Hannah is from Plymouth, on the the South West coast of England, and wrote this at the end of her first year studying Natural Sciences here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Hannah sat A Levels in Biology, Chemistry, and Maths (as well as German), and made a post-qualification application to Cambridge.
What made you choose Natural Sciences at Cambridge?
I never knew what I really wanted to study at university, except that it would be something ‘sciency’. Therefore, I loved how broad and varied the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is.
Before looking at Cambridge, I had applied the year before for courses such as Biomedical Sciences – but really, I wanted to keep my options more open. In first year at Cambridge I have been able to study Material Science, Maths, Chemistry and Physiology. There were very few other universities that I found offered this range. This aspect of the course has allowed me time to decide about which modules I wanted to choose, and the broad overview of subjects in first year has given me ideas about which areas I would like to specialise in. During the application process I was very unsure about which modules I would take should I get in to Cambridge, but it was reassuring to know that it wasn’t a final decision. When I arrived in October, I was still able to (and did!) change my options.
Why did you apply to Christ’s?
In my case, choosing Christ’s happened mostly by chance if I’m being honest! I had already sat my A-Levels when I considered applying to Cambridge, and Christ’s offered a post-qualification advice clinic for people in my situation. The people I talked to over Skype seemed so friendly and helped me a lot, so I ended up going to look around Christ’s on one of the open days. I loved the atmosphere - it’s a beautiful College, and full of friendly faces, so although I had a quick walk around some of the other Colleges, I didn’t really need to look elsewhere. The real selling point, however, was the outdoor swimming pool, which won me over completely. I spent a lot of my last term in it, and would 100% recommend it to clear away any stresses.
The College is also very supportive – there are lots of people to go to if you need to talk or need help with things, such as your Director of Studies or your Tutor. Christ’s helped me with a sports grant, allowing me to join the badminton team, and there was a generous book grant for every fresher in my first year. When it comes to exams, there’s also plenty of opportunities to organise extra revision supervisions if you feel that you need them.
The College system as a whole is great - it gives you a home, makes you feel like you belong, and gives you the chance to make friends with lots of people who are doing very different things. Christ’s is the perfect size; it’s small enough that you become familiar with it very quickly, but isn’t so small that it’s suffocating. Having said that, I’d still recommend having activities and social things outside of College as part of societies or with course friends – some of the other Colleges have really beautiful buildings and gardens too!
"I loved the atmosphere - it’s a beautiful College, and full of friendly faces."
How did you find the application process?
I found it pretty scary if I’m being honest! There seemed to be endless forms and questions, most of which I felt like I had no clue how to answer at first. Also, writing is not my thing, so I found the personal statement especially daunting. You just have to work through it though, and trust that it will be worth it. Don’t worry too much about the personal statement - they aren’t the only thing that Colleges look at in your application. What you’ve actually done and achieved is what matters, not the fancy way that it’s written! If you do feel worried about the process, the Christ's Admissions Office has a how to apply page which sets out exactly what you need to do at each stage of the application. They also publish a more detailed guide, specific to each year, every September in the current applicants section. For me, coming up to the College Open Day and talking to current students and my future Director of Studies helped to fill me in on a lot of the processes involved in applying. My DoS was also able to reassure me and help with how to avoid my skills going rusty during my gap year, giving me some ideas on what I could do in the time that would be relevant to my degree.
Before being invited to interview, I took the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment. To prepare for this, I read through the online specification, checking I understood most of it. This involved going over lots of my A-Level work since I was no longer at school. I found the assessment completely different to the interview - the assessment was more straightforward knowledge and maths testing, whereas the interview was more about problem-solving.
What was your interview experience like?
The interview was actually a lot more relaxed than I’d expected. The questions I was asked, however, were extremely challenging. In the interviews, you mainly have to work through problems with guidance from the interviewers, and my advice would be to try and stay relatively calm (everyone’s going to be nervous!) and go in knowing that if there are problems that you can’t solve that’s absolutely fine. They often don’t expect you to know the answer, but instead want to see how you cope with approaching a challenging question that makes you think. Just take it slow and chat through what you do know about the topic with them as you try to work towards an answer.
The best bit of advice I was given before I came to interview was to practise chatting to people about your subject and what particularly interests you, so that you become comfortable talking about that for when the interviewers inevitably ask. As far as I know, there was no compulsory reading for the interviews, but I enjoyed reading a couple of light books (especially ‘Incognito’ by David Eagleman) I also read some New Scientist articles, so I had some inspiration for if and when I was asked what specifically I was interested in.
