Ollie - Engineering
Ollie wrote this at the end of his second year studying Engineering here at Christ's College, Cambridge. He did his A-Levels in Sleaford, in the East Midlands of England.
What attracted you to Engineering?
Engineering is something that you don’t directly cover in school, and most university courses require you to specialise from the very beginning. The Cambridge course is great in that it is general so you cover bits of everything so that you know what you actually enjoy, and you specialise in the third year, rather than the second. The pace means that you don’t miss out on much and when you do get to specialise, the module options still allow you to combine a fairly reasonable amount.
Cambridge is also great in that there are so many industry contacts, with some big Engineering companies in and around the city, and a lot of businesses that come and visit the course, making it easy to see the sort of jobs you could be doing on graduation.
Unlike a lot of Engineering courses there is no option for a placement sandwich year or intercalated year, but you are expected to have six weeks’ worth of industrial experience by the end of the summer of your second year. The department has an incredible internship team that are able to check CV's and help with applications, and since its something everyone has to do, it is fairly easy to manage applications on top of your work, and also provides an opportunity to try careers in different Engineering areas.
The department does however suggest that if you would like a full year working, take a gap year to do the Year in Industry Scheme run by the Engineering Development Trust. I did this, and it was a great chance to take a break from education and gave me a running start for when I began the course.
"You cover bits of everything so that you know what you actually enjoy, and you specialise in the third year, rather than the second."
How did you choose Christ's?
I had looked at a small number of Colleges in person, and Christ’s still had a traditional feel (old architecture, gowns etc.) without being restrictive (such as compulsory meal spend per term or signing in and out guests who are visiting for short periods).
How did you find the application process?
Pretty straight forward, all the information was presented straight away on the how to apply page and in the current applicants section, and I deferred my entry for the Year in Industry Scheme without any problems.
What advice would you give sixth formers considering an application?
Christ’s is unique in that it is one of the only Colleges that will require you to sit STEP Mathematics Paper I for Engineering [See note for 2021 applicants]. The paper is daunting but puts you in a really good position once you start the course as they are effectively University-style questions using A-level content, and once you get used to the style (there's a free online STEP Support Programme) it can actually be more interesting than normal A-level past papers. Other Colleges have other admissions criteria, so I would recommend researching this, though they are generally minor details. The Engineering department also has a useful preparation website.
The main advice I have is to do your research on what is happening in the world right now, but don’t read everything – find what you are interested in, look it up and read about it. For example, I really like robotics so spoke a lot about bionics development in my application. Interviewers will be interested in your passion for the subject and your potential to grow. The Cambridge recommended reading list has a load of great books. I only read Seven Wonders of the Industrial world and half of To Engineer is Human, but it was good just to give me something I could potentially talk about in interviews, if it came up.
"STEP can actually be more interesting than normal A-level past papers."
What papers did you study this year?
The first two years are general, so for Engineers there are no options apart from Paper 8, and if you decide to do a language unit. The 2nd year papers are:
- Anything physical that moves – mechanisms, impacts, kinematics etc.
- Anything that is meant to stay still – forces in trusses, deflection of beams, failure mechanisms.
- Quite similar to the Natural Sciences Materials paper but taught separately – microstruture, heat treatments, polymers and material failure.
- Thermofluid Mechanics
- Thermodynamics (power generation, analysis of engines/turbines and heat transfer) and Fluid mechanics (flow profiles, visocity, network analysis).
- Electrical Engineering
- Circuit analysis, Power distribution and generation, Electromagnetism.
- Information Engineering
- Linear Systems and Control, Communication theory.
- Mathematical Methods
- Vector Calculus, Partial Differential Equations, Linear Algebra.
- Selected Topics
- This has 1 question on Economics (though from what I gather this is changing next year) and then you pick two other topics from broad areas of engineering – I chose Aerothermal Engineering (Analysis of engines and aircraft design) and Management (Taking technology to market).
What was your timetable like this year?
In a week, we had about four supervisions (supervisions cover example papers, which are a set of practice questions issued on each paper every two weeks), 10-12 lectures (one hour each and usually two a day), 1-3 labs (generally 1 or 2) at two hours each. Pretty much all labs and lectures are finished by 13:00 for first and second year. There is also additional coursework generally around Python-based computing exercises.
