Dave - Chemical Engineering (via Natural Sciences)
Dave is from Huby, near Harrogate, and wrote this at the end of his second year studying Chemical Engineering via Natural Sciences here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Dave sat A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and Chemistry.
What aspects of your course attracted you to it specifically?
I specifically chose to apply for Chemical Engineering via Natural Sciences at Cambridge. I'd applied for Chemical Engineering at my other university choices so this seemed like the natural option. Doing Natural Sciences in my first year allowed me to find my feet at the university with familiar subjects, before making the change to Chemical Engineering, with which I was unfamiliar. It also gave me the flexibility to stay with Natural Sciences if I wanted. The Cambridge Chemical Engineering course structure means you graduate with the same MEng (Master of Engineering) degree as at other universities, even though only three years of actual Chemical Engineering are studied. Students who haven't applied for Chemical Engineering before coming to Cambridge can still choose to switch to it after first year if they've studied Natural Sciences or Engineering provided there's space on the course.
I was nervous that students who had studied Engineering in their first year might be more familiar with the material but convergence topics for both streams (Natural Sciences and Engineering) made sure everyone was on the same page after second year. There’s no advantage to taking either stream in first year, just personal preference.
And why did you choose Christ’s?
Before applying I’d seen Christ’s in the university prospectus, and the central location appealed to me. At the Open Day I had a chance to look around - the Fellows' Garden (which, despite its name, is open to students) and the outdoor pool stood out to me as something special to have in the inner city. The friendliness of the students giving tours was very apparent, which was enough to seal the deal for me!
I like the collegiate system in general, as I think it allows you to form a larger group of friends compared to at other unis, where you might be restricted to the people in your flat, or who do sports and societies that you take part in.
Additionally, the College also provided a generous book grant to freshers in my year, although due to the nature of my course I didn’t use it. However, I can imagine if you needed to use certain books very often for your degree it would be useful. There are College welfare activities regularly put on throughout the year by the JCR welfare officers, such as welfare smoothies. I especially liked the Senior Tutor’s afternoon tea in third term, a break from exam revision where you’re given brownies, scones and other yummy snacks!
"The Fellows Garden and the outdoor pool stood out to me as something special to have in the inner city."
How did you find the application process?
I found the application process pretty straightforward, as there’s lots of information about it available online (first in how to apply, then in the current applicants section). My school also helped advise me on what needed submitting when.
I applied in the first year that admissions assessments were introduced for Chemical Engineering at Cambridge. I didn’t know what to expect, so just prepared as I would for any exam by learning content which could come up - the specification available online is useful for this. In the actual assessment I found it very difficult to pick questions I was comfortable with, as they were very different to those in A-Level papers, so I ended up stressing and came out feeling like I didn’t get very far with answering the questions I chose. However, it all turned out fine!
Was the interview what you expected it to be?
I was interviewed for Natural Sciences, as that is what I would be studying in first year, rather than Chemical Engineering specifically. I found the prospect of a Cambridge interview daunting and I expected it to consist of very abstract questions designed to trip me up. I actually found that the questions were closely related to things I did know about, however. When I got stuck, I was given help to point me in the right direction.
I prepared by getting to know my personal statement very well, and thinking of possible questions that could be asked relating to it. Prospective applicants should know A-level subjects and topics mentioned on personal statement as thoroughly as possible, and be prepared to be asked awkward questions relating to these. Don’t be afraid to say you can’t get an answer in the interview, but try think out loud so you show the interviewers your logic and steps you have gone through to reach that conclusion. Be prepared to be asked questions on anything mentioned on the SAQ, and possibly some on topics which you are unfamiliar with, but be open minded and tackle whatever’s thrown at you as best as possible.
