Applying for Medicine in the UK

Medicine and UCAS: The toughest thing you’ll go through as an A-level student

I remember hearing from my family members and seniors about how tough it is to be a medical applicant to UK universities. In fact, getting a place at any university seemed close to impossible. And this is the point of this article: to debunk that myth. Do not be mistaken – medicine is by far one of the toughest courses to get a place for. However, if you know how to prepare, what to expect and assuming you give twice the maximum effort you could give, you can get a place.

Firstly, I will explain the medical application process (as everyone else does), type of medicine courses, tips (my experience going through interviews) and finally how I handled receiving bad news! (i.e. getting rejected)

Medicine Application Process

UCAS allows students to apply to 5 UK universities. However, for reasons I cannot comprehend nor know of, we can only apply to 4 universities for medicine. Bummer. Fret not, you only need ONE offer – still possible.

Prior to the application process, you will need to undertake an attachment programme, for whatever length of time, wherever, and in any field you want. I shadowed a medical officer in a private hospital. Not the most exciting of options but it got the job done. The point of this is to grant you a glimpse into the medical profession and everything that it involves. The length and the activities you choose do not determine anything – it is what you learn from it and how you reflect on experiences that determines whether it will be fruitful.

During the application process, you will be required to write a small essay about anything in the world, and this is called a personal statement. This is, some would say, the most important piece of writing where you must give them reasons why you should be allowed to study in their university: basically selling yourself. Most people find this essay to be the hardest thing they had ever done before, while some people write theirs in a week. I, myself, took more than 20 drafts to get it right and that took me just over 5 months. Long indeed. Now, you do not need to start that early – I only intensely worked on it for 1-2 months. I will include my own guide to writing a good medicine personal statement below – hopefully it will help.

Admissions Tests

Now, medical universities use entrance exams. They are really tough exams which absolutely test you and yes, you have to prepare for them. The entrance exams are called BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) and the UKCAT (UK Clinical Aptitude Test). The UKCAT can be taken before or during your application (or even after, though I would not recommend that). The BMAT can only be taken after submitting your application, usually in the first week of November.

UKCAT: 5 sections – one of which is the situational judgement test (SJT). Some universities do not take into account the SJT, but some do. Each section comes up to 900 marks. Total score is 2800 for the four sections and you are graded in bands (Band 1 to 4, I think) for the SJT. The total score (out of 2800) is averaged over the four subjects and that is your UKCAT result. Try to aim for 700 and above – some universities are very competitive, and 5 marks can make a huge difference. In addition, this test is taken on a computer at the test site: your results will be given to you immediately.

BMAT: 3 sections – Section A: Aptitude; Section B: Theory based on maths and science; Section C: English essay. A tough exam. Sections A and B are graded out of 9. Average is around 4. Section C is graded based on the quality of the essay (1 to 5) and your English (A to E). Work hard and start early – aim to get above 5 or 6 in Section 1 and above 7 or 8 in Section 2. A score of 4A and above in Section 3 will get you anywhere (even Oxbridge!).

After submitting your application, you will be put onto UCAS Track where you will begin the seemingly-endless days of checking Track in the middle of the night awaiting any updates. Tip: they always email you if there is an update so do not do what I did, please!

Once that is all done, and you have done your entrance exams, you begin the wait (AGAIN!) to see if you get shortlisted for the interview process. All universities have interviews (except Edinburgh – they have a criterion whereby they rank their candidates). Interviews will take a long time to master and prepare for – they are hard work indeed. Some universities have their interviews in Singapore/Malaysia, whereas others require you to fly over to the UK. Blimey. I would advise you not to get too worried about the prospect of having to go through the interviews. It is really a good experience, once you’re there it’s not at all daunting and really enjoyable. Interviews are an opportunity to have a friendly chat with top professors in the field! Generally here’s when you’d be notified:

Cambridge & Oxford: 2nd week of January

UCL: 3 days after final date of interview for international applicants – can take 2-4 weeks depending when you get the interview. [some people have said they have received it 3 days after the 1st interview date – so it can vary]

Queen Mary: 2 weeks after interview

Edinburgh: Late February/Early March

By March, you should have gotten your decisions. Do not fret over what the outcome could be (unless if its motivating you to work harder!). It is alright to get rejections. I myself got rejected by Cambridge, even after working mightily long and hard for it. Think of it as a learning curve – you are meant to grow and improve every step of the way.

