Life@Imperial- Nicole Siaw

Hi everyone! My name is Nicole and I am a first year Mechanical Engineering student at Imperial College London. I’ve been asked to write about my experience studying here. Whilst I feel that my experience may be different since I came during Covid year, I do hope that this essay gives you some insights that websites and textbooks cannot.

So first… how did I end up here?

Good question hahah. I wonder too sometimes. If you told me three years ago that I’ll be studying Mechanical Engineering at Imperial, I would’ve said: ‘What’s Imperial? And how, wha- why engineering?’ At that time – after my SPM – I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had considered studying everything from engineering and computer science to economics and politics.

But things do fall into place. After a long few months of existential crisis, I eventually decided to study mechanical engineering because I had always enjoyed Maths, was stronger in Physics, and engineering keeps my options open. Once that’s decided, I applied to universities in the UK (including Imperial) via UCAS, and managed to get an offer.

How has the course been so far?

Mechanical Engineering at Imperial is definitely a very demanding but intellectually stimulating course. It’s not a secret that Imperial has a reputation for its workload. One of the biggest adjustments I had to make was getting used to how much time we were expected to study engineering just to keep on top of things (which wasn’t very natural to me because I had always preferred studying at my own pace during A-levels). Whilst it is challenging, it is very satisfying when you finally understand a hard concept or finish a challenging project. 

If you’re interested in the specific content, the Mechanical Engineering department actually puts up very detailed descriptions of the available modules here. The first and second year content is pretty much fixed, while third and fourth years get lots of flexibility. I personally didn’t understand the concept of modules and why they are important before going to university, so feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to talk to you about it!

What I enjoy most about Imperial’s course is that it focuses very heavily on how to apply your knowledge. After learning about a theory/concept, you get lots of problem sheet questions on how this is used in the real world, lab scenarios, and projects. Whilst many will disagree because projects and lab reports are painful hahah, I personally find them a lot more interesting than the theory. For example, I remember spending my entire first term learning about the basic theories of gears in my design and manufacture module and just not understanding anything at all. I even remember questioning my life choices because if I can’t be excited about gears, what am I doing here in Mechanical Engineering when that’s literally what we study lol. However, in the second term, we were already thrown in the deep end and given the task to design our own gear boxes. Whilst I felt super stressed out in the first week, not understanding anything, by the end of the project, all the knowledge about gears, mechanics, materials.. etc. suddenly made sense to me. Completing that project was genuinely so satisfying.

If I were to say something I dislike, it would be how specialised the course is from the outset. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your preference. I personally am someone that always had many interests outside of engineering (sports, economics, politics etc.), so I sometimes get frustrated that I have to spend so much time on my degree and can’t take some time off for my other interests (just sometimes). Also, there aren’t many module options if you want to learn something other than STEM  (there are some, just not many) because Imperial is a very STEM focused university. I guess that’s the nature of a UK degree (compared to US or Australia for example) and especially an engineering degree because most engineering core modules are fixed for the first two years. If having that flexibility is something that is important to you, do take this into consideration. 

Having said that, these are really minor complaints hahah. I honestly don’t have much complaints about it. It is a very good degree overall and I am happy to be here. It definitely trains you to think critically, your work ethics, and ability to take up challenges and the course is very well planned out and delivered. 

Feel free to reach out to me if you want to know more about Mechanical Engineering at Imperial!

How has online learning and teaching been like during Covid year?

All our lectures, tutorials, labs everything have been moved online. Although it is different from being on campus, I genuinely do think that Imperial has tried its absolute best to give us a good learning experience. All the lectures and tutorials are well organised so that it is easy to look for them, and they’ve been trying to give us a lot more support than normal. For example, they’ve been organising extra tutorial sessions, drop in support sessions and even study groups so that we can still have channels to ask for help, even if we don’t get to meet people that often.

I would say that online learning isn’t all that bad! I’ve found that recordings help me understand a lot better than live lectures because I can rewind, pause and just take a breather during the lectures. It also gives me a lot more flexibility with my time – so I can study when I feel best (for me its in the mornings), and not be bound by a timetable. I’m so used to this now that I honestly don’t know if I can pay attention when we return to live lectures ahah.

The downside is that you just don’t get to meet people that often, and you have to be much more disciplined than normal. Nonetheless, I am quite surprised that you can still find friends/help if you want to. Just don’t be afraid to text someone for help! Even if you feel its ‘awkward’ or ‘weird’ to ask someone you’ve never met before. More often than not they’re also in the same boat and want to make friends too. As for discipline, it’s just something you have to learn to do, online or not. That’s really just a part of the uni experience. 

What about societies?

There’s lots of societies to get involved in Imperial and outside of Imperial! Just take a look at the list of the societies within Imperial itself! Outside of Imperial, you could consider joining Malaysian societies such as UKEC, ICMS, YME, MBIOS… (and so many more). You don’t have to feel pressured to join, but if something looks interesting to you, I would definitely say just go for it because they’re a great way to meet people, to take a break from work, or even for personal/career development reasons. After all, trying different things is what makes the uni experience so special. 

If you are planning to come to Imperial, do keep a lookout for the Malaysian society at Imperial before you come! They are a great source of information and normally they host freshers events in Malaysia in the summer before you come to the UK. Once you’re here, they do their best to help you settle down – from ice breaking events, to sports, to social events. Especially if it is your first time away from home, the Malaysian society does its best to make your transition as comfortable as possible in your time here. 

Life in London

As for London, it is genuinely an exciting place to live in. There’s so many things to see and do here – my favourite is just to go out and walk aimlessly around London with my friends. I think my biggest surprise when I got here is how international the city is. If you just take a 30 minute walk around the parks in London, you can hear maybe 5-10 different languages being spoken. That’s why although I am an international, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a minority. It’s a very open, diverse, city to live in. Just remember to take care of yourself whenever you’re out and about in London. 

Well that is about it from me and I hope this article has been somewhat helpful to you! I’ve tried to recount my experiences as best as I can. If you want to know more about Mechanical Engineering, Imperial, how I got here or just want to chat, please feel free to reach out at siawchonglin@gmail.com! I’d be more than happy to chat with you hehe. Till then, see you and take care!


Nicole Siaw is a first year student studying MEng Engineering at Imperial College London and she is still figuring out what she wants to pursue when she graduates. In her free time, she practices her karate and loves to read!

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