Emily wrote this at the end of second year Natural Sciences (Physical) at Christ's, specialising in Chemistry. She is from Kidderminster in the West Midlands and did A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Physics, as well as an EPQ on Medical Ethics.
What attracted you to your course?
I knew I wanted to apply to Oxbridge (even just to say that I'd given it a try!) so I spent some time comparing the science courses at Oxford and Cambridge. They are set up very differently. At Cambridge, you do Natural Sciences regardless of what you want your specialism to be, whereas at Oxford you do Chemistry, Biology, Physics and so on. At the time, was enjoying both Chemistry and Physics a lot. Although I had an idea that I might prefer Chemistry, I wasn't ready to specialise yet. Also, when I had a look at what my potential future research interests might be, I noticed that a lot of the issues I was interested in sat at the boundaries between the traditional sciences: things like Quantum Mechanics need both chemists and physicists to be properly explored. So the Cambridge Natural Sciences course was set up well for me as someone who was undecided and wanted to keep looking at a broad range of things to as high a level as possible.
Were there any course things you were nervous about?
I was a little worried that because of the breadth of the course, I would have to study subjects I hadn't done before. In first year, you can do courses in Chemistry, Physics and Maths (all stuff I'd done before), but you had to pick another option as well. I did Materials Science; the other option on the physical side was Earth Sciences, otherwise I would have had to take a biology option. I was a little nervous that I wouldn't enjoy this course as I was going in with next to no knowledge; although I knew I would get through it, I wanted to enjoy every aspect of my course! In the end, I really enjoyed Materials Science (they're a really lovely department, too), and ended up choosing it for second year!
Why did you apply to Christ's?
I came to Christ's on the LPN Summer School, where we also got to experience a couple of other Colleges: Sydney Sussex and Murray Edwards. I knew I wanted to apply to one of those three because I'd been there, and chose Christ's! I liked the location of Christ's: I knew I wanted to live in the middle of a city having grown up somewhere more rural; I don't think Christ's could be better located if it tried. Also, the environment and feel of the place really appealed to me. It's a fairly big college, but the court structure makes it feel cosy and small. There's a happy-medium number of undergraduates so it's sociable without being overbearing, like you're a tiny fish in a very large pond.
Has Christ's lived up to your expectations?
Yes, Christ's has been everything I wanted it to be and more! I didn't realise the College's academic reputation until I came: apparently it's well-known for being a very high-achieving college. When I did find that out, I was a bit nervous, but it isn't something I've really noticed since starting. College has been a really comfortable environment for me: it was very welcoming even in the context of starting during the Covid-19 pandemic. I've made a lot of really good friends here, I really enjoy being in the environment, and the size and location aspects that drew me to the college in the first place are still something I really appreciate. I'm really happy with the choice I made!
What is your favorite place in College?
The gardens in Third Court, I think. It's a toss-up between that and the Fellows' Garden, but I think Third Court has really nice vibes: you're surrounded by pretty buildings, you have all the nice flowers. I used to have dinner there with my friends on the picnic benches a lot. When the weather is good, I like studying out there, too. In first year, it was nice to get out there (especially as a lot of other places were closed due to the pandemic) and have that outdoor space on your doorstep. It's a really nice place to be.
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I think the pastoral support that I've received here was much easier to access because of the collegiate system. Having a tutor (an academic who is not in your subject, whose job it is to help you access welfare, financial and administrative/logistical support), means you have that little bit more individualised attention. At another university, I might have had to seek out access to all of these things, rather than having someone who checked in on me. When things weren't going well at home in first year, I got a message from my Tutor saying "there's no pressure to talk about any of this if you don't want to, but here's a list of all the things we can do for you and support we can offer, and if you ever need to come back to College during the breaks, that's okay.". I think the way College handles situations like that is incredibly supportive.
What advice would you give to students struggling to choose a College?