Personal Statement (PS)

This is a 4000-character essay where you are given the seemingly impossible task of selling yourself to convince them to take you on as a student. Hard. But doable. Though, you are not going to sell yourself through describing what you have achieved and done: what they prize most above everything else is a good thought process. Explain how you think and reflect in each sentence. Ask yourself why, why and why all the time and then you will find yourself inferring and thinking critically.

In your PS, you should ideally explain your motivations behind this career choice, show a deep understanding of what the profession is all about (including the negative bits of it all), show what you have learnt from extra-curricular activities (no more than one paragraph) and finally, show what you have learnt from your attachment and how that has cemented your career choice. Good personal statements will be more academic and reflective than descriptive (and about your achievements). Talk to them about something sciencey. If you are planning on applying to BMAT universities, and especially Oxbridge universities, you should include at least one paragraph talking about one scientific topic which interests you, which also contains your reflections. For example, talk about cancer/infectious diseases etc.

I would recommend you to only put in 1 paragraph for your extra-curriculars – they can go into your reference (which is done by your teacher/someone in Sixth Form). Try to get them to write something good for you and if possible, let them know what you’d like to see in your reference (as in, what extracurriculars you think are necessary to include in the personal statement)!

Avoid jargon, waffling (unnecessary sentences) and overly emotive descriptions – they do not really care. They care more about what you learnt from your experiences and your thoughts on everything. Reflect, reflect and reflect should be your mantra for personal statements.

Here’s how I wrote my PS: one paragraph of introduction explaining why you chose medicine (only briefly! ‘Why medicine’ has to be evident throughout the PS and they must be able to see that, so you should be capable of expressing that passion very well). Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 should contain one theme each [related if possible but varying at the same time]. This will show that you are a wholesome person – always thinking of varying perspectives. Your PS should, in overall, carry one overarching theme/point. Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 should reflect that if possible. Paragraph 5 should be about extra-curricular stuff and more importantly, what you have learnt from it or how you have grown because of it.

INTERVIEWS

Every medical school requires an interview bar one – University of Edinburgh. A friend once told me: medical interviews are basically a platform where you try to teach them something whilst learning something from them. You are teaching them about your mindset – your perspective of things and maybe they’ll actually learn something! In addition, listening to whatever they say, you are inadvertently learning. It is also an intellectual conversation – simple. Talk to them like how you’d speak to your headmaster/head of sixth form or even any teacher. They want to pick your brains, nothing else: not your physical prowess or other, but to assess whether you can be a good student, doctor and ultimately contribute to society (or the university) down the road.

Some interviews are long, some are short – it matters, but arguably it should simply be an incentive to give it your best shot if you’ve been shortlisted for it. Just 15 minutes with the professor/doctors of your dreams. You can handle it 😊

Interviews come in mostly these forms:

  1. Panel (2/3/4 on one) – most universities
  2. One-on-one – Cambridge (if you opt for an interview in Malaysia)
  3. MMI – multiple stations where you move around, completing a task/answering a few questions at each station, each of which is manned by different interviewers.

Every interview will be different and there is not one method which will help you go through each brilliantly. The following is what I know about interviews. My knowledge regarding MMI is not very good – I did not apply to MMI interviews nor did I get any interviews that were MMI-based.

Types of interviews/format:

  1. Science – mostly Oxbridge
  2. General/about anything – UCL [they think interesting people make good doctors]
  3. Traditional – the usual type of interview where you get ‘why medicine’ etcetera.

Challenge of interviews:

  1. They go through thousands of candidates – the pressure of trying to stand out.
  2. Nerves! Some of you may not have gone through any interviews before or even anything as important as this. Trust me: it is completely fine to be nervous. I would be worried if you weren’t!
  3. Body language – trust me when I say 25-40% of the decision process goes into demonstrating yourself as someone sociable, open, trustworthy, passionate and simply good company. Basically, whatever a good doctor should be.
  4. Insightful opinions – it may be hard to think of the best answer when you are put on the spot. Sometimes, you finish the interview thinking you could’ve done better, or said something smarter. I have had those thoughts after every interview I’ve gone through. What I now realise is that if you went through that, everyone else probably has too.
  5. How do I remember everything? If I forget, and what if I stutter (etc.)? → It is completely fine. It is expected of you!
  6. 15 MINUTES? HOW?? What if I mess up?

If you notice, most of these challenges take place within your own mind. How can you then solve them? → Do what trains the mind, which is practice! Build confidence, train your mind to generate better and more wholesome ideas and Bob’s your uncle!

My experience in interviews:

  1. Cambridge:

I sat for my interview during my AS exam in KL, before my BMAT because I opted to do it here. Crickey.

