I’m onto my second year reading Biological Natural Sciences at Homerton College, Cambridge.
Being a very disorganised and somewhat spontaneous person, my application to a university as fussy as Cambridge was … not great, to say the least.
It started with the UCAS application. In the early stages, while others were furiously typing away, I had a severe case of writer’s block. On top of not knowing what to write, I put it off for a long time, right up to the final days of the school’s internal deadline. I still distinctly remember the manic state I was in, furiously coming up with a rather poor first draft that was littered with repetition. This nightmare fuel of piss-poor planning will be recurring theme throughout my application process.
Then comes the time to choose a College – in case you’re wondering, the constituent Colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge are the ones in charge of admissions, and most people apply to a College of choice. As Colleges are where students are housed in and taken care of, it is an important aspect of your life as a student. I was a little impatient, and I chose my College mostly out of a whim, rather than sinking in time to browse through College websites. In hindsight, I don’t regret my choice, but I would highlyrecommend spending more than 20 minutes choosing a College!
In addition to the UCAS application as mentioned, an application to Cambridge requires you to complete an additional “questionnaire” called the COPA. It’s basically an extra UCAS application, with its own optional personal statement (1200 characters). While there are some cases where these are omitted, I would advise against this – don’t take your chances, do it.
Next comes the admission tests. Most Oxbridge courses mandate this, and Natural Sciences is no exception. I had to complete the NSAA, which is designed to be difficult to complete, let alone complete perfectly, like most admissions tests. However, you should get accustomed to the ridiculous time constraints, so practice is a must. There aren’t a lot of NSAA past papers, due to the NSAA being a rather recent addition to Cambridge’s arsenal, so practise with other papers relevant to your course first. For biology, the BMAT gives a good approximation of the speed expected in multiple choice questions. Leave the NSAA past papers to a week or two prior to D-Day.
If you’re getting interviewed in the UK, invitations start rolling in a few weeks after the tests are completed. Most people will get to this stage, as Cambridge is less stringent in their test score requirements relative to Oxford. They will ask you to fill in a form confirming your attendance – please read your emails thoroughly. I recall frantically asking hotel reception for a printer, then using CamScanner to scan my signed form, the day before the interview. Sigh.
Of course, there’s the interview, which may be the hardest to prepare for. No, it’s not because you have to know X or Y (you only need your A-levels), or answer for your College choices. They can’t care less. Who they’re looking for are people that can think on their feetand solve problems. Most of the time, they’re not even looking for the right answer – they just want to know your thought process. As such, ‘preparing’ for an interview by Oxbridge is not to memorise everything under the sun. Rather, the only way to prepare is to ready your mental and emotional aptitude to analyse problems, present your ideas and accept new ideas. This means you must engage with the interviewers, and say or write down what you think; an interviewer can only help or correct you if you tell them what you’re thinking of! Other than that, you’ll want to avoid feeling intimidated or feeling the need to impress your interviewers. Try to establish a rapport with them; interviewers often look for people that they would like to teach in their supervisions. Sadly, this does mean that most interviews are heavily luck-based – there’s no way of telling if you’ll get along well with your interviewers that day, or that a stroke of bad luck means they have a bad first impression. Nevertheless, practising and remembering to continuously engage with them should help get you as close to interview-ready as you can. If you can, do a few mock interviews. Cambridge’s Malaysian Society offers these during November, so keep your eyes peeled!
In hindsight, I could only chalk up to my “success” mostly on luck. I was lucky that there was leniency and leg room for me to scrape by for my lack of organisation. The NSAA paper allowed me to choose only chemistry questions to do, rather than awful biology essays. My interviewers were extremely friendly people, but were firm when they believed I needed some help.
Nevertheless, despite all the shortcomings, there is one aspect to my application which worked out: reading a lot. I was a fairly avid book reader at the time, which allowed me to explore my options and decide on what I liked best. It also helped strengthen my personal statement. If you’re an aspiring biologist, there are a few books I’d like to recommend!
- A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg (some valuable insights from the discoverer of CRISPR’s ability to do gene-editing)
- Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans (very accessible, entertaining, and concise description of recent advances in biology, and what we can do with them)
- Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (from the guy crazy enough to “compete” against the US government in sequencing the human genome)
- Any of Dawkins’ books about evolutionary biology, especially The Selfish Gene (try to avoid his other books about atheism, entertaining or infuriating as they may be)
Finally, my best advice for those who’d like to apply is … do it! If you believe you have the grades and capabilities to succeed in Oxbridge, or if other people are saying that you do, there’s a decent chance that you have a good shot to make it to the interview stage. If it were not for the latter, I would never have entertained the possibility of “wasting a slot on UCAS”, especially when I was having a difficult time in the early months of A-levels.
Alright, that’s all from me, really. If you’ve managed to get this far, congratulations, you get 10 internet points.
If not, TL;DR:
- Stay organised and be thorough throughout the entire application process
- Do your research before choosing your university or your College (if you’re aiming for Oxbridge)
- Prepare for your admissions tests, because the time constraints are ridiculous
- Academic interviews in Oxbridge ask of you to solve problems, not know everything. Engage with the interviewer, stay calm and focused, and build rapport!
- Read far and wide
The author is currently dying reading Biological Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge. In addition to
slacking off studying with his mates, the author is also an avid amateur cook, Spotify explorer and graphic designer, all of which he holds very strong opinions on.