Dylan is from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria (in the North West of England), and wrote this at the end of his second year studying Computer Science here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, he did A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, and Computer Science, as well as AS-level Physics.
Why did you choose Computer Science at Cambridge?
I’ve always been interested in Maths, and Computer Science is quite a mathematical course. When I was applying to university I didn’t want to do just Maths, because I wanted more practical application. Computer Science at Cambridge allows a bit of both - a theoretical course, with a view to being practical. They teach basic programming concepts quite generally, which can then be applied practically later on. Some of the material might not seem immediately useful, but a lot of it can be developed in quite useful ways as you go on. As we learn the theory behind programming, we're not just limited to one programming language that could quickly become obselete.
At other universities there seems to be more of an emphasis on programming exercises. At Cambridge, however, you do a lot of courses about maths, logics, networks, compilors, etc - Computer Science rather than just computers. If you want just to be focusing on software development and programming, this probably isn’t the course for you.
What was your admissions experience like?
The early UCAS deadline (usually mid-October of Year 13) nearly caught me out – I only decided to apply to Cambridge two weeks before it, so I wrote my personal statement quite quickly. The additional questionnaire(s) are something I don’t think you really have to worry about. As long as you fill out the questions as much as you can and answer them truthfully, it really isn’t that much of a big thing. If you have something to write then write it, if not then don’t - I think most people forget they even did one!
I got my offer through the pool after applying to Queens' College. I did my interview and admissions assessment at Queens', but the admissions process is exactly the same as it would have been at Christ’s. I didn’t actually visit Christ’s until the day I moved in, as it’s quite far away, but it’s been brilliant so far. When my bike was stolen in my first year, the College gave me some money towards the cost of a new one!
Overall, my admissions experience was very similar to what I imagine it must be like for people who aren’t pooled, except for not knowing what Christ’s was going to be like before I got there. It’s just like being at any other College – when you’re new there, all the other Freshers are too, so it doesn’t really matter.
"The early UCAS deadline (usually 15 October of Year 13) nearly caught me out – I only decided to apply to Cambridge two weeks before it."
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I think that the collegiate system is quite good! It allows you to have a small group of people that you get to know really well, especially in your year, which might be harder otherwise. If you went to a non-collegiate university, you might only get to know people in your accomodation or on your course, whereas with Colleges you can get to know people outside of that. I haven’t really had much experience with this, but from what it seems there’s a lot of support available. On the part of the College there’s the tutorial system, which means you have someone to go to in your Tutor, and your Director of Studies, who provides academic support. The JCR does a lot of things to do with student welfare as well. It’s not something that’s ever really been an issue for me, so I haven’t really needed to rely on those things, but they’re available if you need them.
The collegiate system also means that we can have College societies as well as university-wide ones, so that more people can get involved in things like theatre or sport. There’s usually less time-commitment and intensity at College level. I’ve got quite a few friends outside of College who I met while doing theatre, so I spend a couple of hours a week at other Colleges with them. In academic terms, you end up going to loads of other Colleges where your supervisors live for supervisions.
Was the interview what you expected it to be?
The interview was kind of what I had expected. Some questions were mathematical, others were more Computer Science and logic-based. I always got told that you’d come out of the interview feeling that it went awfully – that happened with one, but I thought the other one went really well, which worried me more!
I wanted to be well prepared for a lot of problem-solving maths ahead of the interviews. There are examples of more mathematical Computer Science and Physics questions online and in A-Level textbooks, and there are a couple of resources that I used quite a lot:
British Mathematical Olympiad - I found the the higher-level questions particularly helpful.
MAT, the Oxford Maths admissions assessment - also has useful practice questions online.
I also found that doing a practice interview with someone at your school or college is quite helpful, just so you get an idea of what it’s like. It doesn’t have to be as formal as the actual interview! Just sitting down and working through a problem, and getting your thoughts out there as you’re working through something, can be really useful though. My advice would be, practice going through everything you’re doing out loud – don’t assume the interviewers will just understand what you’re doing.
"Practice going through everything you’re doing out loud – don’t assume the interviewers will just understand what you’re doing."