Some useful websites I used for practice questions were Isaac Physics and I-want-to-study-Engineering. I also completed a couple of free online courses - one on Chemistry available through the Open University and the other on YouTube from MIT. I didn't read any specific books on chemistry before applying, although I attended a Cambridge masterclass lecture day. The first year Chemistry module is based on the textbook 'Chemical Structure and Reactivity' by James Keeler and Peter Wothers so reading some of this may be useful.
What was your first week at Cambridge like?
Before university I was looking forward to the new university lifestyle I’d experience, and the freedom it brings, as well as meeting new people. I was worried about the workload that would come with the course. However, I found it relatively easy to settle in! The Freshers’ Week timetable was packed with opportunities to meet people in my year and do activities with them to get to know them better. At the matriculation dinner on the second night (matriculation is when you officially become a member of the College), I met a group of people who are my closest friends in Cambridge still.
One thing that surprised me was that Freshers’ Week wasn’t really a week, because Cambridge weeks start on a Thursday. There were also many enrolments and academic things which we were actually required to do in Freshers’ Week. I’d expected that to start after Freshers’ Week, when term actually started. Initially, I found it difficult to get into the swing of things, and was behind on work for a long time after Freshers’ Week. With trying to balance studying with nights out and novice rowing, I needed lots of naps in the day!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the course when I applied, having never studied Chemical Engineering before, but the topics are similar to what I’d seen online and are consistent with those taught at other universities. I found the idea of supervisions (the small group teaching here) a bit scary, but once I’d actually been to one or two, I found they were very helpful in understanding the topics taught in lectures, and the supervisors were really friendly.
"The Freshers’ Week timetable was packed with opportunities to meet people in my year."
How does your teaching work?
In second year (when Chemical Engineering starts), our teaching consisted of lectures, supervisions and labs. This probably worked out at about two supervisions per week, but we tended to have fewer supervisions at the start of term and more towards the end as lecture courses progress and you gain a broader understanding of the course. All lectures are mandatory for Chemical Engineering, and are not recorded so you have to be there in person. In second year there was generally one lecture on Mondays and Wednesdays, and three lectures on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
We also had labs once a fortnight, either on Monday or on Wednesday, and a lab report to be written on each lab. We also had to write a few exercise reports each term, as well as theoretical reports based on calculations to do with a Chemical Engineering problem presented in lectures. We also had Computer Science classes once a fortnight on Excel, Matlab (a coding program) and Unisim (a Chemical Engineering design program).
How do you manage your workload?
I found this especially difficult in the first term of my first year when everything was new and unfamiliar. However, now I’ve got the hang of planning my days and weeks and I’m able to keep up with the work while doing social activities like sport and nights out. I try to plan my days around any commitments and work-related activities so that I can attend and complete everything I need to in good time.
Now I’ve got the hang of planning my days and weeks, I’m able to keep up with the work while doing social activities like sport and nights out.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I row for Christ’s College Boat Club. I got involved in Freshers’ Week and throughout first term, when the boat club runs a novice rowing program for people who haven’t rowed before coming to university. This year I’ve rowed in the Men’s second boat (M2). We train about six times a week, at the boat house not too far from College.
Waking up for the early mornings is pretty grim but you’re not alone in doing it when you’ve got the crew around you. There are also good social activities within the boat club, such as termly boat club dinners, cocktail evenings and BBQs.
When back home in the holidays I do a lot of road cycling, walking and meeting up with friends from home and uni, especially in the long summer holiday when there’s no university work to do. In the shorter holidays (Christmas and Easter) I try to balance revising work from the previous term, and preparing for the next, with the same fun activities I’d do in the summer.
What will you be doing next year?
Next year I have four papers, for which I take four written exams, on topics building on those I’ve studied this year:
- Fundamentals: corrosion, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, radiative hear transfer
- Process Operations: heterogenous reactors, separations, bioprocessing, particle processing
- Process Systems: process design and control, process synthesis, safety health and environment
- Enabling topics: mathematics, statistics, partial differential equations, process design
As well as the exams there is a design project, in small groups, where we design some kind of modern industrial process.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.