Before you start reading about my experience, I do have a reminder. Personally, I think that some parts of my experience should be an example of what NOT to do throughout the application process, as opposed to what you SHOULD do or CAN do.
CHOOSING A COURSE
Many students have a problem deciding what to study because they are not sure if they are suitable for that particular course or if they are interested in that field. I myself had a hard time trying to decide which course to study. My decision to study Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge was actually a last-minute decision. Before I made my final decision, I talked to two of my lecturers who did similar courses to the ones that I was interested in and also had discussions with my dad. From those conversations, I understood more about those courses, including: in-depth information about the course outline and content (which may or may not be available in the university website), the obstacles I may face as a student in that particular course, the job opportunities available for a fresh graduate and a rough idea of the expectations of employers. I finally made up my mind and decided to go for Biochemistry.
My suggestion is:
If you really do not know which course to do, you’d first have to figure out exactly what your interest is and shortlist a few courses that you will have the passion to study for the next 3 or 4 years. Then, gather information and understand more about these courses (the university website and brochures will be a great help). Up to this point, if you still cannot make a decision, try talking to a senior or a teacher/lecturer who studied the course and has personal experiences. This helps a lot in determining if you are suitable for that particular course, especially if that person knows your potential really well. Of course, you have to keep this in mind at all times:
YOU ARE THE ONE WHO MAKES THE ULTIMATE DECISION.
No one can make that decision for you because that is your future that we are talking about.
Before I continue with my own experience, I would like to share a friend’s case. He applied for two different but similar courses in the same university in his UCAS application, which means out of the 5 university options, 2 of them were the same university but different degrees. You can only upload ONE personal statement so if anyone of you decides to follow his path, make sure that you seek advice before you do so (the counsellors from MABECS are very helpful). You wouldn’t want to simply waste a chance, would you?
My UCAS application was rather easy, credits to Taylor’s College Placement Centre. The most difficult and tedious part was definitely my personal statement (PS). Now please be aware that this is one of the parts where future applicants should NEVER EVER FOLLOW. As I mentioned earlier, my decision to apply for Natural Sciences in Cambridge was a late decision. When I started looking into application deadlines, it was about two or three weeks from Taylor’s College’s internal deadline for Cambridge applications. I had not even started writing my PS at that time, and I totally freaked out. So PLEASE DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU.
I wrote about applying for Biochemistry in my PS since I plan to choose Biochemistry as a specialism for my Cambridge Natural Sciences degree. For my first PS draft, I followed the guidelines provided in the UCAS website as I had no idea where to start. (UCAS PS guide: ) I emphasized a lot on ECA and personal qualities, and only mentioned a bit about my passion in Biochemistry and how I maintained it. Until today I cannot forget what the counsellor from MABECS said to me after reading my first draft:
‘Dear, your PS is actually very good and strong for all the universities, except Oxbridge.’
She gave me some ideas on how to change and restructure my PS. Her advice was:
- Shorten the part on my ECA and personal qualities;
- Elaborate on my passion in Biochemistry;
- Apart from telling them how I enjoy science and its classes, I have to show that I am doing extra work outside of class that relates to my interest in Biochemistry, such as participation in activities and most importantly, extra RESEARCH (reading scientific journals for example). That is extremely important as the university wants to see that you are doing extra work in keeping up with your passion (She said something like that; I don’t remember the counsellor’s exact words).
Those were basically the guidelines for my following PS drafts. Every time I corrected my PS, I sent it to MABECS, my dad and a few of my lecturers for checking and advice. After I had my PS done, I moved onto completing the application details and submitting my application.
And just to mention a bit about English qualifications, I did not include any other English qualifications like IELTS or TOEFL in my UCAS application. All I mentioned was my English 1119 result. I decided not to take the IELTS test until I received my conditional offer (CO) as my college counsellor mentioned that if the university wants me to have other English qualifications besides English 1119, they will state it as a condition in my CO and it will not be too late to sit for the test then. What matters the most at that point were my results, forecasts, testimonials and so on. It turned out that in my CO they did not require me to sit for other English qualifications.
Always keep track of application deadlines and spend more time on your PS (I am an EXTREMELY BAD EXAMPLE in this case). If you do not know where to start, refer to the general writing guidelines provided in the UCAS website. Get different people to read your PS (they can be counsellors from MABECS, your teachers/lecturers, parents, seniors etc.). They can give ideas about how to improve your PS and correct any possible grammar mistakes (there must be zero/minimal grammar mistakes in your PS). And the golden rule: it must be YOUR OWN WORDS. Don’t even think about copying a single sentence or phrase from other sources, that is the biggest taboo. Also, avoid referring to other applicants’ PS if you’re worried that you might copy their ideas or sentences unknowingly.