Before you came to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to?
I was looking forward to the course, and learning lots of new stuff. I was also excited to be in a new place, have some more freedom than at school, and meet some new people - although making friends was also the thing I was most worried about. Pretty much everyone makes friends really quickly, but before you get here you hope that you’re going to end up in a nice group of people.
The course isn’t something that I was really worried about. The workload is going to be high, but it’s the same for everyone. People tend to just get on with it, and as long as you’re getting on with it you’re going to be fine. Coming to Cambridge, you expect everyone else to be really smart. There are a lot of smart people here, and that can be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get used to that new dynamic it’s fine.
I found it quite easy to settle in. For the first couple of days I struggled a bit, because I didn’t meet the people I’m now friends with until later in the week. Meeting those people, along with things like the 'college family' system, really helped – I met some of my closest friends through this. Essentially, when you come to Cambridge, you get given two 'college parents', second-year mentors who look after you and a couple of other freshers, your 'college siblings'. At some point in first year, you’ll get 'college married' to a friend, and in second year you’ll have 'college children' of your own.
What are your favourite memories of Freshers’ week?
Matriculation Dinner was really fun – it’s a free three course dinner, and for me at least it was the first time I’d done anything like that. It was really fancy, in the College’s Formal Hall, and I also got to talk to loads of new people. I also liked Family Dinner, where you dress up and go out to dinner more informally with your 'college family'. The first bop (a College-wide fancy dress party) was really fun, because it was like going back to school and having a school disco. I’ve got great memories of going to the bop in Freshers’ Week with the same people that I lived with last year!
I was surprised at how quickly I made friends, and how quickly I became very close friends with those people. By the end of the first term, I was really good friends with people I’d met only a couple of months before, and who I was going to be friends with for a lot longer.
"I was surprised at how quickly I made friends, and how quickly I became very close friends with those people."
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions?
There’s not much to say about lectures - you go, you sit and listen, and you make notes. They're at the West Cambridge site, which is a 45-minute walk away from college along the river (most people cycle, but I prefer to walk). Handling the amount of supervision work you’re given is a bit more challenging. The workload is also quite surprising – it really is quite a lot of work initially, although you get used to it. Supervisions are also a definite step up from classroom learning. Most of my supervisions are two-on-one: there’s me, another student, and an academic, so it’s a different style of teaching where you have to be a bit more active. Having someone there talking about what you did wrong, having them critique your work that closely, can be kind of mentally draining at first. Again, it’s something that you get used to.
How is your teaching structured?
The amount of supervisions I have varies throughout the term. It averages out about 4 per week, but some weeks you might have none. I think the most I’ve had is 7 – that was a really stressful week! Computer Science lectures aren’t mandatory, but they’re very useful so most people attend them. In first year, there are eleven lectures a week, two each day of the working week and then one on Saturday. In second year, there are 15 lectures a week. In third year, it’s up to you based on how many and which courses you take. We have some really good lecturers, who make what we're learning interesting and accessible. And we have some good supervisors. I think the best supervisions are the ones where you come out understanding more than when you went in - when something clicks for you, and you’re like ‘Oh, I get it now.’
We also have practical classes, with a supervisor there to help you as you do the work. We also have sessions where we go and get our code marked, called ‘ticks’. They’re generally short, five-minute sessions, where you submit your code beforehand. It gets checked automatically first, but then it gets checked by one of your supervisors.
"I think the best supervisions are the ones where you come out understanding more than when you went in - when something clicks for you, and you’re like ‘Oh, I get it now.’"
How do you manage your workload?
I’m not very good at managing my workload sometimes, but it is entirely possible to manage your workload well. Lectures happen in the morning, so a lot of people stay in the Computer Science department after lectures and do supervision work. I and some of the people in my year will stay and work on supervision work together like this. I think it’s important to do the work when you get it, not leaving it until the last minute.
There’s a sliding scale when it comes to balancing social and academic commitments. If you want to be really academic, you will need good study skills and will have to manage your time well. I know some people who really want to do well on their course and work all year round. However, even they still have time to socialise with their friends. Personally, I still spend a lot of time working on academic things during term time, but I try to leave a good amount of time for social commitments. I do a lot of theatre, and am also involved in music at College level.
