Xin-Yi wrote this at the end of her first year studying Natural Sciences (Biological) here at Christ's College, Cambridge. Being an international student from Singapore, she took Singapore-Cambridge A-levels (different from UK A levels!) with her four H2 papers in: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Economics, plus H3 Biodiversity.
What attracted you to Natural Sciences?
I like the flexibility that this course offers, in that I don't have to choose what I want to specialise in until the third year. I wasn’t – and still am not – totally sure about which area of Biology I want to go into. Being able to choose a broad range of subjects without sacrificing depth was different to similar courses at other universities.
Would you recommend Christ's?
Yes, definitely! I actually applied to Queens’ College and was pooled to Christ’s. However, having never been to either Christ’s or Queens’ before I applied, I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what either College would be like, and therefore had no difficulty in “changing” to Christ’s. The location is fantastic, and if I were to apply again, I may well have chosen Christ’s. I didn’t consider it originally because I wanted to go to a College by the river, thinking that it would be more scenic. Now that I’m here, though, I think convenience is probably the more important factor to me.
I think the College system provides a more “homely” setting to the usual academic rigour of university – being part of a College gives me an additional sense of identity and belonging.
How did you find the application process?
It was okay – there's definitely more to the Cambridge application process than for local universities in Singapore, but less than for U.S. universities. The interview was quite surprising. As preparation I read around my subject. I expected the interview to test more of what I knew from school, but the questions I was asked were deliberately on specifics that I had never studied before. I really enjoyed how the interviewer guided me towards the correct answers through conversation though.
To prepare for the admissions assessment, I did the specimen paper online, but mostly focused on preparing for my Singapore A-levels as the admissions assessment was only a few days before the start of my exams (exams in Singapore are at a different time to in the UK). Finding the balance between spending time on my application and working for A-levels (especially for “contrasting” subjects different from my degree, i.e. the Singapore A level General Paper and Economics) was something that I had to navigate. I would advise other applicants from Singapore to give due attention to both and not focus too much on preparing for one.
"There's definitely more to the Cambridge application process than for local universities in Singapore, but less than for U.S. universities."
When you arrived at Christ's, did you find it easy to settle in?
It was reasonably easy to settle in; my "College parents" (students in the year above) helped to answer any queries I had before coming, and I also belong to CUMSA (an association for Singaporean and Malaysian students), so I got to know fellow Singaporeans before coming to Cambridge.
I personally didn’t participate in many Fresher’s week activities. I got to know my friends either before I came or during lectures and supervisions after term started, so my advice to offer-holders would be to not feel pressured to join in any optional activities for fear of being left out. My favourite memory is the 'matriculation' dinner – I really enjoyed the free meal in the College Hall to celebrate joining Christ's!
In academic terms, I was looking forward to the lectures and supervisions, though I was worried about the assessed practicals. I’m quite a clumsy person so at school I had never really liked practicals. I still can’t say that I’m a fan of the assessed practicals but they generally went well (towards the end).
Did you take a gap year?
No, technically I didn’t take a gap year, though because Singapore A-levels finish in Nov/Dec, I did have nine months before coming to Cambridge to do a few internships.
I did a project with a government agency researching and proposing policies to reduce waste for the first 2 months, and then a research project with a local university on the trade-off between food resources and shelter in decision making of crickets for another 3.5 months. I used the remaining time to prepare for moving overseas, re-familiarise myself with Singapore A-level content (seeing as by then it was nearly six months since I took my A-levels), read up a little on the subjects I intended to do and mostly just enjoy my holiday.
What has surprised you this year?
I don't know how it compares for British students, but coming from Singapore, I was surprised at just how much there is to remember here compared to school work. Sometimes during exam term I felt that familiar frustration that what would matter would be how well I knew my lecture notes rather than my understanding of the scientific concepts, however for supervision work during the year it's quite different, as a big change from school is the amount of your own effort needed. While in school there is a set syllabus which you are taught, here you are rewarded for making the effort to research and think beyond the lecture notes so the time taken to complete your supervision work can vary quite a bit depending on your interest in the topic and how much extra research you want to do.