As for the application details, I think it will be good to go through it first and find out what information/additional documents you may require. You can complete the online application form within a day if you have those information ready. Before submitting your application, you can ask a counsellor from your college to check your application details, just in case there are any mistakes (that was what I did).
COPA and SAQ
All Malaysian Cambridge applicants are required to complete the COPA after submitting their UCAS applications. COPA is similar to the UCAS application, but it has additional questions which are not included in the UCAS application, such as your financial sources, extra PS etc. I mostly wrote about my ECA achievements that I did not include in my PS, and talked about my ambitions in detail.
Also, you are required to explain why you chose to apply to that particular Cambridge college in your COPA, unless you put in an open application. So here’s the second BAD EXAMPLE from me. Last-minute decision meant that I didn’t really have much time to research on the colleges. Of course, I did look into the colleges in Cambridge earlier before I had that dilemma of choosing a degree, but that was more of a general understanding rather than in-depth research. So when I read more about the colleges within that limited time, I couldn’t decide which college I prefer. In the end, I put in an open application. Of course, I was very lucky as I was allocated to a college which I think has great facilities and tutors (and location too), but it will definitely be good if future applicants can choose a college. Even if you are not accepted by that college, you still have a chance to enter winter pool.
And another tip for completing the COPA: although there are some questions that are not compulsory to answer, it is advisable that you try your best to answer every relevant question. Therefore, spend some time completing the COPA as it is slightly different from normal application forms. In a way, I thought that it actually felt like writing a second personal statement. So do not rush over the COPA, as it obviously plays a significant role in your application to Cambridge. And same rule – try to ask someone to check it before submitting it. You definitely do not want any unnecessary mistakes.
As for the SAQ, Malaysian applicants are required to submit it, but technically there is nothing that you need to do. All you have to do is provide your COPA reference number (or something like that), which is given to you after you submit your COPA. Also, you are required to submit your High School Transcripts – a certified copy of your SPM certificate (if you sat for the SPM), both the original copy and a translated copy. You can get the translation template from your college counsellor if possible (Taylor’s students can get it from Placement Centre). Or if you want you can drop me an email at email@example.com and ask for it.
Cambridge conducts one-to-one interviews in Malaysia, so most Malaysian applicants are interviewed here as long as you put your preferred interview location as Malaysia (although some colleges do require you to go to Cambridge for the interview, it really depends). As a matter of fact, I got to know that Cambridge tries their best to interview as many applicants as possible, so every applicant has a high chance of being invited to an interview. Although the email regarding the interview is only received a few weeks before the interview, you can still properly utilize that two to three months to prepare for your interview. Continue ALL the extra research that you’re doing and if possible, start new ones too. For those two months before my interview, I continued reading journals and news articles and watched documentaries on Youtube.
Cambridge interviews are fully academic-based, I will say. Before going for the interview, you have to be very familiar with your current syllabus and you will have an advantage if you have extra knowledge or more in-depth understanding of what is not in your syllabus. Like many have said, the interviewer tends to push you to your limits and ask you questions that may be out of your syllabus, but don’t worry, it’s totally normal. I believe that what the interviewer wants is to see the potential in you, to determine if you are suitable for the tough academic system and syllabus in Cambridge. If you really get stuck and fail to answer the question, just tell the interviewer that you do not know the answer and they will guide you from there. And another tip, if you’re unsure about the question, ask the interviewer to repeat the question. Don’t simply say something that is not what the interviewer is asking for. The interviewer may give extra explanations about the question, so feel free to ask the interviewer if there’s anything that you want to know or would like further clarification on. What’s most important is to try to calm down during the interview and give it your best shot. It doesn’t matter if you can’t answer the questions, you might still pass. Oh yes, and about dress codes. Even though they mentioned that you can wear whatever you are comfortable with for the interview, I think you should dress smart and comfortable. It is still an INTERVIEW.
I was lucky as my interview was dated a day or two after my Biology and Chemistry papers, so whatever I had to know was still fresh in my mind. I did go through the topics that my lecturer covered for A2 syllabus, just in case. My interviewer, Dr. Richard Barnes started the interview with a simple self-introduction and briefly explained how that interview was going to be like. He then asked me to introduce myself, followed by some general questions like my studies and interests, along with a question or two regarding what I wrote about my future plans and ambitions in my PS.
