Rory is from Cricklade in Wiltshire and did A levels in Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Physics, plus an Extended Project Qualification on HIV vaccines. He wrote this account after completing second year of the Medicine course here at Christ's College, Cambridge.
What attracted you to Medicine?
I hadn’t always wanted to study medicine – when I was younger I first wanted to be a palaeontologist, then a writer, and later on, an astronomer! However, at GCSE and then in 6th form I became pretty sure that I preferred the sciences, and within that, Biology. I eventually made up my mind in 6th form that I would apply for Medicine because it fit well with my natural empathy and desire to work with others. Experiences in clinical environments cemented this belief for me. If you are unsure whether you want to study Medicine or Biology, I would strongly recommend trying out volunteering or something similar at a local hospital/care home. If do feel like you get something from it, then it both helps you to make a decision and looks good on your application – but do not be scared about choosing Biology instead as it opens up many other doors for you (including Medicine itself if you eventually change your mind!)
And why Cambridge?
Medicine at Cambridge is quite a different kettle of fish to Medicine at other universities. Perhaps the most significant difference is the mandatory “intercalation” which adds an extra year to the course in exchange for a BA in Natural Sciences. This goes hand-in-hand with the focus on “science” in the first 3 years of the course. While other universities might be covering the presentation, diagnosis, pathology and treatment of individual diseases, perhaps in a practical context, we study less obviously clinical topics e.g. from first year “How do proteins get from the ribosome to their varied destinations within the cell?”. As a committed scientist myself, while it is exciting to learn in detail about such topics, the course is very information-heavy with little time for reading around the subject or proper practicals. That’s not to say there isn’t the opportunity to do genuine science, but for me at least it was lost a bit amongst the sea of facts in the first two years. Third year is rather different, with your own extended research project and fewer lectures with an emphasis on going away and reading for yourself. Years 4-6 are completely different, training the clinical skills necessary to succeed as a doctor. Note that there is a small amount of patient contact in years 1-3, but this is a far cry from the level seen at other universities.
Other differences include the weekly essays (and exams in which most of the BA degree classification marks come through timed essays), which help to give a more nuanced understanding of the information being delivered in lectures. 1st-year full body dissection is undeniably brilliant for developing a more complete understanding of anatomy. Although it is a little chilling at first, you soon get used to it! Most people enjoy dissection – the people that do not, dislike it because it is quite self-directed and to an extent requires you to memorise the anatomy before each session - in each 2hr practical, 15 minutes consists of being quizzed by the demonstrators and the rest is your group with your cadaver just dissecting and chatting about whatever you want.
"Medicine at Cambridge is quite a different kettle of fish to Medicine at other universities."
Why did you apply to Christ’s?
Unlike many, I didn’t have a particularly good reason for choosing Christ’s! I attended the University-wide open day in the summer and visited many different Colleges, trying to get a feel for each one. I knew that I wanted a central College but otherwise I wasn’t fussed, so eventually I put down Christ’s. Thankfully my serendipitous choice was a brilliant one – Christ’s is perhaps the most centrally located with regards to the Medicine timetable (although one could make arguments for Downing and Pembroke, especially in 2nd year), as well as being less than 5 minutes from Sainsbury’s. Even better, I quickly realised that Christ’s has an excellent reputation for Medicine in terms of exam results – certainly when I arrived it was the best College in this regard. Presumably this is due to the fantastic quality of the supervisors employed by the College, who are not only knowledgeable but know exactly how to get you thinking. Added to all this, the people at Christ’s, staff and students alike, are all simply wonderful people. The relatively small size of the College meant it was no problem getting to know everyone quickly – although I can see how some might prefer the anonymity of a larger College!
How did you find the application process?
The applications process was nerve-wracking but the plethora of information available on the university website, College website and elsewhere on the internet was fantastic in laying out for me what I should expect from the process and how best to prepare. The admissions team at Christ’s are also brilliant and prompt with any email queries!
