Belinda is from the Eastern District of Hong Kong, and has just completed her first year of Geography here at Christ's College, Cambridge. At school, she took the International Baccalaureate, studying Geography, Psychology, English Language and Literature at Higher Level, and Maths, Biology, and Chinese at Standard Level.
What attracted you to Geography at Cambridge?
I really like how the course starts off very broad, covering both elements of physical and human geography, before allowing you to increasingly specialise in the second and third years. When looking at the course before I applied, I was excited by the idea of the residential field trips in the second year. There are so many topics covered by the optional papers, and they looked super interesting!
Some universities make you choose from the beginning whether you want to study Human or Physical Geography, which was something that I didn’t want to do. I’m glad I didn’t because I realised there were some topics within Physical Geography that I really liked. Also, I like how you can retain the balance throughout all three years, but there is also the flexibility to fully specialise down either path if you wish. And, of course, there is the unique way of teaching - the small group sessions known as supervisions. These have been a real highlight of my time here so far. But that’s not all! I have found the course to be incredibly dynamic when it comes to the different ways we learn. I’ve really enjoyed my time in the labs analysing soil samples and looking down the microscopes, as well as in the computer lab learning about the GIS software. The variety of skills this course trains you to develop is definitely holistic!
How did you choose your college?
I had originally applied to St Catherine’s College, but in January I received an email telling me that I had been placed in the Winter Pool and that Christ’s College had picked me out from the pool. Then, about a week later, I got an email from the Christ’s admissions team with my offer letter and more information about being a Christ’s offer holder. As I was an international student who had not visited Cambridge before and had not even done my interview in Cambridge (I did it in Hong Kong), I did not have any pre-existing conceptions of what the Colleges were like. I was just as happy and excited with the offer as I would have been had I not been pooled. Even if you're pooled you'll still find aspects that you will really like about your College, and being pooled really doesn’t mean anything when it comes to academic ability.
I think the Christ's community of students and staff are a lovely bunch. I have found it easy to make friends with other students, both in my year and in other years. Having such a supportive network really makes all the difference, and my Tutor, Director of Studies, and the staff in the tutorial office at Christ's have really helped me a lot with managing the adjustment to university life during my first year. When I arrived, I found the College to be visually beautiful but also quite cosy and shielded away from the busy streets outside, which meant that it felt like my "home away from home" much sooner than I had expected. Another thing I really love about Christ's is the great-value food in our canteen, Upper Hall (unlimited sides!).
"Everyone will end up loving their College, and being pooled really doesn’t mean anything when it comes to academic ability."
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I really like the collegiate system, because it means I get to meet a huge variety of different people who all study different subjects. Living in such close proximity with fellow students is very enjoyable, and my College friends have offered me a huge amount of emotional support, particularly going into the stressful Easter exam term. There are also a lot of College-level societies that you can get involved in. Through this, I met loads of students across year-groups, who I have made loads of fantastic memories with. Older students at Christ’s have also been a useful source of information and guidance on my subject, and on other things such as accommodation and careers. Christ's has also generously awarded me a travel grant to visit Madrid as part of the Cambridge University Model United Nations delegation during the summer.
I don’t spend a lot of time in other Colleges for academic reasons during term as I am more than happy with studying in my room, the Christ’s library or the geography library. Occasionally I have ventured to libraries in my friends' College libraries, to check out a new study space. Socially, I spend a lot of time out of College because I have friends scattered across many Colleges, so I try to go visit them whenever possible. Formal dinners are also a good opportunity to visit other Colleges and sample their food. This photo was taken during Chinese New Year in February 2019. The Chinese Society booked out the Guildhall in Cambridge, and organised a lovely Chinese meal with cultural performances. As this was the first time in my life I had celebrated this big festival without my family back in Hong Kong, it was a very special night.
Society meetings and talks are often booked in larger rooms in other Colleges, so I try to go to as many of those as possible as well. That being said, I also try to stay in College at least three nights a week to spend some time with College friends.
How did you find the Cambridge application process?
I found the application process to be quite long, because of the various rounds of applications that had to take place - from the initial UCAS application to the extra forms, subject tests, and interviews. Particularly as I was doing this all in Hong Kong, I initially did not really know how to select a College. I also did not know a lot of people who were studying at Christ’s, or at Cambridge for that matter, which meant I had to do a lot more other secondary research to prepare for my application.
How did you prepare for the interview?
I prepared for my interview by developing my interest in topics I had written about in my personal statement, mostly by extending the scope of my reading outside of school.
The books I read included:
- Mathews, J. and Herbert, D. (2008) Geography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. This book gives a good overview of what the discipline is. It also helps you to understand how the topics studied in the two papers you will be examined on in first year are taught, and why they are studied in this way.