First year has 4 three-hour papers, whereas second year has 8 two-hour papers, so there is a small increase in workload, but still roughly the same amount of contact time. However, there are no labs in Easter term of second year (unlike in first year), which helps a lot.
What was the most interesting thing that you worked on this year?
The main project of second year is the integrated design project (IDP) which takes up all your lab time for half a term (six hours a week, plus some additional work in your own time). For the project you have to design and build an autonomous robot in teams of six that follows lines on a track and does an activity (mine was to pick cauliflower and cabbages over a certain size and deliver them). It is tough as it does take up a lot of time, but it's also incredibly rewarding as you build the robot from scratch, writing the software, designing the mechanisms and designing the electronics.
"You build the robot from scratch, writing the software, designing the mechanisms and designing the electronics."
How do you manage your workload?
I, personally, like to work into the evenings, which means I have a lot of free time during the day that I can spend doing theatre and student union work. When I don’t have much extra-curricular stuff to do though, it is often very straightforward to catch up on work, as most days your afternoons are completely free bar supervisions.
Depending on the work, I generally work best in the library, so if I have a lot I need to get done, I'll go there as I tend to get less distracted. The Department library also has some really nice work spaces. However, when writing lab reports and things I tend to work in my room so that I don’t need to take all my folders and notes everywhere.
What have you most enjoyed so far about your time at Christ’s?
Getting involved in College theatre as well as the wider university is how I have spent most of my time. There is always so much to be getting involved with and try out, and I've met so many people across the uni through my activities. Whenever I'm not working, I'm either doing theatre, mixed Lacrosse or JCR/Cambridge SU (the students union at College and university level) work.
I am the Vice-President of the JCR. The JCR is effectively the undergraduates students union at Christs so we help deal with any welfare issues you may have, organise events such as BBQs and bops, sit on Cambridge Students' Union council to represent the voice of Christ’s students within the wider university, as well as represent the undergraduate body at a College level to deal things students may want changing. Personally as VP, I deal with a lot of the logistics of the JCR so I organise all the elections and meetings as well as acts as the main representative on Cambridge Students' Union council while supporting the president with College level issues. Its a really great role as you get the inside track on everything that’s going on in College while being able to affect change and help make College a better more inclusive place.
I have been fortunate enough to get money towards travel for the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club show that I am in at the Edinburgh fringe, I have also been able to get reduced rent from College to pay for my time rehearsing in Cambridge.
"There is always so much to be getting involved with and try out, and I've met so many people across the uni through my activities."
Where have you lived this year?
In Jesus Lane. It's nice to be away from College, and being Category C means that we don’t need to move our stuff out over holidays, though I wish I had researched my second year room a bit better as there were other Jesus Lane rooms that I'd have preferred for similar prices.
How do you spend your holidays?
Usually spend short vacations recharging – Last Christmas I got to go on the European Theatre Group tour, but generally around Easter I spend a lot of my time revising. In first year I worked over the summer, whereas this summer I am doing a lot of theatre stuff in Cambridge and Edinburgh as I have worked for the last three summers so am having a break!
"In first year I worked over the summer, whereas this summer I am doing a lot of theatre stuff in Cambridge and Edinburgh as I have worked for the last three summers so am having a break!"
What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
Being back in college for third year, and being able to have a choice on my modules next year! I have chosen to take:
- Radio Frequency Electronics
- Integrated Digital Electronics
- Modelling Risk
- Systems and Control
- Signals and Systems
- Statistical Signal Processing
- Mathematical Methods
The name of the specialism I have chosen is Instrumentation and Control, which is a fairly broad specialism that covers electronics, information and a small amount of mechanics. Also as a part of our course we have to take two management modules over third and fourth year. I am interested in the instrumentation specialism after doing the electronics on the project described above as you can tinker and play around with components to create devices.
Do you know what you want to do after Cambridge?
My main career path at the moment is to go into Patent Law, as it still has a broad technical requirement without the obligation of going into management after ten years. It is also quite varied and cases generally only last for a month or so at a time, rather than a couple years as is the case in more technical Engineering jobs.
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.