Chemical Engineering at Cambridge University

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1. What was included in the application process to the University of Cambridge?

For all UK universities, you need to apply via UCAS. I believe you all are quite familiar with it. If you really have no idea what it is, here is the link you can follow. However, there are a few things I want to share about the UCAS application:

  • There is no ECA achievements section in the UCAS form. Unlike normal (pre-university) scholarship application forms which allow you to enter your ECA achievements, leadership experience etc, UCAS doesn’t have this section. Therefore, please do include some IMPORTANT ECAs in your personal statement (PS). However, don’t overload your PS with ECAs because your teacher advisor might have included most of them in your reference.
  • For the education section, you can choose to put your grades OR UMS score. If you have impressive marks in your AS or IGCSE, you can choose to enter your score instead of grade.

For Cambridge international applicants, you have to complete an extra form called COPA. This is much more complicated compared to UCAS. You need to fill in your UMS marks for each subject and module you have taken. There is a myth saying that Cambridge will only accept you if you achieved 90+ in every AS module. I personally don’t think this is true because I achieved less than 90 in a few modules anyway. Then, there are another four short essays in COPA. The first one is an optional personal statement (1,200 characters). So, this is the time for you to say why you particularly want to go to Cambridge or a specific college. The next question is: Do you have any specific career plans? (300 characters). The third one is: How have you kept up your interest in the subject you have applied for? (300 characters). And the last one: Is there anything else you would like us to know (600 characters). For me, I put all the things I couldn’t put in my personal statement in response to these questions like my extra interests, hobbies, readings, thoughts etc. After COPA, there is the SAQ. This is pretty simple if you have done your COPA. Just one reminder here: Do send your SPM transcript (original and translated version) here because I didn’t know I needed to do that until the last day.

2. What did you include in your personal statement?

This is the most time-consuming part. I still remember that I included everything from reasons to study chemical engineering, internship, research review, suggestions to current technology, my subject combination, readings and thoughts, ECAs and leadership experience, to hobbies and interests, language abilities, voluntary work, etc. for my first draft, as suggested by this link: http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/wiki/Writing_Your_Personal_Statement. Therefore, my first draft had nearly 4,000 words instead of 4,000 characters. Only after that did I start cutting down on my word count, based on the criticisms and advice from teachers, friends, and some chemical engineers. Basically, the last version started with my reason to study chemical engineering and my internship experience, followed by some readings and thoughts, and my ‘mini research’. I then continued with the competitions that I took part in, leadership experience, and charity work. However, I didn’t include the reason for my A-level subject combination. Here are some extra tips for PS:

    • Use full chemical names instead of short form. Water instead of H2O because the UCAS form will read it as H2O and it will look quite messy.
    • Don’t be too ambitious because eventually you can’t cover everything.
    • If you have had the chance to share your thoughts with some university lecturers, it will be nice to put them in.

3. How was the interview session?

I had my interview in Taylor’s College. It was basically like some sort of discussion. The interviewer was quite friendly. He brought me to the interview room and started with the question “why do you want to apply for chemical engineering?” Then he continued by asking technical questions. There were basically three questions, and the interview lasted nearly 40 minutes.

First, he said, as a chemical engineer, you need to deal with scaling up the experiment. He then pointed at the beaker in front of me and told me there is a chemical reaction happening inside the beaker: X+Y → Z. where X, Y and Z are all liquid and this reaction will occur at 60 degrees Celsius. So, as a chemical engineer, what should be your consideration to produce 1 tonne of the product Z? 

First, I commented on the material of the reactor. (This is where SPM chemistry became important – all the alloys and composite materials); then he asked me how I’m going to heat and maintain the temperature at 60 degree Celsius. Since it is 1 tonne, we can’t just simply use water bath or Bunsen burner with thermometer (laboratory methods). I suggested to use an electric heater with a thermostat and stirrer. My internship helped me a lot in this part. I assumed that the reaction uses a catalyst, and hence classified the catalyst as being either an inorganic catalyst or a biological enzyme. I explained the difference in the method used to maintain the temperature for both kinds of catalyst. (I wouldn’t say much here, but the tip is that enzyme is super sensitive to temperature.) I then showed how the electronic circuit should be set up to allow the temperature to stay roughly constant. (It is just a simple op-amp circuit!) He then continued asking me on how to separate the products from the reactant. Fractional distillation was my answer, given that their boiling points are different. I also mentioned chromatography but I didn’t elaborate because he said we were running out of time. Then, he passed me a sheet of maths questions. If I am not mistaken, there was roughly 10 questions in that sheet and all were just normal A-level math questions. At first, I tried to explain aloud how I came up with the answers to the questions. However, he told me: ‘just shut up and continue doing it, you don’t have to explain to me.’ “Oh, Sh*t!” I was thinking; it was so different from what my seniors told me (they told me that I should be interactive and thinking aloud all the time). So, I did the rest of the questions in awkward silence. After that, I told him that I wasn’t sure if my solution was correct, and he just said ‘just do whatever you can.’ I was shocked and just passed up my answer sheet. After that, he told me ‘since we are running out of time, I will ask you a last question. Don’t worry, it is just a short question.’

He then put some geometrical shapes on the table while saying ‘In hot countries like Malaysia, petrol containers are designed to prevent the petrol inside from overheating, so from all the shapes I put on the table, which shape do you think is the best to keep the petrol inside from overheating?’ The shapes he put were: a cube, cuboid, sphere, cylinder, cone, and pyramid.

