Charlotte is from Sheffield in South Yorkshire and has just completed her second year studying Natural Sciences (Biological) here at Christ's College, Cambridge. At school, Charlotte did A levels in Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths, and French (which she is fluent in).
What attracted you to your course?
I spent ages trying to decide which course I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it. I couldn’t decide whether to do Maths, Biology or Chemistry at university, and finding a course that combined the more ‘pure' maths (instead of statistics) with Biology is kind of hard. Cambridge Natural Sciences allowed me to literally pick almost any combination of first year options and delay my decision for another year (something that really appealed to me since I’m quite indecisive), whilst not sacrificing the depth of teaching in first year topics. I also kind of just wanted to see if I could get in!
When I made my offer and had to choose options for first year, I initially elected to do Maths A (which was the more physical maths stream at the time), Chemistry, Biology of Cells and Physiology. However, by the time summer was over, I was leaning more towards possibly doing the Mathematical Biology stream instead, as I felt it might be more relevant to a future career in Biology. I discussed it with my Director of Studies, and spent the first week attending both lectures and eventually decided on switching to Mathematical Biology without any issues whatsoever. I think a common misconception that some offer holders have is that there are ‘correct’ combinations of topics to take, and that the choices you make over summer before you start are final – in reality this just isn’t the case. I know people who took options across all streams of Natural Sciences who were just fine, and others who applied as a Physical Natural Scientist and then (much like I did with Maths) couldn’t decide whether they preferred Physiology or Physics, switched to Physiology and became a Biological Natural Scientist! The freedom of choice here is phenomenal, and your Director of Studies is there to guide you as you begin your degree if you're feeling unsure.
Why did you apply to Christ’s?
I possibly put a little too much focus on the College I was going to apply to when I first began looking, but even then Christ’s appealed to me (possibly because it came first in the alphabet).
When I went to an open day I knew practically instantly that I wanted to apply to Christ’s. From the moment I walked in, I knew that I really liked the atmosphere of the College, then I got a student tour from the friendliest student I’d met all day and I was allowed to walk on the grass in Fellows’ Garden! Researching the Colleges told me that Christ’s fit most of the criteria I was looking for from a College – it was extremely central so I wouldn’t need a bike unless I wanted one and it was the right size for me to balance feeling like I could get to know everyone whilst still having a range of characters and personalities. Plus, who could turn down the outdoor pool and Fellows’ Garden?
Choosing a College can seem like a massive part of the whole application process, but it’s mostly just about figuring out where you can see yourself living – which College is going to feel most like home to you. The best way to test which College will be that for you is to visit if you are at all able: the different atmospheres of each College are hard to describe.
How did you find the application process?
The application process was definitely long, but I found that it was largely very well explained on both the College and university websites. I applied before they brought in admissions assessments, so (as a UK student) beyond the UCAS form and additional questionnaire(s), I only had interviews. Both of these were in December, and they weren’t easy! The interviewers were all friendly but they definitely pushed me to the limits of my knowledge and beyond – constantly providing new information and then prompting me down different paths of questioning. It was a completely unique experience, and like many applicants, when I left I was completely convinced that I had ‘failed’ – it’s a really tough idea to get your head around that they want to push you to the point where you don’t know the answer anymore. They just don't find out what you can do by asking questions that you can answer without thinking. The interviews are designed to be like supervisions (the main way in which we are taught outside of lectures) so they are largely trying to find out whether you can learn in that environment and how you adapt to unfamiliar knowledge – how do you respond when you have to say ‘I don’t know’.
What advice would you give sixth formers considering an application for Natural Sciences?
Practice talking about your subject and read books that interest you! There is a reading list, but just pick a good book on any subject you enjoy, and enjoy reading it! Then talk to anyone who you can get to listen to you about what you’ve learnt – whether that’s annoying your parents with random facts or asking your school to give you a mock interview if they can organise it. The best preparation for interviews is to get used to talking in depth about topics slightly outside of the syllabus.
I think it’s important when picking which books to read to find something you personally enjoy. Before coming to Cambridge, I read and really liked ‘Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life’, ‘Why geese don’t get obese, (and we do)’, ‘The spark of life’ and ‘How we live and why we die: the secret lives of cells’, but these were all based around my interests. If you don’t know where to start looking, check the department’s reading list or head to your local library and see what they have!
Also, as a textbook for chemistry, Why Chemical Reactions Happen was massively helpful (not least because it is written by one of our lecturers!).
What papers did you study this year?
In second year you choose three papers from a massive selection. I picked:
- Physiology; I picked this one because it had been my favourite topic in first year and I wanted to explore it to an even greater depth, and all the new topics seemed really interesting, like 'Reproduction', 'Weight Regulation and Nutrition', and 'Physiology in Extreme Conditions'.
- Neurobiology; I was initially nervous to choose this, as it sounded like it might be the hardest topic, but it intrigued me enough as something I had never looked at in depth before that I took it anyway. Fortunately, it has been far and away my favourite this year, to the point where I have chosen to take it next year as my part II (third year) option!
- Pathology; Slightly different to Physiology and Neurobiology, Pathology (or the biology of disease) appealed to me, less because of the clinical side though it is really interesting, but more in how the body’s immune system copes with attack and all the relevance that has in physiological functioning.
What was your timetable like this year?