For Medicine, the timeline can be pretty daunting, with the UCAS application, BMAT and interview to put together for Cambridge, not mentioning the UKCAT and any interviews you may have at other med schools. As with many things, the stress can be staved off by staying aware of and one step ahead of the deadlines! For me this meant building my application from around a year out from the UCAS deadline with work experience and extra-curriculars, and then focussing in on the BMAT and personal statement in the summer. For me the BMAT was the strongest part of my application – I prepared thoroughly by doing the past papers on the test website and brushing up on some of the syllabus material from GCSE.
Although the interview is a source of dread for many students, it is never as bad as you think it will be, and this was particularly the case for me. There were two interviews – one purely academic and one half academic/half personal. Other than making sure you are familiar with some important concepts from A level, there is little that can prepare you for the torrent of academic questions – approach it with some spirit and apply your scientific knowledge broadly, and don’t be afraid to voice an answer even if you’re not sure whether it is right! The academics are looking for your enthusiasm and to assess how you tackle new questions and concepts. Looking back now, the interview turned out to be very similar to supervisions.
"Looking back now, the interview turned out to be very similar to supervisions."
Are there any particular books or other resources that you’d recommend for prospective students for your course?
I read quite a lot of books, and read more than most students. If you do read, do it for its own sake and not just because you want it to look good on your application. For me, my reading gave me a bigger picture of the life sciences and what being a doctor and being a scientist is all about. Some scientific titles which I read before I applied and which I found interesting are as follows (go look them up!)
- Dawkins – Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (if you get only one from this list get this!)
- Dawkins – Selfish Gene, Blind Watchmaker etc. (on natural selection, important since Christ’s is Darwin’s College ?)
- Goldacre – Bad Science (and Bad Pharma?)
- Mukherjee – The Emperor of all Maladies (on cancer)
- Sacks – anything! E.g. The man who mistook his wife for a hat (neurology)
- Lane – Life Itself (brilliant book on the origins of life, incorporating elements of biological physics/thermodynamics, biochemistry and cell biology)
- Nuland – How we die (piece on the medical profession’s role in death)
- Ashcroft – Life at the Extremes (super-cool book on human survival at altitude, depth, heat etc. providing a great intro to physiology)
- Kandel – In search of memory (autobiography-cum-intro to neuroscience from the Nobel Laureate)
- New Scientist – not the magazine necessarily but the book-formatted collections of unusual questions and answers e.g. Why don’t penguin’s feet freeze?
- Bryson – A short history of nearly everything (natural history, fantastic book)
Personally, I read nothing technical relevant to the first year course before I started, but if you have been successful with an application and are looking to read before you start, I would recommend the short book A thinking approach to physiology. However, I strongly caution against buying any textbook(s) as the College Library has multiple copies of all the necessary texts which you can take on loan essentially indefinitely.
"If you do read, do it for its own sake and not just because you want it to look good on your application. For me, my reading gave me a bigger picture of the life sciences and what being a doctor and being a scientist is all about."
What papers did you study for second year Medicine?
There were no options in second year – everyone took the same lecture courses and attended the same practical classes. We had 5 papers – 4 in Easter Term (May/June) and 1 in Lent Term (March). These were Neurobiology of Human Behaviour (NHB), Mechanisms of Drug Action (MoDA), Biology of Disease (BoD), Human Reproduction (HR) and Head/Neck Anatomy (HNA), continuing 1st year’s Anatomy course. There is fairly little to say about these papers since you cannot choose them. The university website provides a more complete description than I can! Between them and the first year papers the vast bulk of knowledge underlying Medicine is covered, and then some. The College will assign you at least one different supervisor for each paper, who is a specialist in that area. My favourite paper this year was Neurobiology of Human Behaviour (NHB), which covered a lot of basic ground in neuroscience and psychology. As a result, I’ve picked Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour (PNB) to study in 3rd year, with papers ranging from cellular neuroscience all the way up to the psychology of memory! The broad range of topics you cover in 1st and 2nd years is more than sufficient to inform a choice of subject and project for 3rd year. NB. Technically, you can pick any subject for 3rd year, not just from the sciences but also from the arts.
What was your timetable like this year?