What have you enjoyed most and least about life at Cambridge this year?
I least enjoyed the stress of exam term. In Computer Science we still have content taught for the first four weeks of exam term, and our exams are in week six, so you only have a week of pure revision. People usually revise in the holidays beforehand.
The thing I enjoyed most was my accommodation! In second year, about half of the students move out of accommodation within College and into houses that College owns on Jesus Lane (just behind Christ's). I lived there this year, and it was really nice to live with my friends. We became a lot closer, made loads of great memories, and even went on holiday to Prague at the beginning of the holidays between Lent and Easter term.
Are you involved with any student societies in Cambridge?
I do a lot of theatre, mostly lighting design. I mostly do this at the ADC, which is the big student theatre in Cambridge. I also get involved at College level – I was the President of CADS (Christ’s Amateur Dramatics Society) this year, and I was also in CCMS (Christ’s College Music Society) as a member of the committee. CCMS has ensemble rehearsals every week - I’m in Jazz and it’s not very intense at all, we just go and play around.
I got involved in theatre in two different ways. My 'college dad', Ollie, was President of CADS in my first year, and he really encouraged me and my friends to get involved. CADS have a pantomine in the first term, which they encourage freshers to audition for, so you can get involved with that early on. As the year went on, I decided to apply to be President. In terms of theatre more generally, the ADC have days in Freshers' Week where you can go and look round their theatre and facilities. I also saw a show in the first week at the Corpus Playroom that Ollie directed called My Eyes Went Dark. There are also Freshers’ Plays at university level organised by CUADC (Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club), which I got involved with as Chief Electrician.
In Cambridge, there are loads of shows on every week. The two main venues, ADC and Corpus Playroom, have a main show and a late show running each week, so that’s four shows a night. I know people who do many shows every term, but if you want you can just get involved in one or two. There are bigger and smaller shows, so you have options as to the level of commitment. CADS funds some of these, as well as putting on a show in College each term – the Pantomime in Michaelmas, the Freshers show in Lent, and the May Week Shakespeare in Easter. There’s always something to get involved in! If you don’t want to act, then you can do lighting design, stage manage, or direct - I think all CADS shows this year were directed by freshers.
How do you spend the holidays?
I go home every holiday. I don’t go home in term time, although I know some people who live closer to College do. There are different categories of rooms in Christ’s – A, B, and C. In Category A rooms, you have to take all of your stuff home with you at the end of each term. Category B rooms have lockable wardrobes that you can leave a limited amount of stuff in. Category C rooms mean you can leave all your belongings in there over the Christmas or Easter holidays. I always get a Category C room so I can leave my stuff in there and go home on the train, which makes the end of term a lot easier if you live far away.
I stayed in College during the summer vacation after my first year, as I was doing a research internship with the computer lab in Cambridge. There’s less going on, and all of the students are gone, but obviously all of the facilities in College (and the Porters!) are still there which is nice. A lot of students do stay over the summer, so there’s usually a Facebook group for people who are in Cambridge at that time.
"A lot of students do stay in College over the summer, so there’s usually a Facebook group for people who are in Cambridge at that time."
What are your plans for next year?
Graduating and getting into the world of work! I’m doing an internship this summer as a software developer at Capital One, and I really love it. I’m also looking forward to spending more time with my friends, as this is the last year we’ll all be together in Cambridge.
In terms of academics, there are two papers in Computer Science in the final year (50% of the assessed material). You have to sit both of them, but on each paper there’s fourteen questions and you only have to do five. Rather than deciding between papers, you just go into each exam and choose the questions you’ve revised for. Two units of coursework assessment, which you choose at the start of Easter term in your second year, make up the next 25%. I chose Natural Language Processing and Mobile Robot Systems, because I thought they sounded interesting and I like the more practical assessment style. The last 25% is a dissertation of 10,000 words. I don’t know what it’s going to be on yet, but you have to make some software first and then write about it. I think it’s going to be different to what I’m used to.
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