disciplines I had applied for. I applied for Maths and Philosophy, but they gave me an offer for straight Maths.

If I had a spare year, I would maybe finish English Literature, study something classical like Latin, and apply for Classical Studies.

When writing your personal statement, how did you sell yourself?

I made a list of activities that I had participated in, that I thought would sell me. I played a leading part in a guitar ensemble, I have participated in various media projects, and I have taught children different things, such as visual programming.

What is your biggest achievement?

I achieved AA in AS English Literature, which I thought was impossible. It isn’t an achievement in a global sense, but previously I had focused on technical subjects, so it was kind of a big shift.

Simon’s curiosity and talent reach beyond merely education, and encompass the world of art and music. 

I’m learning to play drums and have been doing so for a year. I’ve had some piano classes, but I quit them several years ago, and for the last five years I have been playing guitar. I also play in a classical ensemble.

I like abstract photography; I just walk around with my phone. I try to capture anything beautiful that I see, I’m a very visual person. I don’t really draw, but I’ve tried 3D modeling and can design websites. I read around type design, and I kind of like to combine it with history, how type was developed, and the shape of letters.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

I think it should be something creative and encompassing, like film directing, which requires a lot of connections with other work; you have to imagine, you have to be creative, you have to communicate with people, you have to interpret reality in different ways.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time? 

I don’t know if I’m suited for it, but I think I’d like to do something academic, like History, or something on the edge of science, like neuroscience or neurolinguistics.

I’m a very curious person, so I will probably be studying for the rest of my life. Not necessarily at university, not necessarily in a formal way, but learning all the time.

How to ace your exams by Simon K

There is nothing impossible to top marks. However, it is often the case that people hardly understand how it’s done, so here’s a few tips that might help you.

– Structure your notes. Be sure to have something to look at when you feel you need a little revision. Mark things which you have problems with, so you can easily find them when you want. Try to summarize what you’ve learnt after every lesson: write out a short summary, any formulae or keywords in the margins. I put question marks opposite things I feel uneasy about, exclamation marks opposite whatever I feel needs more attention, etc. Everybody has individual learning traits – use yours.

– Personalize your learning. Explore your academic potential and work out the best way to use it. There’s no strategy that can fit everyone. Focus on your strengths. In every subject, excel in what you are comfortable with. Ace as much as possible and when you feel confident, let it go and look at the next topic. A firm A*A*C is often better than AAA, both unit-wise and subject-wise, because pushing AA to A*A* is a whole lot more work than getting an A if you’re at C already.

– Look around for help with what you don’t understand. Don’t rely solely on your teacher. If you feel that after several explanations you still don’t quite get it, turn to your classmates that may have already understood it or search the Web for a variety of diverse explanations of the same topic. If you’re still struggling, just leave it for awhile and then get back to it again. Never let yourself become bored.

– Let your interests be the driving force behind your achievements. The best way to learn fast is to love what you learn. Be curious and eager to find out something new. Think about things you’ve learned and re-conceptualize them for yourself to make sure you understand them. High-level performance often requires a certain level of familiarity with concepts you’re supposed to know — that means you should be able to not only recall what other people thought of before you, but also engage in the creative process yourself. Ask for further reading, on anything you find worthwhile, to feel the intellectual environment of your subjects Become part of what has been done in those areas. Have several approaches in mind when facing a problem, and pick the best. Flexibility is effective. Practice a lot.

– Be competitive. Do better than your rivals, better than the teacher, better than yourself. Do it cleaner, more elegantly, more creatively. Never stay in one spot. When you think you are next to perfect, time yourself. I would normally expect myself to be done in about half the time I would have on the real exam. Sleepy? Bad mood? Be ready to pull it off whenever, wherever. Become truly comfortable with tasks you’re supposed to handle to leave yourself more options when taking the actual exam. Keep yourself in good shape.

– Sleep well. Do your very best to get enough sleep, especially during exam weeks, however impossible it might sound. This is crucial to adequate performance. Trust me, trading 2 hours of sleep for last-night-before-the-exam revision is seldom a good idea. Revise in the evenings before sleep, but don’t sit past 8 or 9 p.m. Evenings are the best time of the day for memorization, but only if you sleep well afterwards. Eat well, too. Drink water, get enough carbohydrates. A chocolate bar before the exam might considerably improve your mark.

– Study hard, play hard. When you’re in class, make sure you really are immersed in the process. A common mistake is thinking that just because you’re spending a lot of time studying, you are doing your best. On the contrary, the real goal is to invest your time effectively. Time is your most valuable resource. When you’re outside of class, let yourself go and focus on something entirely different. Don’t concentrate overly on exam preparation. Always have an activity or two you can enjoy when you get bored or fed up with study. Remember, your mood and motivation are the things that will matter in the long run, so have fun.

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