three students in a supervision

Imogen is from Barnsley, in Yorkshire, and wrote this at the end of her first year studying Natural Sciences (Biological) here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Imogen sat A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, and Maths, as well as an AS-Level in Physics.

What aspects of your course attracted you to it specifically?

At A-Level I was interested in a wide range of scientific fields, so the Cambridge Natural Sciences course was appealing. You don't have to specialise into a single subject until your third year, unlike at other unis where you might have to pick a very specific course title before you start, despite having a relatively limited scientific education. Despite the broad nature of the Natural Sciences course a lot of the topics are learnt in great detail, helping you to figure out which areas of Science you are actually interested in.

A man, reflected in the mirror spanning the wall, on a treadmill in the gym at Christ's College, Cambridge.
The main site college gym is in New Court. There's also a
gym at the boathouse.

Why did you apply to Christ’s?

I applied to Christ's because of its central location - it's near a lot of the Science facilities, so I never had to walk very far to my lectures or practicals. I also liked how it has mostly old buildings, as I wanted to go to a more traditional College. I really like how everyone either lives either in College or just outside it, in College-owned houses on Jesus Lane, as this helps maintain the sense of community.

I love how your College provides you with a smaller community within the very large university. It also means you have facilities such as a canteen (ours is called Upper Hall), library, gym etc. very close by. It's also really nice how the Colleges provide accommodation for all years of your course and you don't have to stress about finding private accommodation or people to live with in the later years of your course.

"I love how your College provides you with a smaller community within the very large university."

Bike racks outside the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University.
               Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge
               (Credit: Sir Cam)

How did you find the application process?

Applying to Cambridge is slightly more stressful than applying to other universities, because of the early 15 October deadline for your UCAS form (including the personal statement) and Admissions Assessment registration. There was also more things to keep track of because of extra forms and documents that Cambridge Colleges ask for, especially the additional questionnaire(s). It's worth keeping an eye on the how to apply page and the more detailed current applicants section where they guide you through what needs doing when.

The part I found hardest was the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment. To prepare for this I looked at the syllabus and read over things that I hadn't done for a while, as a lot of it was GCSE level material but applied in ways you wouldn't have used it before (so don't underestimate it). I also looked at the past papers on the Cambridge website. If I'm honest, though, I felt like I did awfully on the day, as they expect you to be able to get through a lot of material quickly and I didn't finish a large amount of the questions. To my relief, I still got an offer. I would advise future applicants to practice in timed conditions just to get a sense of how much there is to get through.

In terms of the actual interview experience, before my first interview I was very nervous, but once the interview started I actually really enjoyed it. The interviewers asked fairly straightforward questions, mainly about things that I felt I knew something about. They didn't require any really obscure scientific knowledge as I had expected they would.

"Before my first interview I was very nervous, but once the interview started I actually really enjoyed it."

Group in third court

Did you find it easy to settle in?

Before I got to Cambridge, I was most looking forward to meeting people from different places, and therefore was most worried about not making friends! In academic terms, I was also looking forward to a less exam-based approach to teaching in the supervisions, and not having to memorise mark schemes etc.

I was surprised when I started uni, because I missed my family much more than I thought I would - this made the first month very hard, and meant I didn’t enjoy Freshers’ Week that much. The first few days were the hardest, but it got easier once lectures, supervisions and practicals started because these gave me a daily routine to take my mind off things. During the first few weeks the work piled up very quickly, which was a bit overwhelming and added to the stress of settling in. However, I gradually got used to it throughout the year and then my stress level reduced and I felt more settled.

Researchers in blue overalls working in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Researchers at the Department of Plant Sciences

In first year I took Mathematical Biology, Physiology of Organisms, Chemistry, and Evolution and Behaviour, so I had four supervisions per week. I also had twelve lectures each week, which I did mostly attend. However, sometimes I didn’t attend certain lecture series if they weren’t very useful. For example, there was a Plant Science series I didn’t attend because it contained a lot of biochemical detail that the lecturer went over very quickly, and I found it easier to go over it at a slower pace in my own time. I had practical classes two or three times a week, which were either assessed continuously through the year or in practical exams at the end of the year.