Our timetable was pretty hectic this year, especially in Lent term as we picked up a 5th subject (Human Reproduction). The lectures and practicals together averaged maybe 20 hours a week not including the associated reading (about another 10 hours, optional). This would be more or less equally split between lectures and practicals e.g. 12x1h lectures, 4x2h practicals. Note that only practicals are mandatory attendance, and that it is very possible to use only the lecture notes uploaded online for your learning, as many students do. This year our practical classes varied from testing stretch reflexes through determining our blood groups, to examining the effects of drugs on a still-beating heart preparation.
On top of that, each paper would have at least one supervision a week, with the average week containing 5 supervisions each of an hours’ length (although to get the most out of these it’s necessary to prepare for an hour or so before each one). However, because of the ad hoc organisation of supervisions, sometimes supervisors would cancel one week and double up on another week, which once lead to us having 7 supervisions in one week! Thankfully, our College does not seem to set as much “homework” as other Colleges. Most weeks we’d have perhaps 1-2 essays to write (each taking maybe 3-4 hours including reading), and never any question sheets. In Biology of Disease supervisions the usual essay-setting format was mixed up a little with us making presentations and devising multiple choice quizzes. This schedule was more relaxed than first year, which had fewer supervisions but with more essays. However, overall, second year was tougher academically than first year due to the greater volume of information delivered.
"Overall, second year was tougher academically than first year due to the greater volume of information delivered."
What was the most interesting / enjoyable thing that you worked on this year?
As I have said above, Neurobiology of Human Behaviour (NHB) was my favourite module this year. Within that, I tremendously enjoyed scratching the surface of brain science and psychology, topics which I had not encountered before but which I found myself more than willing to write about at length and discuss in supervisions. It was great to be able to write and argue in a more artsy sort of way rather than simply describing processes/drugs/diseases/experiments as in essays in other papers.
How do you manage your workload?
I always print off my course timetables at a week to a page, pin them up and then just annotate the week’s work and activities when I get out of bed on a Saturday morning. I always find I have just about enough time to do everything I want to do, but it requires being organised and making sure you have a bit of spare/flexible time each week for unforeseen events!
Normally I write my essays and play a couple of sports fixtures at the weekend, and use the weekdays to attend and learn the lectures, as well as prepare for the supervisions. Overall, I’d say I maintain a reasonable work/life balance – even in exam term, I found the time to go running and play touch rugby every week!
Unlike some, I tend to shun the various libraries in Cambridge in favour of working in my room, having never done any work in the library in the two years that I have been here. Other people prefer to have a separate environment to work in – whatever works best for you! Personally, I love my room because it has a cosy atmosphere and I have a nice sound system set up, plus I have access to the whole kitchen cupboard. ?
What have you most enjoyed so far about your time at Christ’s?
Top of the list has to be meeting the incredible people here, whether that be the other medics, friends, neighbours, other years, staff, or even (!) people from other Colleges. There are so many interesting and fun students here and you are bound to leave with life-long friends. In brief, other highlights would be the College sports scene and College social events (dinners, bops).
This year I lived on Jesus Lane, a street upon which the College owns around 10 properties all next to each other around 2 minutes outside of the College grounds. 2nd years have the option of taking up residence in these houses before moving back into College for 3rd year. I would strongly recommend Jesus Lane because of the great social atmosphere. It also manages to give you a degree of independence without being overly far away from things. You have the option to pick rooms next to friends, so you can fill a house with people you most enjoy spending time with!
In terms of financial support, for 2nd year I received a small bursary from Tancred’s Foundation (available to medics and theologians). Pastorally, I have experience of how helpful College tutors can be for students who are struggling, although I have never had need to call upon their extensive support network myself. College has great resources, but it is up to the student to take the initiative!
What do you do when you’re not working?
I love playing sport, and happily the College is full of like-minded people, contributing to an extensive sports scene! My main sport is probably rugby, but this past year in particular I’ve started playing a lot of mixed netball, as well as some football, rounders and athletics. I’d played badminton for 7 years before coming to Cambridge and sometimes still go to College badminton matches and practice sessions. College sport caters to all abilities – it’s cliché, but if you’ve never tried it before the standard really is such that this is the perfect time to start, while veterans can enjoy 1st team College sport or compete at university level. I also run most days a week. There are some particularly lovely routes north up the Cam and south towards Grantchester that have you running through open meadows by the time you’re 10 minutes out of College.