- William Terrance Dushenko, Ann Dale, Pamela J. Robinson (2012) Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space and Place. University of Toronto Press. We did a topic on the urban for Paper 1 which is on Human Geography, and this book was definitely relevant to that (but as the course content changes slightly every year I wouldn't be able to say this is key reading for the topic).
I also read some articles from National Geographic, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Geographical Association. It’s important to keep reading the news, such as The Economist and Time Magazine, as your interviewer(s) may ask about current affairs. For example, in my interview I was asked a question about the urban housing problem in cities.
Additionally, I had practice interviews with teachers and friends - the key thing is to rehearse articulating your thoughts in a clear and precise manner with confidence.
Is the course what you expected it to be when you applied?
In terms of the content of the course, it was quite similar to my expectations, and to the course overview set out by the prospectus. The workload was also what I expected when it came to weekly essays. I would say that it is slightly more than my workload at school for the IB - each essay is around 1500-2000 words, but the amount of reading that you need to do to really cover the question and understand it is more than I expected. I was nervous about completing an essay a week (or more in some weeks) with such long reading lists. However, with practice, I have found that there are certain techniques when it comes to breaking down a very long reading list which can help you write an essay more efficiently and to a higher quality. Having said this, the variety of topics you need to study at once, as well as the coursework assignments which are assessed, are quite similar to the IB.
I was not expecting the workload from the coursework assignments, which came from other projects in the computer or science labs. This was the most challenging part of the course, and one which I hadn’t really prepared for. I initially struggled trying to juggle my coursework with the tight essay turnarounds. However, talking to my fellow geographers at Christ’s about the coursework meant we could discuss our understanding of the requirements, share data, and help solve any technical problems when it came to things like Excel. It helps to have support from others in the same situation! Also, speaking to second and third years about coursework really helped, as they gave me useful advice about how to tackle it.
What has been your favourite topic from this year?
My favourite topic is Society, Environment and Sustainable Development from the Human Geography side of the course. This topic challenged my views on various discourses surrounding conservation, environmental protection, and climate change. In particular, it highlighted new ideas from radical thinkers about how we can solve the current environmental crisis, which I found fascinating. I also found that it integrated topics from Physical Geography about the fragility of the climate system and how its destablisation would affect people so it all linked really well with the rest of the course.
What advice would you give to prospective applicants?
- Read around the subject! Be engaged in news from around the world and try to look at things from different perspectives. Geography is a very topical subject, and one which tries to look at the world in a critical manner.
- Try to draw links between topics, themes, and current affairs in your interview.
- When writing your personal statement, try to show how you have gone above and beyond to investigate a topic in the subject you are interested in. Talking about fieldwork, and doing your own research during A-levels or IB, is helpful!
- Try to draw connections between areas in Human and Physical Geography in your personal statement and interview. They are often seen as separate entities, but in reality they are very much connected!
Before you came to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
I was really looking forward to meeting new friends, trying new things in societies, and attending lectures and supervisions by world-leading experts in topics, particularly in the Human Geography section. I was most worried about settling in the UK, as it was the first time I had ever lived away from home for such an extended period of time. Getting used to the culture, the weather, the new accommodation and environment was nerve-wracking. I was also quite nervous about whether I would be able to handle the demanding workload.
Did you find it easy to settle in at Christ's?
Yes, I did! My 'college parents' (second year mentors) were helpful sources of information and support, and my corridor friends and fellow freshers were so welcoming, friendly, and supportive as well. Cambridge students are no different to students from other universities - with a wide range of different interests, talents, and issues they care about. I had initially thought people would fit the typical stereotype of being super academic but I have been inspired by the various extracurricular initiatives that my peers have got involved in. I also maintained contact with my parents by Skyping them at least once a week, which helped to prevent me from feeling homesick.
"Cambridge students are no different to students from other universities - with a wide range of different interests, talents, and issues they care about."
How was your first week in Cambridge?
Freshers’ Week was very overwhelming, because of all the new people I met. At the same time I really enjoyed attending the Freshers' Fair and the induction talks for my faculty. It was a brand new environment to adjust to, and I found the prospect of getting stuck in academically and through extra-curriculars very exciting. My favourite memory is going on a punting trip organised by iCUSU where I met a lovely group of international freshers who I am still very good friends with. International Freshers' Week events, along with College Freshers' events where we played ice-breaking games, were also fun, and I had lovely conversations with the new friends I met.