Before you get overwhelmed with looking at all your different options, write down a list of things that should be considered (for example: distance from shops, distance from your department building, size/number of people on your subject, how pretty it is, facilities). Then prioritise which of these factors is most important for you. Then, go through the colleges and see which ones line up with your wishlist; you could rank them in terms of how well they do. Maybe that's a very scientific answer, driven by data, but I think its a nice systematic way to choose the best place for you. You're picking somewhere to live for three years, and will be a big part of your university experience. Be open-minded and willing to investigate some that aren't the biggest, or closest to your faculty, and you'll find somewhere that feels right for you.
How did you find the application process?
The process was more like a series of smaller processes, starting with a UCAS application and finishing with confirming my offer. The UCAS bit was the same as for all of my other courses. Then came the additional questionnaire; I was asked to specify what I'd covered from my A-Level courses so far, which gives them some guidance about what they should cover in your interview. They were very good at picking topics which were new enough to me to be a challenge, but not so new I was out of my depth.
I also sat an admissions test, (the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment) which I had to be registeted for in advance and then took place in October, before the interview. There were some long- and some short-answer questions, some maths, and some questions in the sciences I was interested in. There weren't any general critical-thinking questions or anything: it was all maths and science.
The thing that I was most nervous about in the application process was the interview. That's very normal: I think most people are a bit scared by it. I took some comfort in the thought that, as a scientist, I was less likely to get rogue, abstract questions than in other subjects, though since coming here I've realised that the weird 'Oxbridge interview questions' you hear stories about online aren't really a thing in any subject. They aren't trying to trip you up or scare you; they are emulating a supervision (the small-group teaching that takes place on all courses at Cambridge) and want to see how you perform in an environment where you are given new information, posed challenges and made to think a bit critically. I had two interviews, but it wasn't that one was super academic and one personal-statement based; in my case, there was only one question about my personal statement across both interviews. As a Cambridge sciences degree is generally for more than one science, it tends to be that each interview leans towards one of your sciences. For me, that meant I had one Chemistry/Physics interview and one for Physics/Maths.
How did you go about preparing for your interview/admissions assessment?
For the admissions assessment, I mostly did lots of practice papers: there's a load of resources on the University website. For the short answers especially, it's about quick thinking and timing more than anything. They are trying to test your that your scientific problem-solving mechanisms are nice and sharp: all you can do to facilitate that is keep practicing under timed conditions!
My college attempted to run some mock Oxbridge interviews: although in hindsight they weren't particularly accurate, they did help me get used to being pushed in a verbal setting. If I got something wrong, they would say "try thinking about it this way", and if I got it right, they would say "okay, and what if I did this now" and continue to make it more complex. My actual interviewers had a very similar approach, so in that sense the mocks helped. Honestly, the best prep that I did for my interview was that for the month or so prior to the interview, whenever I was sat in my room doing homework I made an effort to say out loud exactly what I was doing. I probably looked strange, but it made me much more comfortable a) communicating scientifically, and b) communicating as I was thinking. Talking to fill silence in an interview is not the best idea, as it can lead to nervous rambling, but try to say everything that you're thinking – they can't read your mind – and that exercise helped me with it so much!
My number one piece of advice for a prospective applicant would be to get as comfortable as you can communicating thoughts and ideas about science in as many ways as possible. You need to do it verbally in interview, your personal statement will need to convey your interests and passions in a written format. Also, do a range of different things to prepare, don't just read books! As far as books go, the reading list is pretty comprehensive, but mentioning you've read one of these doesn't necessarily demonstrate going above and beyond for the course. Look for things on your specific, niche scientific interests, either at your level or just a little above it. I looked at some on crystallography, for instance, because I thought that might be an area I'd like to do some work in. I think that finding something that you care about and showing that you care about it is a more interesting – and perhaps more effective – way to set yourself up for a Natural Sciences course than reading lots of broad things.
What was the transition to Cambridge like?
