My Oxford Postgrad Interview: Applying for the MFoCS MSc

First published June 21, 2020

Tags: [ education  admissions ]

Here I will summarise my experiences in applying for the Oxford MFoCS, including some tips on how I made my application as competitive as possible.

I don’t intend for this to be a definitive guide to the application process, as I could never claim that my application was perfect. However, I do know that when I was applying I found it difficult to find people openly discussing their own experiences with the application process (especially for this programme which features a relatively small cohort of ~17 people per year). Thus, if just one person in future years finds this post useful when writing their own application, then this summary was worth writing.

1. Introduction

If you are reading this, then I will presume that you would like to apply for the MFoCS at Oxford (or another related programme) and are seeking advice. I will briefly summarise the programme for the less-informed reader, to give context to the rest of this post.

The Oxford MFoCS is the University’s MSc in Mathematics and Foundations of Computer Science. It is a taught programme which runs for 12 months, beginning in Michaelmas term and running into the Summer. The programme is assessed by 5+ mini-projects (extended essays) and a dissertation in the Summer term. Regarding the contents of the course, I will quote the University directly.

The [MFoCS], run jointly by the Mathematical Institute and the Department of Computer Science, focuses on the interface between pure mathematics and theoretical computer science. The mathematical side concentrates on areas where computers are used, or which are relevant to computer science, namely algebra, general topology, number theory, combinatorics and logic. Examples from the computing side include computational complexity, concurrency, and quantum computing.

This programme is a natural fit to anybody coming from a mathematics degree, with any level of interest in the mathematics behind computer science. In this post, I will summarise some key points from my academic CV, statement of purpose, and finally the interview. I will also talk a bit on what followed, hopefully giving some clues to how long the admissions process may take.

Though a very important part of the application process, I will not discuss referees here. An application requires three referees, with at least two being academic in nature (all three of mine were academic). Your referees should be people who can speak confidently about your ability. Other than that, your choice of referees will vary greatly depending on your own prior experience/networking, and there is nothing I can say here to really advise on this.

2. My Academic CV

This was probably the first thing I finished working on during my application. I do not believe that too much weight is placed on the CV, and so I would suggest not spending too much time on this. The official guidance states the following.

A CV/résumé is compulsory for all applications. Most applicants choose to submit a document of one to two pages highlighting their academic achievements and any relevant professional experience.

That being said, my CV was split into five sections across two pages, namely Education, Relevant Employment, Writings, Technical Skills, and Other Awards. These headings are mostly self-explanatory, and the key point to take away is to keep things relevant. Any education will of course be relevant, but employment should be restricted to research, teaching, and anything else which the department might view as appropriate (something related to mathematics and/or computer science would fit this mould).

Regarding the Writings section, this might usually be called Publications, but as an undergrad you will not be expected to necessarily have many, if any, peer-reviewed pieces to your name. I personally had no publications I could mention at the time of applying, so this section for me included this blog, and a project report from a recent research internship which was due to be edited into a publication later that year. I made this report available online for the department to read should they so wish – indeed if it cannot be accessed, it might as well not be on there.

Finally, Technical Skills and Other Awards should again be self-explanatory titles, and the relevancy rule still holds. For my application, the relevant skills I could present were my programming ability, and a proficiency with LaTeX. The latter section might then contain any academic awards one has earned, however big or small.

3. My Statement of Purpose

The Statement of Purpose (SOP), also known as the Personal Statement, will take up the bulk of your time in applying. I will again quote the admissions page for context on what they are looking for.

Your statement should be written in English and explain your motivation for applying for the course at Oxford, your relevant experience and education, and the specific areas that interest you and/or you intend to specialise in. This will be assessed for your reasons for applying; evidence of motivation for and understanding of the proposed area of study; the ability to present a reasoned case in English; and commitment to the subject, beyond the requirements of the degree course. Your statement should focus on your motivation for wishing to undertake the course rather than personal achievements, interests and aspirations.

My SOP was written using Overleaf, fitting within one page of A4 paper with a 1” margin and 11pt font. Of course any other word processor will do just as good a job however (just make sure it’s exported as a PDF file). I personally split my SOP into 6 paragraphs, each of which I will now summarise independently.

  1. An introduction/summary, within which I briefly stated where I was coming from, where I wanted to be, and how the programme I was applying for would help to bridge that gap. You will be assessed on your reasons for applying so it is good to make your motivations clear from the first couple of sentences.

  2. To demonstrate my own “commitment to the subject beyond the requirements of the degree course”, my next paragraph summarised my own (relevant) extra-curricular readings and writings. This included a summary of this blog and its goals, as well as a selection of appropriate texts I had read. It is incredibly important that anything you claim to have read, you must have actually read (or can at least talk confidently on its contents), for reasons which will be discussed in the next section. I also suggest you not just say what you have read, but briefly justify why with what you hoped to get out of it. I also mentioned some reading groups that I was part of which focused on topics pertinent to the programme I was applying for, mainly in the computer science department. I will also remind the reader that the assessors do not want to see a reading list, your goal should be to demonstrate your commitment with technical knowledge beyond that required by your curriculum.

  3. The third paragraph followed with a similar tone, where I aimed to summarise my own relevant work experience. For me, this took form of teaching and research, and I would be careful when mentioning anything but these categories (as mentioned earlier). The goal here is again to demonstrate commitment to the subject, and I would recommend that anything one writes in this section, they somehow tie back to their case for why they should be considered. In this paragraph I also give a relatively technical summary of the aforementioned research, expecting to be asked about it at interview. Your assessors will be mathematical academics themselves, so do not shy away from discussing specifics.