"The interview was actually a lot more relaxed than I’d expected."
How did you prepare for your first year at Cambridge?
I took a gap year before Cambridge, which I definitely needed! I worked for the first half of the year, saving up to travel afterwards. I got to visit Costa Rica, parts of Australasia and then Indonesia. I had a fantastic time, met lots of great people and learnt a lot about all kinds of different perspectives on the world! Having to plan everything we did, things to eat, and places to stay allowed me to be more comfortable and happy going on to live independently at university, and the year out meant that I was super excited to study again.
I kept up-to-date with my A Levels during the gap year for the admissions assessment and interview, and then afterwards did some reading around the subjects I was taking - a book I particularly loved and learnt a lot from was 'Stuff Matters' by Mark Miodownik on the subject of materials science.
How did you find starting at Cambridge?
Choosing rooms seemed a fairly straightforward process in first year. I filled in a simple questionnaire giving my priorities in terms of things like cost, size of room, en suite etc. I was really happy where I ended up living (in the typewriter building) - I don't spend lots of time in my room so one that was small and functional suited me well.
Freshers’ Week was a blur of activities and events. It was lots of fun; so many people to meet, things to do and opportunities to be had. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but soon enough you get into a rhythm, it feels like you’ve known the place and the people forever, and the rest of the term flies by.
Cambridge terms are only eight weeks long, so they’re very intense and can be stressful. However, there’s a huge amount of support available. The weekly supervisions for each subject that you’re taking within your course mean there are regular checks that you’re coping with the workload alright.
How is your course taught?
This year I had twelve lectures (three per subject) every week, along with four supervisions and an average of ten hours of practical classes a week. This makes for a very full week when combined with the work set for the supervisions (the Cambridge version of homework, although it’s generally independent learning rather than consolidating what you already know). Nonetheless, this does leave time to do other things as well! You can very quickly get to know the local pubs and clubs but there’s a variety of societies and clubs, both at College-level and university-wide. I like how much is going on at Cambridge; you can get involved in such a variety of things.
The course content was roughly what I expected before I came to Cambridge. However, I found the workload to be much higher when compared to A-Levels. For me this took some adjusting to, especially since concepts took a lot more time and effort to understand, particularly since I had a year out. You just have to believe what everyone in second and third year says, that it really does work out fine and things fall into place! I also find the content a lot more interesting than at school, which makes the lectures and time spent studying far more enjoyable, and means they pass quicker. I particularly liked the Biomaterials section of the course. We learn, for example, about the extraordinary properties of spider silk, or how hip replacements are made.
"I find the content a lot more interesting than at school, which makes the lectures and time spent studying far more enjoyable."
What do you do in your free time?
I found the RAF Air Squadron at the Freshers’ Fair in my first few days at Cambridge, and joining was one of my best decisions at uni! It doesn’t cost anything and you get to learn to fly, meet a wonderful group of people and go on tons of ‘adventurous training’ like climbing, skiing and diving. The RAF meets every Wednesday evening for a dinner, some drinks and various presentations often with a guest speaker who has interesting things to tell us about! There's a week's induction course and a squadron deployment later in the year but aside from that you can pretty much do as much or as little as you like. The squadron deployment as well as a week's outdoor climbing in Spain over Easter, a 4 day march in Holland, and of course learning to fly have been among my favourite memories of my first year at Cambridge.
This year, I was also part of the Christ’s Badminton team and the German society. I really would recommend getting involved with lots of societies - they’re such a great way to have down time, meet new people, learn stuff outside the scope of your course, and just generally have a fun time!
During the holidays I often have RAF activities. Aside from that I like to come home to see everything I miss at uni; the sea, the hills, friends and family (not necessarily in that order). Although still expected to work, the holidays are long enough to also take some time off.
What are your plans for next year?
I’m looking forward to next year, feeling settled and knowing my way around (think I’ve eventually sussed this) and how things work here. For second year accommodation we ballot in groups of four with friends - I was lucky in coming fairly high up in the ballot, giving me lots of choice. I'm excited to be living in a College-owned house with five others, on a road two minutes away from College. It's close enough to be very convenient, but it will be nice to have a little distance from College.
Deciding which modules to take next year changes on a weekly basis! At the moment I’m thinking of Neuroscience, Physiology and Materials Science – they’re the subjects I found most fascinating this year and the ones I did best in with my exams.
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.