I was really looking forward to meeting new people and making new friends, as much as that is a bit of a clichéd answer. Also, moving away to university was a new phase of life I was really excited for: living away from home, cooking for yourself, having some independence. I was really ready for all of that.
My biggest worry was probably around the big academic reputation of Cambridge. I was concerned that coming in, especially having not done any academic work in a while over the summer, I would suddenly be really stupid and not able to do the course. That didn't pan out – I'm doing just fine! It felt like the College was doing everything they could to support us in Fresher's week and help that transition, both academically and pastorally. It's like the people organising it (primarily Christ's JCR) worked out that if you have time to stop and think, you'll start to miss home, so they rammed so many activities into the time to keep you busy. A lot of it was about meeting as many people as possible and becoming comfortable in the new environment. For example, we had a scavenger hunt where you find a fun prize and spend time with different people, but you're also getting used to moving around a new city and learning where some important places are.
What are your favourite memories of fresher's week?
So many! The scavenger hunt mentioned above is definitely a highlight, as was a quiz the whole year took part in over Zoom. There was also a night where we booked out a bar and lots of people in our year went out for a meal, sat in our households and at a safe distance. Going out to do something together was really nice: I still have photos from that night on my wall. But honestly, most of it was very well organised and good fun. I'm quite a sociable person, and having all of these reasons to socialise with new people was a treat. I didn't know anyone who had ever gone to Oxbridge before I started and I was a bit worried that everyone (especially people on a science course) would want to keep to themselves – not that there's anything wrong with that, I just like having people to talk to! Fresher's week proved that there were a greater diversity of personalities than I'd expected, and I quickly found the other sociable people around.
How did you find starting the course?
They break you in pretty slowly. Because there are so many students coming from all over the world with lots of different kinds of qualification, they have to spend the first few lectures bringing everybody up to speed. The first supervisions were really weird! Being in a room with just one other student and a very senior academic is a bit intimidating, even though the people themselves have all been lovely. The first couple of months at Cambridge were mainly about teaching myself that it is okay to get things wrong. You aren't going to look stupid if you say something that's not quite right: the course content is challenging! People get things wrong all the time, especially if it's part of a thought process on the way to a correct answer. That was the biggest learning curve for me in those early days: learning a) it's okay to get things wrong, and b) you're here to learn, not get things right all the time, so you can let yourself make mistakes.
The biggest jump I noticed was in physics, just because physics at school was a lot more qualitative. It's much more mathematical once you get to university, so be ready for that. It's still just as interesting, and you're still learning some qualitative information, but you now have to back all of that up with experimental and scientific theory: in physics, that means maths. Chemistry was a lot of expanding on A-level content, so it wasn't too different in the way it's taught, just harder.
What is the most challenging aspect of your course?
Time constraints, definitely. With lab classes in three courses every week, lectures and supervisions for four courses and exercises to work through ahead of supervisions, balancing time is a real challenge! Making sure that you give yourself enough time to relax and enjoy your life and being a student is important too: there's a lot to juggle. If you tried to do every piece of work that the faculty set you to the absolute best of your ability, you wouldn't get chance to sleep or do anything else. It's about making sensible sacrifices. You need to be able to say "I have a big deadline, I can't go out today," which everyone will understand, it happens to us all. But it's equally important to recognise when you need help with something, and know that after slogging away at an assignment for a whole day without really understanding it, you should probably put it away and go and do something for yourself.
What does your timetable look like?
In first year, you have four modules: maths and three sciences. All of those are three lectures a week, so twelve hours in total. All will have one supervision a week, so four hours of supervisions. Then I had lab modules for each of my sciences: either once a week or once a fortnight depending on the course (for me, Materials Science was once a week, Chemistry and Physics were once a fortnight). The Materials labs were about two hours long, plus some pre-reading and a quiz to do. They took place in the Materials Department, which is in West Cambridge, about 35 minutes' walk from Christ's. Chemistry and physics labs took a whole afternoon (2pm-6pm, though you can leave if you finish early), and took place on alternating weeks. You're given instructions on the experiment ahead of time, and will then be helped through it in the lab by a demonstrator (usually a postgraduate student). For Chemistry, we had to write up a report after the lab, which was marked by the demonstrator and counted towards our end-of-year grade. For Physics, the write-ups were also marked, although they tended to be completed during the lab itself, so there wasn't as much post-lab work to do.
