Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m studying Engineering in the University of Cambridge under the JPA scholarship. In my free time I play the guitar (as an amateur), read, and help out with my school’s Christian Fellowship. I have no pet dragon.
What was included in the application process to your university?
The main things I had to do were
1) decide to apply to Cambridge,
2) fill in a (quite tedious) online form called the COPA,
3) sit for an interview and
4) do some written tests – the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) and a short essay on Engineering.
What did you include in your personal statement?
My personal statement consisted of a brief introduction explaining why I wanted to study Engineering, followed by a few paragraphs on some loosely Engineering-related things that I did, and lastly a bit about my extracurricular activities in school.
When I wrote my personal statement, I had really done very little that was directly related to Engineering, so I had to find some rather creative ways to link the things that I had done to the subject. Nothing I did was really spectacular, so I mainly tried to show (and kindle!) my inward enthusiasm for the subject.
I wrote 80% of my personal statement in one 1-hour sitting, to get it over and done with, like ripping off a band-aid. The rest consisted of minor tweaks here and there. My lecturer was unsatisfied with it, but in the end I submitted it anyway, thinking that any rewrite would probably not be much better (I have friends who rewrote the entire thing several times). I read my personal statement recently, and I think my lecturer was right – it wasn’t very good, so I think it would be best not to enclose it. It’s a good thing Cambridge also has your interview to go on!
Did you have to take any tests outside your normal course for your application?
The only test I did besides A-Levels was IELTS. Cambridge asked for a relatively high grade, an average band score of 7.5 with all of the individual components having a score of 7.0 or higher. English is my first language. I didn’t go for any classes, but I did go online and find out the format of the test, as well as borrow some example questions from friends who did go for classes. I ended up getting an average of 8.0, with the writing section dangerously close to forcing me to redo the paper at 7.0.
If you have trouble with English, try to find an IELTS class. Some colleges, like KDU (IELTS classes in KDU: http://www.kdu.edu.my/school-of-pre-university/english-language/149-ielts-preparatory-course) and KYUEM provide them. If you can’t find one, try to find past papers and answers online or from a friend.
How was the interview session ?
The interview was by far the most interesting part of my application, and also the most distressing. The questions were fairly simple maths and physics ones, and the interviewer mainly wanted to test my understanding of basic concepts (which was sometimes lacking, but he was nice about it). The room had only me and a lone interviewer in it. The interviewer was quite friendly, though he dived almost immediately into the interview questions. He drew diagrams and equations on sheets of paper, then asked me questions based on them.
If I answered correctly, he would probe deeper into my understanding (“Why do you say that? What makes you think this way?”). If I answered wrongly (which happened more often than not!), he would guide me to the correct answer and see if I could follow. After 30 minutes of being corrected, I left the interview room more or less certain I wouldn’t be getting through (which goes to show sometimes you’re mistaken about your mistakes!). The only preparation I did was go to this website: http://i-want-to-study-engineering.org/. It’s set up by the Cambridge University Engineering Department, so there’s no better place to go.
What do you think contributed to your success of your application?
I must say I am not sure what it could have been. As I have already indicated, my personal statement was nothing special (and devoid of any work experience or special projects) and my interview certainly could have gone much better, even considering the fact that they are not looking for first-time right answers. My answer to the written test that I did was similarly average. One thing I can say is that Cambridge asked for the UMS scores of my first few exam modules, and I had done very well.
What advice do you have for future applicants?
I suppose if there’s one thing to be learned from my experience, it’s this: you may not think you are a spectacular student, and you may not have done much related to your subject. It’s fine. If you want to go for it, just try; you may be surprised (as I certainly was!). Be warned though, while the application process itself is not really stressful, it becomes stressful once you invest yourself in it and put in the time and effort. When I decided to apply to Cambridge, I was quite nonchalant about it, but as time went by I got more and more invested, and more and more worked up, until the interview became a kind of shadow looming over the year. Try not to let it get to that. Getting into Oxbridge is not everything.
Andrew Foong is a JPA scholar pursuing Engineering in the University of Cambridge. He has a profound love for cookies, especially chocolate ones.