So, in summary:
- Best things: Being rewarded for the effort you put into reading beyond the lecture notes
- Hardest things: The sheer amount of content we are expected to remember for the biological subjects
I was also surprised that my favourite topics this year were the molecular biology subjects in Biology of Cells. Interestingly, in secondary school I had disliked molecular biology and decided that I would never pursue them at an undergraduate level. But the way the course is structured here allowed me to see the links between the different topics (e.g. Genes in Action, Cell Signalling, Cell Proliferation etc.), which made everything clearer and more understandable.
"While in school there is a set syllabus which you are taught, here you are rewarded for making the effort to research and think beyond the lecture notes."
How do you manage your workload?
I typically work in my room and try to do supervision work for at least two subjects every day to get some variation – otherwise I find it pretty difficult working for the whole day on the same subject. This schedule means that I rarely (though not never) leave work to the last minute.
I have four supervisions, twelve lectures and at least two practicals per week. A typical first-year week for me looked like the table below:
- BoC = Biology of Cells
- MB-B = Mathematical Biology, Option B
- E&B = Evolution & Behaviour
- Chem = Chemistry
|9-10||Lecture: Chem||Lecture: MB-B||Lecture: Chem||Lecture: MB-B||Lecture: Chem||Lecture: MB-B|
|10-11||Lecture: BoC||Lecture: BoC||Lecture: BoC|
|11-12||Lecture: E&B||Lecture: E&B||Practical: BoC||Lecture: E&B|
|12-1||Practical: E&B||Supervision: BoC||(practical continued)|
|1-2||(practical continued)||(practical continued)|
|2-3||(practical continued)||Practical: MB-B||(practical continued)|
|3-4||Supervision: Chem||(practical continued)||(practical continued)||(practical continued)|
|4-5||(practical continued)||Supervision: MB-B||(practical continued)|
|5-6||Supervision: E&B||(practical continued)|
Overall, the biggest study skill I have learnt over the year is how to present relevant information in a readable and succinct way - this is useful both for keeping my work manageable during the year and because time pressure is very real in exams.
"The biggest study skill I have learnt over the year is how to present relevant information in a readable and succinct way."
What are the best and worst things about living in Christ's?
Favourite thing: the relatively high number of Singaporeans and Malaysians here compared with other Colleges, which makes Christ's feel somewhat like a second home because we can celebrate special events (e.g. Chinese New Year) together. My 'NatSci' friends have been great, as they provided a source of emotional support that was especially important for me during exam term. On an entirely different note I also like how there’s free flow of sides (vegetables / potatoes / chips) in the Upper Hall canteen!
Least favourite thing: Moving things in and out of the room before/after every vacation, especially for the summer! I lived in New Court Staircase 4 this year, which is a 'category A' room, and so had to be emptied over the short holidays (though storage is provided). I was expecting an old shoebox-sized room before I came but the room I got surpassed my expectations in all regards (Staircase 4 rooms are big)! Its location is very good and it's a short distance from the laundry room, shared bathroom and gyp (small kitchen facilities for making snacks). The room was also much more modern than I had thought and was more than big enough for all my needs. I'm also really looking forward to moving into my new room next year as I’ll be getting the room I wanted and staying amongst friends!
As an international student, how do you spend your holidays?
Last year, I flew home (almost immediately after lectures ended) for the short vacations. This was really important for me because it gave me something to look forward to during the very busy term! I study more productively at home so it was also a win-win situation for me academically. For the long vacation in the summer, I spent approximately three weeks travelling around Europe and the UK, before returning home to enjoy the rest of the summer.
Do you know which papers you’ll be taking next year?
I’m definitely doing Chemistry B, and am currently deciding between Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Biology of Disease for the other two options. I chose them because I'd like to work in the pharmaceutical industry in the future.
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.