We also had a weekly computing class for maths in the middle four weeks of the first two terms each year. It was online when I did it, and it took a couple of hours each time. There's also the time taken to do supervision work that you need to factor in, as well as pre- and post-lab work. It's a lot! But the amount of contact time does mean that your days are pretty structured, which I like a lot. Having 9am lectures six days a week definitely makes you get out of bed!
What has been your favourite topic?
I'm specialising in Chemistry because I love it, but the topic that surprised me most (which I almost enjoyed more because it surprised me) was Materials Science. I hadn't properly understood what this course would be before I started it, and the more I got into it the more I enjoyed it. I really liked the Microstructure course within Materials. The lecturer for it was amazing, and it was quite chemistry-y! There was a lot about how crystal structures develop within metals and alloys, and how that relates to their energies, cooling rates, properties and so on. Those links between microscopic structure and macroscopic properties was really interesting to me, so I'd pick that as my favourite.
What do you do when you're not working?
A lot of the time, I prefer just chilling with my friends to organised fun and societies. We cook as a group quite a lot, which brings us all together. I'm also in the college pop group, so I sing quite a bit. I like to be active: being close to the PureGym in town is a big plus for Christ's. I like swimming in the summer too; the college pool is really nice.
What are you favourite and least favourite things about life at Christ's?
Is it too cheesy to say the people? I think the nice environment in College is mostly made up by the people in it as much as the spaces themselves. There are so many opportunities to take advantage of becuase of these two things in combination; both academically and personally. Living in the middle of the city is great; I feel like I've found the balance between being sociable and hard working. What I've got here is pretty much everything I wanted my university life to be, as cringey as it sounds. Genuinely, I'm really happy here, so as much as this is a vague answer, it's the best one I can give!
It's hard to choose a least favourite thing, but if I had to it would be being so busy all the time. The Natural Sciences course, like most courses at Cambridge, is very rigorous, which means there isn't as much time for other things as I would like. I love my course a lot, but there's always a point in the middle of term where I'm tired! I would love to just have a couple of days a term off. In first year, I did manage to take Sundays off work for one term, but it meant I was really grafting for the other six. I spread things out a bit more now, but a little more downtime would be appreciated.
Did you prefer your first- or second-year accommodation?
In first year, I was in the typewriter building in New Court: very typical Fresher's accommodation! I was on the ground floor of Staircase 1, which I really liked. I liked that there were so many other rooms close by, most of which had other first-years in there, so it never felt isolated. I appreciated having an en-suite, too and the kitchen was nice: it had everything I needed.
This year, I moved to Jesus Lane. Being out there felt more like a traditional student house, which I'm glad I experienced. But at the same time, I'm glad to be moving back into College for Third year because I miss being right next to everything; it was only a few minutes' walk away but having all the facilities close by will be more convenient.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
Academically, getting to finally specialise in the thing I want to do (Chemistry) but still having loads of choice in the modules I want to choose, is really exciting. There are some compulsory modules, which vary slightly depending on what you took in second year, and lots of optional modules to pick from. A lot of the options sit perfectly in the areas I'm interested in. My game plan is for a two-stranded approach to balance breadth with having a cohesive degree: because I enjoyed materials so much, I'm going to do half materials/chemistry courses, but I'll throw in some physical chemistry too.
Non-academically, I'm looking forward to living back in college with more of my friends.
My friendship group has grown bigger over second year as we've interacted more (as Covid restrictions reduced), so having them all in one place and experiencing Cambridge together will be great.
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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