I thought about it for a while and explained how heat is transferred from hot to cold when in contact (Zeroth law) and how it is the same as diffusion of oxygen across amoeba cell. (I also don’t know how I came up with this answer, but the amoeba randomly came to my mind) and I explained how the amoeba increases the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the cell by increasing the ratio of surface area to volume. So to minimize the heat being absorbed, we should decrease the ratio of surface area to volume. I then said that I believed the sphere is the one with lowest ratio because when we get cold, we tend to position our body like a sphere in order to prevent heat from being lost (the air-con inside the meeting room is freezing cold as well, and that might’ve been the reason why I came up with such a solution). Of course, I continued my answer by showing that the sphere is the answer mathematically. However, I told him that, while the sphere might the BEST shape,  it is nevertheless not the most PRACTICAL one, as I noticed that he was attempting to make the sphere stand on the table. I then explained my observation on how hard he tried to fix the position of the sphere and continued with the inertia and transportation problems, before ultimately coming up with a final answer, where I said that the cylinder is the most PRACTICAL answer. After that, he told me that he didn’t expect me to come up with the solution this way. I panicked (and maybe my facial expression showed that too) but he told me that it was a compliment. (I was glad and of course relieved to hear that!) He then moved to his bag, took out his Macbook Air and showed me a picture of a spherical petrol container. He told me that he had seen spherical containers in China, and explained how they built the supporters to support them, and also how they are transported. The interviewer ended by asking about my IELTS results (because I left it blank in my COPA and UCAS) and told me that I MIGHT need to sit for it.  (PS: I didn’t have to sit for it in the end because my offer didn’t have an IELTS requirement!) So, I prepared for my interview by reading and doing an internship. They helped a lot in my interview, and the questions they ask you might be the ones you have come across in your internship! Reading and watching videos as well as taking online courses are very helpful as well. Personally, I loved the experience of applying to Cambridge. Links for some online courses: http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm https://www.coursera.org/

4. Did you have to take any tests?  If so, how did you find the test?  How did you prepare for the test?  In your opinion, what are some of the tips & techniques to get a good score in the tests?

The admission test was a horrible experience for me. It was a day after my interview and was held at Sunway College. I took the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment). It is a 2-hour test with 2 sessions:

  1. 1 .5 hours multiple choice questions on thinking skills. There are 25 questions that are mathematics and logic based, and 25 critical readings questions.
  2. 5 hour essay related to the course you applied to. For chemical engineering via engineering, you have to choose a topic out of 6 topics provided.

Ideally, I planned to use 45 minutes for mathematical questions and another 45 minutes for critical reading. I started with all the maths and logic questions because my critical reading was not as good. However, the logic questions were quite long and complicated. After attempting all the maths questions, I checked my watch. Half an hour left. I had wasted 1 hour just for the maths and logic questions. I panicked, and tried my best to answer the rest of the paper, which asked about assumptions, flaws, strengths, weaknesses etc. (they should be quite similar to AS Level Thinking Skills, I heard).  In the end, I only managed to attempt another 13 questions. I tried my best to simply fill in the answers but I was only able to fill in few because the essay task started immediately after the MCQ. Basically, I didn’t even have time to just fill in the answers. In the end, there were only 46 questions with answers. For the essay, I chose the topic which went something like ‘in order to solve real-world problems, scientists are not alone, engineers are essential.’ I wrote about how engineers are involved in the development of hydrogen fuel cell, solar panels, food technology, but at the same time how they created problems like making bombs, etc. I personally think reading magazines like New Scientist, BBC Knowledge, and Scientific American did help me a lot in constructing this essay. Reading books related to renewable energy, the environment, and the history of the development of science and technology might help too. I managed to write 1.5 pages for this essay. Try not to be one-sided. (I believed debaters should have no problems in this.) After the admission test, I was quite sure I wouldn’t get into Cambridge. I regretted that I didn’t practise a lot for the TSA MCQ. Therefore, I advise you guys to not overlook it. For practice, you can try this book. It is quite expensive, so try to look for it in your college library. This book has three practice sets (if I am not mistaken) and I only finished one. Explanations for the answers are included, so it is quite helpful. Don’t panic if you didn’t get everything correct because I was informed that the average score for successful candidates is about 35/50 and mine was definitely lower than that. If you need extra practise, you can try A-level Thinking Skills papers 1 and 3.

5. What advice would you give to future applicants?

Personally, I loved the experience of applying to Cambridge. Even though it might be more complicated than applying to other UK universities, I really learned a lot through this application process. Therefore, I hope you all will apply to the University of Cambridge not just for the sake of getting in, but for the learning process as well.

  1. Be prepared for the admission test (TSA)
  2. Don’t be upset if you can’t answer all the questions or get the correct answer for every question because they don’t expect you to get all correct in order to be accepted. (I think)
  3. Don’t be upset if you get rejected. I have a lot of friends who I thought were better than me but got rejected. Therefore, getting rejected doesn’t mean you are not as good; it may just mean you are not as lucky!
  4. Don’t waste too much time in choosing your college by looking at the admission rate because you might get pooled and then accepted by another college anyway.

I hope you guys find this useful!


The author, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a Bank Negara Scholar who will be reading chemical engineering (via engineering) in the University of Cambridge. He can be easily found with a big water bottle (Tupperware) and please save him if he falls into water because he doesn’t know how to swim even though he has told you he does.

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