When I’m not working or playing sport, I can often be found cooking (I have something of a misplaced sense of pride in my culinary skills), watching Netflix/YouTube, playing chess online or against housemates, playing on my Switch, doing chores, and more rarely reading – when you’ve been staring at your notes for hours sometimes the last thing you want to do is dive into a book! Socially speaking, I enjoy lunches in Upper Hall with some of the other medics, and whoever else happens to be there. I sometimes fill in on a pub quiz team, and otherwise pay frequent visits to King’s Street pubs and try to go clubbing once a week depending on work. Sports socials, Medsoc socials and events (both College and Uni), formals and College social events all also feature on my calendar. Special occasions included the College May Ball, held after exams in June, an extravaganza of food, drink and entertainments. Finally, my housemates this year were a constant source of amusement, questionable banter, and easy pickings to be roped into playing Mario Kart most evenings!
"I love playing sport, and happily the College is full of like-minded people, contributing to an extensive sports scene!"
How do you spend your holidays?
In the short vacation, I tend to stay at home and work, albeit at a more relaxed pace than when I’m in Cambridge. I will try to get away for a long weekend with friends from home, or visit friends at other unis. However, mostly I’ll be going over the term’s work, making notes and trying to digest everything! The Varsity ski trip in December is a great option for freshers, giving a much-needed escape at the end of what is sure to be a busy first term.
In the long vacation, I try to take more of a complete break from academic work. For example, this year I finished in late June and started work as a lifeguard for my local pool. I then had a few days out camping with friends to celebrate my birthday, before taking a 4-week visit back to Cambridge to work a research project on hallucinations in the BCNI. In September I went to the USA with my family, and now that I’m back home I’ll be working again before starting an intensive driving course and completing some Preparing for Patients coursework at a local osteopath and MS clinic.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
I’m definitely looking forward to 3rd year, but perhaps more so to Clinical School after that, when I can start to get much more practical experience.
The medics in 4-6th year live away from College in private accommodation elsewhere in Cambridge, but many still maintain an active role in College life, featuring not only in undergraduate sports and societies but also becoming a part of the MCR (graduate students) with the associated opportunities.
In third year you have a pick of any subject from the Part II Natural Sciences Tripos, or even an entirely different subject if you want. Within that, you do some lecture courses and then either a dissertation or research project. I’ve picked the later, and my project for next year is based on the question “Why do zebras have stripes?”, which promises to be entertaining. My papers look equally interesting – “Molecular and cellular neuroscience”, “Neural circuits”, “Reward, punishment and emotion”, and “Memory”. I have not made up my mind about these papers but the beauty of my PNB course is that I can easily drop and pick up different papers as I go through the year! 3rd year is apparently slightly more relaxed than the first 2 years in terms of workload, so I hope to have the time to do more, sports- and social-wise.
Do you know what you want to do after Cambridge?
You might think Medicine is a pretty committal degree, but there are opportunities to deviate from the traditional path. A few students each year opt to do the MB/PhD program, taking in an extra 3 years (for a total of 9) in between years 4 and 5, being rewarded with a doctorate before even becoming a medical doctor! Perhaps more radically, it is perfectly possible to change your mind about Medicine after 3rd year yet still leave Cambridge with a degree, free to pursue other vocations like other Cambridge graduates. Personally, I think I will continue with the 6-year course like the majority of medical students. I have no clue what sort of doctor I want to become. There are loads of opportunities to get relevant experiences while at university – societies for specialisms, talks, courses etc. For myself, I’ve done a pretty bad job of trying out any of these, being too wrapped up in the rest of university life, but it’s definitely something I want to try in Clinical school, where I hope to get a better feel for what I want to do down the line. I’m not closing the door on doing more research either, but we’ll see how much I enjoy my 3rd year project first!
"You might think Medicine is a pretty committal degree, but there are opportunities to deviate from the traditional path."
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.