Then the ‘real’ interview began. Since I was still at AS Level during the time of the interview, Dr.Barnes assured me that he will give questions accordingly. I can’t remember the exact questions that Dr.Barnes asked, so these are only based on my memory. He started with a question about organic compounds. He gave me a molecular formula and asked me to draw the displayed formulas of all the isomers. That was where Dr.Barnes started to push me to my limits. Ether was one of the isomers, but it is not included in both AS and A2 syllabus. I still managed to list out all the isomers, including ether, thanks to my Chemistry lecturer for his detailed explanations in class and his patience towards all my annoying Chemistry questions.
Then Dr Barnes continued with a question about alcohol. If I remember correctly, a few of the isomers are alcohols, and from that he asked questions about the oxidation of each of alcohol, chemical reactions involving alcohol, testing methods etc. I do remember him asking about the methods to test for aldehydes though, because I remember giving answers about the changes and observations using 2,4-DNPH, Tollens’ reagent and Fehling’s solution. Dr.Barnes even replied me by saying ‘I would prefer using Tollens’ reagent,’ in a light tone. So as you can see, the interviewers are actually really nice and try to make the atmosphere more comfortable for the applicants.
Dr.Barnes continued with a question about esterification. That was the point where he started to link Chemistry with Biology (just a reminder, in my PS I wrote about applying for Biochemistry). He started asking questions about triglycerides and the importance of triglycerides in the human body. From triglycerides, he extended the question to phospholipids, and asked about roles of phospholipids in cell surface membranes. He then discussed with me the fluid mosaic model. I got stuck at some parts when I was answering the questions, especially when he asked me to derive and draw the displayed formula of an organic compound that I have never learned before, but Dr.Barnes gave me tips and guided me when I had trouble answering his questions. He even showed me how to start the displayed formula and let me continue from there.
Overall, I managed to answer all the questions given by Dr.Barnes, once again thanks to my Chemistry and Biology lecturers’ patience towards all my weird questions. My interview ended in about 20 minutes, and frankly speaking it actually felt like it was less than 20 minutes. I guess it was because I totally enjoyed the interview, although I thought it was more like a lesson or an academic discussion with a really experienced person. It was not a typical one-sided interview where he asked questions and I answered them. I did ask for some clarifications about the new organic compound that I learnt, though I don’t remember what it was. I was very nervous when I first entered the interview room, which was a lecture theatre, but as the interview went on I felt more relaxed and comfortable since Dr.Barnes was very nice and acted more like a lecturer than an interviewer. Of course, I did bring in something that always calms me when I’m nervous – my jacket.
My written test was two days after my interview. I sat for the TSA test, which consists of two parts. The first part consisted of multiple choice questions about logical thinking. They were mainly on relating evidence, calculations and so on. I found that part quite easy since I took AS Level Thinking Skills in college, and the question styles were quite similar. I did not finish all the questions and simply guessed the answers for the remaining four or five questions, but the invigilators said that it is OK if you cannot finish all the questions, just make sure that you do not leave any BLANK ANSWERS. To prepare for this part, I did the sample paper provided (I think there is a link to download it), and also did some past year Thinking Skills Paper 1.
The second part was an essay question, where we had to choose a question from a list of questions given according to the course that we applied for. I chose the question about the importance of water in life, and just wrote down everything that popped up in my mind. I wrote about the role of water in regulation, cell content, the importance of water to plants, water as habitats etc. My essay was approximately one and a half to two pages long. There’s really not much advice that I can give about the essay questions, as it really depends on what course you apply for and you can’t predict the questions. So I think just treat it like the exams you sit for in school and try your best.
After the application process, interview and written test, all you have to do is wait for the college’s reply. I got my CO some time in early or mid-January 2014, before my AS results were released.
OK, that is all that I can share with whoever is reading this article. Thank you for your time and effort in reading this long article, I hope that my experience can help you and somehow reduce your fear of applying to top ranking universities. If you really want to study in these top ranking universities, don’t worry too much and just give it a shot. Who knows? You might just be the one that the university is looking for, and there’s no harm in trying. That’s what my principal, Ms. Lauren always says. And last but not least, ALL THE BEST TO YOU GUYS 😀 !!
Chung Shujing will be pursuing a degree in Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge. She loves going on vacations, and is crazily in love with the Eiffel Tower. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org