  4. I included a short paragraph detailing my final-year project. Outside of your references, this may be your only chance to tell the assessors about your project. Again, I chose to give some level of technical detail in this brief exposition, expecting to discuss it further at interview.

  5. This paragraph may have been one of the most important. Here I summarised my own intended pathway through the MFoCS. I did this by detailing units I was interested in taking, including stating why I was interested and also pointing out how I would meet the prerequisite knowledge for my choices. I believe that the assessors really want to see that you have done your research regarding the programme, and know exactly what you are applying for. This is where I took the opportunity to state “the specific areas that interest [me] and/or [I] intend to specialise in”, in their words.

  6. I chose to conclude my SOP with a short, sharp summary. I’m not sure how important this really is in the bigger picture, but I figured a couple sentences bringing together the key points I had made towards my case in the earlier paragraphs could only help deliver a “reasoned case”.

This layout is of course not the only, nor the best layout possible. I suggest you actively move your paragraphs around until you find a nice flow in your own argument, as that is what you are essentially writing – an argument.

4. My Interview

My application was marked as ‘ready for assessment’ on January 7th 2020 and I received an invitation to interview on March 6th, totalling to just under 8 weeks of waiting. I chose to attend my interview in person, which took place at the Department of Computer Science the following week on March 11th. I had two interviewers, and was told their names in advance.

Regarding preparation, I chose to spend my time reading about my interviewers and their own research interests, as well as making sure I knew my own application materials by heart. I made sure I could speak confidently about any literature I had mentioned in my SOP, and made sure I could recall some technical definitions in the works I was less familiar with.

The interview lasted exactly 30 minutes, and was more of a discussion about my application than I anticipated. While many questions asked were technical in nature, I was not asked any particular “test” questions like you might get in a typical undergraduate interview. Your mileage may of course vary, and they do say to expect an interview which is “mainly technical questions”. The interview took the format of walking through my SOP step-by-step, being asked to elaborate on each bit. For example, I was asked about a reading group I had mentioned, and was asked to give a result which we had recently encountered in these sessions. I was also asked to give specific details about some parts of my project which had been mentioned in the SOP.

Sidenote: A personal highlight from my own interview was being asked whether a particular result being discussed was recently discovered or more classical, and I was able to name both the finder and its year of publication.

What I believe to be common in every interview is that I was quizzed on what I knew about the programme. In particular, its structure and I was asked to give some units which I might be interested in taking, which were then discussed. One of the units I chose to mention was actually currently being lectured by one of my interviewers, and I chose to point this out in order to demonstrate that I had genuinely read into the specifics of these units.

A piece of advice I was told before the interview was to know my own research back-to-front and to be able to talk about it fluently. This turned out to be incredibly wise advice, as one of my interviewers was familiar with the area I had worked in. I was asked to formally state a result which I had found, and to try give some intuition to its statement. A second piece of advice I was given was to never try to lie about anything anywhere near your interviewers’ research areas. For example, claiming to have read a paper of theirs will get you quizzed on that paper, and you will be found out if you haven’t done your homework (however, if you have done your homework this can be a great technique to get things moving).

At the end of the interview you are typically given a chance to ask your own questions. I had two questions prepared, one for each of the interviewers. One of these was a technical question relating to a recent paper which I had read by one of them, which was received relatively well and opened up a brief discussion. The other was a question about a textbook written by the second interviewer, of which I had read the first chapter before the interview. Again this was relatively well received, and led to into a discussion about one of the units on offer.

This summary may or may not be representative of the general interview experience, and I suspect it depends hugely on who your interviewers are. However, I also suspect that they choose your interviewers based on whose research interests align with your own. Thus, you should hopefully not struggle to find common ground to start up a conversation (provided you have done your research).

5. The Weeks Following

Following the interview, there was radio silence until March 20th, just over a week later, when I received my offer by email. You are then asked reply to your offer and subsequently complete a criminal convictions declaration.

In the next few months, you will be allocated a college. If you indicated a preference of college in your application, then this college will consider your application first but may or may not decide to take you. If they decide not to, you will usually find out relatively quickly and will be placed into a pool of other postgrad students waiting to be allocated a college. If you did not indicate a preference, you will simply be placed straight into this pool.

The wait times then vary massively. I know many people who received a college offer very shortly after applying. I also know people (including myself) who were left waiting for 12+ weeks after their departmental offer to find out their college. I would advise patience in this wait, but given accommodation arrangements often depends massively on college, this period can be relatively stressful.

I received a college offer on June 15th from Balliol College, just over 12 weeks after my departmental offer. I did not indicate a preference on my application.

Upon receiving a college offer, you will be asked to submit a financial declaration. This is a form simply asking for evidence that you are able to pay for your course fees. Beyond this, your timeline will depend entirely on the college you are allocated and so my summary shall stop here.

6. Conclusions

Overall, my advice falls into two categories. Keep your application relevant, and make sure you are something of an expert on every part of it (including your interviewers). The interview will probably be more chill than you are expecting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare to the best of your ability. Finally, as always you should understand that these programmes are often ludicrously competitive, and rejection does not bear negatively on yourself. The official graduate admissions statistics for the Mathematical Institute can be found in this FOI request, and they do a good job at demonstrating just how competitive this department can be.

If you have any further questions regarding anything above, then feel free to either leave a comment or drop me an email.