Mithylan wrote this at the end of his third year studying Medicine here at Christ's College, Cambridge. He is from Trafford, Greater Manchester, and did A-levels in Maths, Biology, Chemistry, plus an AS Level in Physics and an Extended Project Qualification.
What attracted you to your course?
I like the fact that, in the first 3 years, we get to focus on the science in depth. In particular, I think it was really interesting to explore research (and pick up research skills) through reading papers and trying out our own projects in 3rd year if we wanted to. As is always the case, not all the depth and not all the exploration of research was interesting, but I've enjoyed it overall, and gained ideas for which fields I might like to do research in in the future.
Is there anything different about the course here, compared to other universities?
Yep! The Medicine courses at Cambridge and Oxford are "traditional", in that they're split into 3 years of preclinical (science learning) and 3 years of clinical (which is where you apply that science to being a doctor). Some other universities’ medical courses are based on a traditional structure, but the vast majority integrate science-learning and clinical exposure.
Was there anything that you were nervous about in relation to the course?
The main things were how difficult the course would be, and the intensity of term times. What I've come to appreciate though is that, although there is a lot of content, (1) it’s really interesting (which I find helps me enjoy working on understanding it), (2) supervisors are there to help you through it (and are generally so understanding), and (3) that the long Christmas and Easter holidays give time for rest and catching up!
The second main thing I was nervous about was writing essays; thankfully, everyone was in the same boat, and supervisors were really helpful in advising us about how to write a good essay!
Why did you apply to Christ's?
Interestingly, before the open day, I never intended on applying here! I'd been through the Official Prospectus and the SU Alternative Prospectus and actually eliminated Christ's! But on the day, I took a tour, and everything seemed right; the accommodation was nice and reasonably priced (below average for Cambridge), the meals were reasonably priced (and come with unlimited sides!), the College was medium-sized (I wasn't a fan of a big college), most accommodation was onsite, and of course the college grounds are really pretty! I wouldn't say it stood out any more than any other colleges as such, just I was happy with it so went for it when I had to put down my choice.
Christ's has definitely lived up to my expectations. More than anything the community is brill - everyone is really down to earth and friendly (pretentiousness and meeting people more confident in themselves than me was something else I feared before coming to uni). This applies to students and staff alike!
What is your favourite place in college?
Despite going to an old college, I would actually say my favourite bit of college is the 'Typewriter' building, by the Yusuf Hamied Centre in New Court (probably the most hated bit of college for its appearance – just Google it – but I love it!) - it's where most of the social stuff happens, and on top is a terrace with picnic tables which was great to work from during exams!
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I really like the fact that I have this "home" separate from lectures and practicals; I think it nicely separates work from social life (although that's not to say I don't love university-wide social stuff – see below)! More than that though, the college system has allowed me to meet people studying different subjects - while medics are great, it's been really nice to form a household with people studying other subjects!
For someone struggling to choose one, I'd say don't panic - basically everyone ends up loving their college, whichever one they're at! Maybe just enquire/find out about what matters to you most (be that location, accommodation or financial support) and narrow down the list based on these factors. And do try visit or call the admissions team if you can!
People sometimes ask me about whether to consider the applications:offer ratio - I followed the university's advice not to in that I didn't select Christ's based on it having a low ratio; I did however make sure that I didn't apply to a college with a really high ratio, and these tended to be colleges which I didn't want to go to anyway.
How did you find the application process?
In a word, intense! I found it a lot to handle, and felt that everything had to be perfect. That said, going back I'd relax, and tell myself that the main thing was that I should try my best, take it one step at a time, and not think about the outcome too much!
The interview was pretty much what I expected it to be – it was very sciencey and was mainly about taking any A-level knowledge I had and applying it to more difficult problems. Some were shorter problems, others were longer.
How did you prepare for your interview?
I think the most useful prep was practice - I was very lucky in that some friends applied to the same course here so we'd meet up once a week to go through some questions, and again very fortunately school was able to provide me with some practice interviews. My biology teacher was particularly helpful – they gave me problems based on applying A-level knowledge to degree-level ideas, something which me and my friends obviously couldn't do for each other. With each other, me and my friends used free questions which we found online, as well as *"The Ultimate Oxbridge Interview Guide"*, a book with questions for all subjects, including some for Medicine and Biology.
After any practice, I would reflect on my performance and think of what tips I could give myself. Most importantly, I told myself to enjoy the interview as much as possible, and treat it as a two-way conversation with a teacher rather than some kind of interrogation, which I think really helped me on the day.
How did you prepare for your admissions assessment?
I had to take the BMAT: there are lots of free resources for BMAT preparation available here. For section 1, I categorised questions into their different question types. Then, I used the official past papers to recognise and practice the different question types, starting untimed and gradually reducing my time limit. After each practice, I’d reflect on what tips/strategies I could give myself to help me improve, and take this into account when doing future papers.
For section 2, I used online resources to brush up on my knowledge base, and then practiced questions. Similar to for section 1, I’d note down any useful tips or strategies for questions which involved a bit more problem-solving (e.g. genetic tree questions, my worst nightmare!).