A lecture in the Babbage Lecture Theatre as part of the Cambridge University Science Festival.
                Image credit: Sir Cam

Is the course what you expected it to be when you applied?

Despite being warned about it beforehand, I found that the course is much more content heavy than expected, and the lectures go extremely quickly. The course is also very detailed and specific. For example, whilst at A-Level you might learn about a ‘receptor’ on a cell, at degree level you may have to learn the specific name of the receptor, how many subunits the receptor is made of, the structure of these subunits etc. My favourite set of lectures was a Physiology series about the heart and cardiovascular system, because I find the ways the system responds to problems such as blood pressure changes and volume changes (caused by a loss of blood, for example) really interesting.

The high contact hours of the Natural Sciences course can be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand it can be exhausting, but on the plus side, having a lot of practicals and lectures gives you a lot of opportunities to meet people from other Colleges.

"Having a lot of practicals and lectures gives you a lot of opportunities to meet people from other Colleges."

A statue of a young Charles Darwin sitting on a bench in New Court of Christ's College, Cambridge.
The Darwin garden (the young Darwin). Credit: Sir Cam

How easy is it to balance social and academic commitments at Cambridge?

It’s not too hard to find time to socialise with people in College, as we all live in such close proximity here (especially because all of the accommodation is close together). There is a lot of time for seeing friends, but I find that at Cambridge it's different from home as social time comes in short bursts, rather than you having entire days out with people. Although I do spend a lot of time with friends in College, it's mostly in the evenings, or in the middle of the day during lunch breaks. This probably depends on your subject to some extent though - Natural Sciences has a lot of contact hours, so most of your day is full.

In terms of coping with work, I find that it works well to read over lecture notes and highlight them as soon as possible after the lecture happens so that I can participate well in supervision discussions. Similarly, I try to complete supervision work as soon as I can after I've been given it, as I find that it’s much more enjoyable (and less stressful) if you don’t have to stay up late completing work for a deadline.

Students and tutors chatting by swimming pool
Tutors tea by the pool (organised revision break)

What have you enjoyed most and least about life at Cambridge this year?

I really enjoy being around other people that like to push themselves academically and not having to feel like a ‘nerd’ or that I have to dumb myself down. It’s also been nice to meet other people that are genuinely interested in science! There are drawbacks to this hard work culture though. Towards the end of the year, as exams get closer, people study more and more and it can be hard to find people to relax with and put things into perspective.

"I’ve really enjoyed being around other people that like to push themselves academically."


Are you involved with any student initiatives, societies or sports in Cambridge?

Yes - I row for Christ’s College Boat Club. I saw information about it on the freshers page and signed up for a taster session at the Freshers' Fair.

I normally have three outings (training on the river) a week at the Christ’s Boathouse, and extra weights and ergonomics sessions on top of this.

A student volunteer running a demonstration at a Cambridge Hands-On Science (CHaOS) Roadshow event.
            Imogen volunteers at CHaOS Roadshow events 

How do you spend your holidays?

I spent the majority of the Christmas and Easter holidays doing a mixture of revising and spending time with my family. This summer I was a student helper at some of the Christ’s Open Days and also for an outreach summer school run by Christ’s. In terms of science related activities, I volunteered for a week on the Cambridge Hands On Science Roadshow (CHaOS) this year, which involved going into schools to demonstrate science experiments. I also organised a research placement in a hospital in Sheffield, in a department that was doing clinical research into the effects of aspirin on the risk of heart attacks and other heart problems.

"I organised a research placement in a hospital in Sheffield."


Do you know which papers you’ll be taking next year?

I think I’m taking Biology of Disease, Pharmacology, and Chemistry B (which is the more biological focused chemistry module, and has a lot of organic chemistry in it). I’m looking forward to having less lectures next year, and also having more of a say of what I am studying, as all the first year options were incredibly broad.

July 2019

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.

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