I found lectures to be very interesting and exciting, exactly as I expected. Supervisions were more daunting, and I particularly remember how hard I found writing my first essay, especially the reading. I was nervous for the feedback but I received very positive encouragement from my Director of Studies, which I didn’t expect. This just goes to show how supportive the staff at Christ’s are!
How is your course taught?
I have one or two supervisions a week. There are one or two lectures almost every day, which offer a basic framework and introduction to the course. I attend them because I would find it harder to catch up without having had someone explain things clearly. Crucially, the bulk of the course content comes from the reading and not from the lectures! There is too much to learn about the topic to fit into an hour of lectures every day. Any extra reading that you do can be applied in your exams and essays in a critical and interesting way to further your argument, so any book you read related to the topic can contribute in one way or another. Additionally, we have lab sessions in the computer suite where we learn about Excel and other software. We also have one session a week in the science lab analysing raw data collected from field trips in a scientific way. (Image credit: Sir Cam)
I try to complete essays as soon as possible when they are assigned, and then do more follow-up reading from the lectures over the weekend - but is important to prioritise the coursework because it is assessed. In first year, you complete five pieces of coursework, which are assessed alongside your final exams. Four pieces are based on Physical Geography, and one on Human Geography. Two of the coursework pieces were based on our understanding of the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software. We had sessions in the computer suite, where we applied our knowledge of the software towards real datasets. We also had two coursework pieces involving the lab. One involved analysing tephra (a material produced by volcanic eruptions) under the microscope, and using our knowledge of Excel to present this analysis. We also had a one-day fieldtrip to The Brecks in Norfolk to collect data on vegetation diversity and soil samples, which we then analysed in the lab as part of our final report.
The biggest challenge for me was to juggle the completion of these pieces of coursework alongside the essays during the three terms, but I did enjoy how the coursework offered some dynamic variation away from just reading books for the essays. Despite all this, I have been able to manage a reasonable balance of work and free time, although this has been hard at times.
What are your favourite, and least favourite, things about Cambridge?
My favourite thing about Cambridge is the high concentration of such talented, driven, hard-working, and intelligent individuals. The friends I have met this year have really inspired me to speak up on issues in the world I care about, and do something to make a difference. As I do not drink much, my least favourite thing is that like at most universities, student social events here often involve alcohol. I don't think this has really changed the way I socialise. I still go to the bops (fancy-dress College parties), but just go sober, which is still fun with friends. I also enjoy all the little get-togethers in student rooms with friends - just chatting and chilling out - and inviting friends from other Colleges over. It's nice to know people from other Colleges, because I've ended up feeling at home in their Colleges too as I grew more familiar with how to navigate them. I think that every student finds their own way to fit in and have fun here and there's no pressure to drink when socialising if you don't want to.
"My favourite thing about Cambridge is the high concentration of such talented, driven, hard-working, and intelligent individuals."
What do you do in your free time?
This year, I've been involved with:
Christ’s College Badminton and Netball teams. College badminton is a weekly commitment. We train at the weekend at Kelsey Kerridge, which is just 10 minutes away from College. It’s a fantastic community of students, who make playing super enjoyable. We also attend competitions called Cuppers against other Colleges, which are really fun!
Social consulting with Bridges for Enterprise. Bridges for Enterprise has a more flexible and varied time frame for commitment. As it is a global organisation, I may be doing calls with students in Egypt and Singapore at different times during the day. However, we also organise socials to meet in Cambridge - it's a wonderful community of inspiring individuals.
The Environmental Consulting Society committee
Writing for the student newspaper Varsity as a features and interviews journalist.
I encourage you to try new societies that you may not have done before! I joined a programming session with Hackers at Cambridge despite never doing any coding before, and learnt a huge amount.
What are you looking forward to about next year?
Next year, I want to take the Development, Citizenship, and Quaternary Environments papers for part IB of Geography. Before making this decision, the Geography faculty held a session where the staff leading the different papers gave an introduction to what taking those papers wold involve. I also spoke to older students about their experiences of the papers. In the end, I chose to take two Human Geography papers and one Physical Geography paper. Whilst I am a Human geographer at heart, with a big interest in the two Human Geography papers I took, I really enjoyed the Quaternary topic this year and want to take it further next year.
I’ll be living just outside the main College site, in a college-owned student house on Jesus Lane next year. I'm looking forward to the tight-knit community in the house, as well as getting to know the other second years even better, because of the houses being in such close proximity to each other.
Most of all, I'm looking forward to getting involved in new leadership positions in societies I have been involved in this year, and trying new societies. I think second year is really the time to push out of your comfort zone further, and for me this is specifically in the area of environmental conservation and social entrepreneurship. I’m excited to start some new projects and initiatives from the supportive networks that I have built up from this first year!
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.