For section 3, I used official BMAT resources to make notes on what makes a good essay, and then practiced and reflected after each practice on what I could be doing better (using the marking grid to judge what level I might be at). I asked a few teachers to read some of my essays.
What specific advice would you give to prospective applicants?
I think I would reiterate the importance of trying not to let the process overwhelm you! If you find things overwhelming, I’m sure that others applying will be feeling a similar way, even if they aren’t showing it. Take time to care for yourself and rest, and try to enjoy the different bits of the process as much as possible!
Before coming to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you nervous about?
I was both excited and worried about living independently, quite a few hours away from home (I.e. a distance which meant I couldn't easily go back freely). I'm not a fan of change, and so I was worried about how I'd settle and then go on to make new friends. It did take me some time to settle but I think it was made much quicker by the fact that lots the people around me were SO lovely and willing to include me, despite me being a little quieter.
Did you find it easy to find settle in?
In a word, no – as I said I'm not a fan of new places, and I spent lots of first year looking forward to the holidays. I was unsure about how to work, and wasn't that outgoing. However more recently I would say I've really found a home in Cambridge, and have flipped to really looking forward to term times! What helped me settle was my college friends who were in my household, who are some of the friendliest and loveliest people I know, as well as university-wide societies of which there are SO many in Cambridge. For example, being Tamil, university life quickly became very different to home life, and so the University Tamil Society (now pretty big here!) has been incredible in giving me a taste of home every couple of weeks!
One of the biggest things that surprised me about starting at Cambridge was how down to earth the people are; basically everyone I've met has been tolerant, non-judgemental, as is up to chat, which was really nice for someone initially more quiet like me!
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions?
Difficult at first, because I couldn't keep up with the content, so it was all quite intense. I quickly came to realise that falling behind in preclinical (the first two years of the course) is actually perfectly normal though, because everyone was in the same boat! The supervisors were all really helpful in guiding us through the content and giving us advice on how to work, and the students in upper years were also always ready to help! So, I found a new, more efficient way of working, with time. The main thing though is that most people were in the same boat, which made the experience much better!
In a lot of ways, lectures and supervisions were exactly what I expected! I expected the course to cover the science in depth and introduce us to research, and it definitely did, especially in 3rd year where I had to read lots of papers and have a go at analysing some data as part of my own project. I expected it to be tricky, and as I said it was, especially at first, but there has been a lot of support to help me manage this, and so I do think it's doable!
What is different about your work now, compared to school?
The main difference between what I've had to do for the last 3 years and what I had to do at A-level is that I'm much more independent now - I think this goes for all courses, and I expected this, but it took me some time to get used to it. I quickly realised that lectures are fast-paced and require you to review material independently, and the independence only grew into third year, when I realised that, with very few contact hours and the expectation of more extra reading, I had to make my own timetable. However, I've really enjoyed this independence overall - in third year it was nice to be able to read mainly about what I'm most interested in, and structure my work time around extracurricular activities. Again, this flexibility was very different from school!
What I’ll be doing as a clinical medic (which to be honest I’m still not fully sure about!) is a whole new world; learning on the wards will be very different to anything I’ve ever done before, but very fun I think, so I’m very excited for the next 3 years!
What are the best and hardest things about your course?
The best thing so far has been learning about some really interesting science in a lot of depth, and in third year getting close to the extent of what humans know about a chosen subject (which was mainly neuroscience-related stuff for me). In third year, lectures were basically overviews of findings from research, both classic and recent, and we'd then go and explore that research first hand for ourselves, which was very interesting.
I would say that the above was also the hardest thing, as there was a lot of content! But I think the fact that most of it was interesting (not all of course, but I think 100% of anything can never be interesting) motivated me to work through the content! And supervisors, lecturers and practical teachers have always been very supportive!
What does your timetable look like?
In first and second year, I had quite a lot of contact hours. In first year there were three main subjects, for which I had lectures and practicals. For each one I had one supervision per week. In second year, there were five main subjects, three throughout the year, one in Autumn ("Michaelmas") term only and one in Spring ("Lent") term only - again, I had one supervision per week for each subject was being taught. I had to write an essay for on average a third of supervisions, so normally had one or two 1000-1500 word essays per week in first and second year.
Every subject had some practicals associated with it; for some subjects, we had only one or two practicals per term, whereas for others (e.g. anatomy) we had one or more per week; on average, I'd say I've had one or two practicals per week throughout first and second year.
In first and second year, there were more contact hours, but less extra reading was expected (to be honest I had basically no time to do any); exams were much more focused on the lecture and practical content. It was in 3rd year that I had fewer contact hours and the expectation to do lots of extra reading, but I quite liked this as I had more control over what I learned (e.g. I could pick the most interesting papers) and because I could better fit my reading around my extracurricular activities, so it was a nice change!