The number of contact hours are very reduced in second year, since you study one less topic. There are three lectures and one supervision a week per paper – and I still had Saturday lectures! My practicals averaged out to about three or four hours a week for each paper, but for Pathology this is done in two blocks of two hours. The style of supervisions and the type of work set changed depending on the supervisor – often either preparing a presentation or writing an essay.
I actually found that, though the content is more complex now and you are expected to do more extra-curricular reading, the workload in first year was much greater. This is mostly as a result of having one less paper to work for, but might also be because I'd refined the subjects I was studying to ones I really enjoyed and still do - makes work easier.
What topic have you liked the most this year?
Personally, Neurobiology on the whole was my favourite paper to take to the point that I have chosen to study ‘Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour’ in my final year, and do a research project alongside it. In terms of a favourite subject itself within Neurobiology itself, I’d be hard-pressed to choose just one. I really liked looking at the causes of diseases in the brain – i.e. Parkinsons, Epilepsy etc – and how we can try to treat them using the limited understanding we currently have. Alternately, I loved the Easter term course on Memory and Higher Functions of the brain, and wish it came at a time where I could focus on them more intensely.
How do you manage your workload?
I’m quite a list-based person, I really like to make to-do lists, in which I prioritise all the tasks I need to complete, by how close the deadline is and which ones I want to do most etc. Then I try to get through as many as possible and organise the hours in which I’m going to work around my contact hours and when I’m going to be busy doing other more social based things. Balancing work and social life isn’t always the easiest thing, but I’d say I managed it well enough for myself – mostly by knowing when I could let one thing slide for another. There were some days in which I would spend the whole day in the library because an essay deadline was approaching, and others where I had plans with friends and would prioritise them. But even the days in the library can be alright when you are there with people you know and can take regular coffee breaks and get away from your desk.
Where do you typically like to work?
In first year, I mostly worked from my room. This year though, I’ve found that switching it up with Christ’s library and various cafes around Cambridge really helped me get a separation of home and work – which is sometimes difficult to achieve with the weird range of contact hours.
What have you most enjoyed so far about your time at Christ’s?
Easily the people here. The experiences you get at Cambridge are so unique to this place, but they wouldn’t be nearly as great if it wasn’t for the people you meet and get to know so profoundly. Beyond just your friends, everyone is so lovely and happy to have a chat whenever.
Having said that, my favourite moments all revolve around the things we've done together as a College. The regular 'bops' are always a lot of fun and something to look forward to (plus you have to spend ages planning the perfect pun-based costume), 'Bridgemas in the Buttery' is a really nice way to celebrate Christmas way too early, and a celebration of the end of the year. And all the formals we've done! Either super-hall when we go all out and get to dress up for a night, or when it's someone's birthday etc. There's so many! If I had to pick one absolute favourite from the year it would have to be 'Clover week' - instead of secret santa, there was College wide 'wish-granting'. I made it snow by pouring flour over my friends desk (I helped clean!) and another friend gave me an escape from Cambridge by transforming her room into Paris for a night of wine, cheese and company.
Have you received any particular support from College?
In first year I received a fair amount of pastoral help from my tutor and Director of Studies, along with the College counsellors to help me with grief and ongoing issues as well as general stress from university workload. They were all so supportive and definitely helped me make it through the year as healthily as I did!
Where have you lived this year?
I lived on Jesus Lane this year, the College-owned housing about a minute’s walk away from Christ’s, and I loved it! I can’t wait to be back in College next year, but I definitely really liked having the more normal university experience of living in an actual house with my friends, and the extra independence that comes with it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m not personally part of that many societies – I don’t really like sports that much and so don’t choose to play any in my spare time - even at a College level. Instead, I prefer just hanging out with my friends; either just having tea in someone’s room, going to the buttery to get a coffee together, going out for a meal or just straight up going out! What we’re doing doesn’t really matter – it’s more about who I’m with. I’m also part of the welfare subcommittee for the College students’ union, and the Christ’s Feminist Society where we have some brilliant discussions and really interesting events.
How do you spend your holidays?
For the shorter holidays during the year, I usually try to get away from home with some friends at least for a long weekend if not more. But otherwise I spend them getting some proper relaxation in, catching up with friends from home that I haven’t seen in a while and finishing off / re-reading my notes from the term before to help consolidate them before exam term starts.
For summer however, I try to spend it travelling with friends, visiting family and making the most of having absolutely no academic stress. I do usually need to get a job to help me pay for all that, but this year I got an internship instead!
What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
I’m really looking forward to the research project – it will be a lot of work but I think it’s going to be such a new experience to be able to pick a topic and go in depth with actual experimental research. In terms of which papers I’m taking next year, I’m really struggling to narrow it down – we pick four modules for Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, and I have seven that I really want to do! I’m going to spend the next few weeks researching it – but I think I will definitely take the module on Memory, and maybe one of the more behaviour focussed – i.e. why does our brain make us do what we do etc. But then again, I also really like sensory! There’s such a range it’s always so difficult to narrow it down to my final choices!
Do you know what you want to do after Cambridge?
I have absolutely no idea! At the moment my plan is to possibly take a year out since I didn’t do a gap year and then move onto a masters. I’m not quite ready to face the real world, so hopefully by the time that’s finished, I’ll know what I want to do as a career! I think it’s really important to remember that no one can actually know where they will end up, and most people will have careers entirely different to what they had planned when they were at school or university – so it isn’t the end of the world to finish university with no definitive career plans ahead. Alternatively, maybe next year I’ll figure it all out and go straight into the perfect job for me and never think about it again! (Seems less likely though…)
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.