Henry studies Computer Science here at Christ's College, Cambridge. He's from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, in the North-East of England, and he did A-levels in Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Physics. He wrote this account at the end of his second year.
Why did you choose Computer Science at Cambridge?
I’d always really enjoyed maths at school but wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy studying it exclusively. Ultimately the variety of the course was my reason for picking Computer Science. I liked that as well as learning more maths, I’d cover a range of theoretical and applied courses and apply these to design and build things with the programming I’d learn.
The Cambridge course is a little more theoretical than courses at other universities. For example, instead of just learning how to code in one language we learn the general principles and differences between languages. Whilst this means we may have to teach ourselves more of the practicalities of coding, we are more than prepared to do so. This summer I had to program in a new language and use unfamiliar systems for my internship but I was able to quickly understand how they worked and therefore use them effectively. Overall though, it was more the quality of the education we receive at Cambridge (for any subject) that attracted me to the university. Supervisions with leading world experts provides a whole new dimension to our learning than lectures and labs.
How did you choose your College?
I didn't actually choose Christ's initially: I applied to Jesus College for a combination of the looks and facilities of the College. On the offer day I found out I had an offer at Christ’s instead (after Christ's selected me in the Winter Pool). This didn’t disappoint me in the slightest, and two years later I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else!
What advice would you give to students considering Computer Science?
Even though I was lucky because my school had good support for Oxbridge applications in general, resources and advice for Computer Science were a little lacking. I found it useful to ask current students studying Computer Science for subject-specific advice (open days can be a good opportunity for this). The interviews were similar to online examples and the interviewers were lovely. The questions were testing, and I did make some mistakes, but that was all to be expected.
Personally, I’d recommend teaching yourself a small amount of programming. This is not a prerequisite for studying the course but given that it forms a large part of it; it is worth establishing that it is something you’d enjoy doing more of. There a loads of great resources available online; Project Euler is a great online resource made up of interesting mathematical problems. Many of them are very approachable with incredibly basic programming knowledge, but they do require smart thinking.
For Computer Science, the interviewers will be particularly interested in your maths skills so making sure you’re comfortable with all the pure maths you’ve learnt at school is a must.
For simply getting a better idea of the Cambridge Computer Science lifestyle, I’d recommended the vlogs of Jake Wright on Youtube - I found these excellent for seeing what life here was like before applying.
What papers did you study this year?
In first and second year there is little choice, so I attended all lectures and had supervisions on all of the courses, which cover a broad range of topics.
Here’s an example I like to give to people asking about the course: Consider using your computer to buy a book off Amazon. The computer has to be designed and built, the operating system on your computer must run the browser you have opened and screen has to display this. Then you must be connected to Amazon through the internet, Amazon must keep databases of all their products, your card details must be securely transferred online to complete the purchase. Next Amazon must figure out an efficient way to ship your book and the millions of others ordered to the different destinations. Consider using Alexa instead. It must be able to interpret your speech and then feed to an AI. All of this, and more, is covered in the course.
What was the most interesting thing that you worked on this year?
For the second year group project we worked with a company, Informetis, to build an app for measuring, visualizing and reducing energy consumption in the home. Seeing this come together and having a working app at the end was really satisfying. I also took part in a few 'hackathons' in Cambridge - whilst these weren’t part of the course, it was a great opportunity to build something and solve problems as a team outside of the academic environment.
What do you do when you’re not working?
This year, my three main extra curricular activities have been ultimate frisbee, my rock band, and committee for our May Ball. I normally play 'ultimate' about five times a week whether in the form of matches, training, or fitness sessions. My band normally has a big practice every few weeks in the Christ’s practice room which is a great change of scene. My rock band was formed out of Christ’s students. The gigs we had in May Week this year have been a huge highlight of university so far. But mostly just the friendships I have built have been incredible. Also, this year I was head of ticketing for Christ’s May Ball so quite a bit of time was spent working on this with the rest of the committee. There is also a fierce pool rivalry between myself and some friends so we’re often found in the JCR playing.
This year, like many of the second years, I lived in a College house on Jesus Lane. This is outside of the College walls but only a 2-minute walk away. I really liked having my own place with my friends, yet I was still able to have most of my meals and work in College.
The short vacations are mostly spent at home, hopefully with a week away somewhere and normally a couple of weekends at tournaments. I’ve spent the last few summer holiday split between interning, travelling, and seeing friends and family. This summer I have a 12-week internship at IMC in Amsterdam, but with plenty of time at the weekends to have friends to visit and to explore Amsterdam.
What was your timetable like this year?
Here’s an example of my typical weekday:
|07:00||Wake up, have a light breakfast, and head to a morning fitness session.|
|07:30||Sprints and throwing practice|
|08:30||Cycle to the department and have a bit more food.|
|09:00||Lectures. In first year I normally had 2 lectures every morning, 3 in second year.|
|12:00||Lectures finish. Cycle back to College and have lunch there or have it in the lab, depending what my afternoon plans are.|
|13:00||A couple afternoons a week might be spent in the lab for hardware or programming assignments. If not I’ll head back to the College library to work on my supervision work and go over lecture material. My supervisions will normally be in the afternoon. On average I have about 4 a week.|
|18:00||Dinner in College|
|18:45||If I’ve had a match, labs, supervisions, other afternoon commitments or simply have a reasonable work load currently, I will do a more work in the evening. If not I might have a band practice, formal, evening training or simply spend the evening relaxing with friends in College.|
The weekends are usually less structured as there are no lectures (I had one on Saturday morning in first year) and no supervisions. This can be a good time to get through larger bits of supervision work or coding assignments. Sometimes I'll have a tournament all weekend that takes me out of Cambridge.
How do you manage your workload?
I normally have a few pieces of supervision work and programming assignment that needs doing at any one time. As the supervision work is normally a sheet of questions, you quickly get a good feel for how long each one should take. Provided I can spend enough hours working, then just working through them in order of their deadlines is usually what works for me. I like to work in the College library to separate the space where I work from my room. Given it’s in College, it’s very easy to get to and means I’m already there if I need to refer to a textbook.
I keep myself pretty busy during term time so it is an intense eight weeks, but I like the balance I have. I play on the university Ultimate Frisbee team and in a band that performed at various May Balls this year. I was also on the committee for the Christ’s May Ball. These have kept me busy, but I’ve always found time to finish off my work and spend time with my friends. Keeping a social balance is easy when you live with all your friends.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
Next year I will be captaining the university ultimate frisbee team. I’m looking forward to building a strong squad to compete in the league, nationals and our Varsity match against Oxford. With no May Ball commitments, I’m also hoping to compete at College level in some other sports. With half the band away on their years abroad, we’ll be trying out some new styles and ideas with those of us who are left.
In terms of the papers I'll be studying, next year I will get a lot more choice. For my big unit of assessment options, I have chosen Natural Language Processing (how a computer can understand speech) and Computer Music. My individual project will likely be on something in the field of computer music. As for the remaining content, there is a large selection of courses available - I will likely start by attending a reasonable number and, as I figure out which ones I enjoy more, I will cut down my selection so that I have a good number for the exams at the end of the year.
Do you know what you want to do after Cambridge?
Well firstly I want to take the rest of the year off to travel. I’d like to take some time to go on another big hike like I did before university, along with a few other things, before I dive into the world of work. Then I’ll look to work somewhere where I'll be able to use the skills I’ve been learning at university to solve problems I find interesting. So far I’ve really enjoyed my work this summer, so if I continue to do so, I may well end up back in Amsterdam! I’ve met some great people at university with whom I’ve had some interesting ideas, so if the right idea comes at the right time we may well start our own enterprise!!
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