In third year, I had control over when I wanted supervisions - I personally am not a major fan of having one unless I have questions to ask (which I find requires me to read papers and understand most of the content first – this isn't the case for everyone, just a personal take), so I actually ended up not having many supervisions last year! The contact hours were also much fewer as I had just 6 lectures per week, and some project meetings (although if my project was in person as they normally are in non-COVID years, I may have had more contact hours).
What do years three to six of your course involve?
In Year Three, medical students get basically free choice of what they study. Most take a science-related subject, but some do delve into a humanities subject; some even do Engineering! I personally wanted to explore a science subject in more depth – specifically, I chose mainly three neuroscience papers, a bioinformatics paper (which was really useful and very different from my neuroscience papers!), and a research project in metabolism. Note that a research project is not compulsory – some students take another paper instead! And also note that Year three research projects are not clinical, but based in a laboratory, or on data analysis.
Around 80% of the clinical course is compulsory, but there is a student-selected component (in which we get to do some more clinically-oriented research) in Year Four, a student-selected placement (which is more clinical) in Year Five, and an elective between Years Five and Six. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do for my Year Four SSC yet, but I’m pretty keen on some of the research projects available in the specialties of cardiology, intensive care, and geriatrics at the moment!
How do you manage your workload?
I should say I'm perhaps not the best example here, as this is something I’m working on to this day, and I’m not alone here! However, some advice which has come to mind over the last 3 years is to make time for the things you want to do – university life is so much about learning to live by yourself, and enjoy doing things that you’ve maybe not been able to do before! I think forcing myself to do this towards the end of 2nd year and 3rd year helped me maintain a good work-life balance in these years.
Where do you typically like to work?
Basically everywhere except my room, which is a big change from me in 1st year and 2nd year. I love working outside and the college gardens and terrace are perfect for that (though I've made it to some other colleges too!) I also love relaxed environments e.g. the area with comfy chairs on the lower level of the library.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about college?
My favourite thing is definitely the community - quite literally EVERYONE is lovely! I always feel that I can go and approach anyone and they'll chat to me, be they student or staff, which really helped with making friends on first year when I wasn't so confident. I can't say I have a least favourite thing to be honest!
What have you enjoyed most about life at Christ's this year?
Definitely the hive of post-COVID activity! Maybe I took it for granted at the start of first year, but I really realised in 3rd year what I’d been missing! I’m incredibly grateful to the College for allowing me and a friend to host a range of university-wide social events for Tamil Society, Kerala Society, and Raise/MWA (a charity) in Christ’s, bringing people together from across the university!
That said, I’ve equally loved chilling and chatting rubbish with my household on the floor of our corridor, which we basically colonised for the year!
What do you do when you're not working?
I've got involved in some uni-wide societies over the last couple of years, both through being on committee, and by attending events which they've put on. I've been on the committee of Raise/MWA, a charity which fundraises for the Against Malaria Foundation, for the last 2 years and this has definitely been a highlight of my Cambridge experience! It's been amazing to meet a community of like-minded people and make friends in this way.
Being Tamil, for a taste of home I've also been to a lot of events run by Tamil Society, Kerala Society, and Hindu Society, which are all brill! Across these societies there's normally at least a couple of events per week. Other than that, me and my household have spent a lot of time unwinding in our corridor or in other people's rooms which I also love.
What do you think of your accommodation?
I lived in Staircase 4 in 3rd year, a Jesus Lane house in 2nd year and in Q (which is behind Third Court) in first year. Of these, I'd say I actually liked Jesus Lane the most - there was something nice about being in a house away from the main college site a bit (although only 5 mins by foot!). Staircase 4 was definitely my nicest room - we were near the top of the ballot in 3rd year so were able to get the 5 mezzanine rooms at the top of the staircase, which were really cool! Lastly I quite liked Q - it was the oldest of the accommodation blocks I've lived in but still perfectly functional and quite cosy.
I've never had an ensuite (even though 40% of Christ's accommodation is ensuite), although I've never had any problems with sharing! I think I shared with around 6 people in first year, but the bathroom and kitchen were never messy!
So I've overall been really happy with college accommodation. It's been reasonably priced, and I'm happy with the balloting system because I managed to stick with friends in 2nd and 3rd years (and I think I'm right in saying that most people did).
There is some accommodation for clinical students, but basically all Christ's clinical medics move into private accommodation (which is similar in price to college graduate accommodation), which I'm really looking forward to - I think it'll be nice to be more independent and be back in a normal house.
How do you spend your holidays?
The short vacations normally involve a mix of rest and catching up - it's nice not to have any contact hours, and to be able to instead spend some time filling the (many!) gaps in my lecture notes! The long vacation has basically never involved any academic work for the course for me. So I'm mostly at home just relaxing! Last summer I decided to do a summer placement in a Cambridge lab for around 10 weeks to explore my interest in research, but even then with 3-4month long vacations there was plenty of time to rest!
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I'm really looking forward to finally meeting some patients! I feel like now I have some understanding of how key body systems work and how its organised, I'm ready to focus on learning about clinical conditions.
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.