This interview is not really an interview but more of a private tuition class (i.e. supervisions). They are not interviewing you to see your capability of being the best doctor out there, but the ability to cope/thrive under the supervision system, which is small-group tutoring.

The pro of doing it here – cheap, no jet lag!

The cons of doing it here:

  1. During AS/A2. [which may be good because it forces you to remember your academics, but in my case, it was a con – Maths was long and gone and I had lost my understanding about some topics which hence resulted in my being unable to answer one question]
  2. 30 minutes to convince them where you’d have twice/thrice as long in Cambridge itself. If you mess up one question – chances are, you may not get in.
  3. Conducted by someone who may not necessarily be your college admissions tutor/academic professor. Thus, your college is acting on the recommendations of someone, so although they have been doing it for a long time, it is not the same!
  4. Unlucky – some people get similar, easier questions whereas others get more complex problems. It really depends on your luck!

Now, what do I mean by answer questions correctly/mess it up?

Answering it correctly means to explain them your thinking process, refer to the basics to solve the complex problem and then get to your answer. You may stumble and be inaccurate/wrong but that does not matter. You just need to think out loud, express your rational opinions (think of every question as a KBAT/HOTS question or Moral essay question – just ‘goreng’ your answer).

For more advice/thoughts, email me! Preferably if it aids in deciding your uni choices/if you have gotten the interview!

  1. UCL

This is more of an interview than the above but it felt more like a conversation. We chatted about some weird things which were sometimes unrelated, but at the same time it was really engaging. They were trying to dig into your brain/thinking process like Oxbridge does but instead of using science/maths to do it, they wanted your general thinking process.

The format of this interview is unique – they somehow manage to obtain a copy of your BMAT essay, which is used as a topic of discussion in the interview. The interview is thus split into two ‘parts’, each conducted by another interviewer within a panel of three. The third interviewer is more of an observer – not to ask questions at all. The first part is usually regarding your personal statement, and any general questions. The second part is about the BMAT essay that you have written.

During the first part, they did not ask me about anything even remotely related to medicine, yet still stemming from my PS. Point is, they don’t care if you’re the most academically gifted. They think interesting people make good doctors, so try to be as interesting as you can be, i.e. in your opinions/thoughts.

  1. Queen Mary London/Barts

Queen Mary is another special one – they base half their interview on an article that they would have sent to you two weeks prior to the interview. Besides the interview, the questions that they asked me were very generic. In addition, they used the same questions for everyone – to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed!

Receiving bad news – how?

I received my Cambridge result in the toilet of UCL’s Rockefeller Building – where they interview you at UCL. Not the best of times to have gotten it but again, my word of advice is to always just get it over and done with. Bad news means it just is not meant for you. I had many uneasy nights/sleeps thinking about all the ‘what ifs’, but the end result will not change. I would suggest you to learn from the experience and work on it – you may end up getting a better learning experience in some other university.

Tips

  1. Start early – starting earlier means you have a longer time to develop your PS, the way you think and to develop your character.
  2. Read books – non-fiction books – for this is the best way to learn new concepts/ideas and to develop your character.
  3. Do not ask for too many people’s opinions for your PS. Stick to two persons – but you must ensure they give you good feedback!
  4. Work as hard as you can to improve and get to where you want to get to. It takes smarts and hard work to get into any medical university. Work hard.

Hareneshkaran Kirubakaran, a Bank Negara Malaysia Kijang Emas Scholar, is currently a first year at University College London pursuing a degree in Medicine. He is of a calm and composed nature and one can often find him in the kitchen, attempting futilely to cook curry. Sadly, that is just the tip of the iceberg for Harenesh’s sorrow as he will be single on Valentines for the 20th time this year. If you intend to contact the author, feel free to contact the CollegeLAH Team at contactus@collegelah.com.

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English Personal Statement

Nadia Tasneem is currently a first year undergraduate reading BA in English at University College London (UCL). This personal statement was part of her successful application to University College London (UCL), University of Warwick, Kings College London and University of Bristol for English.


I was not allowed to watch The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or the Golden Compass until I had read the books. As a child, I could not understand why it was, but I complied anyway, and it was these books that encouraged my love of reading. Within three weeks I had finished all of His Dark Materials, and the entirety of the Chronicles within a month. Perhaps what I enjoyed most was not so much the books, but the discussions I had with my parents afterwards, in which they would ask me about beloved characters, hidden messages, highlights, and plotlines. It was these conversations which nurtured my curiosity and helped Literature become an integral part of my upbringing.

When I was just ten, I came across an article in the school library on the portrayal of
marriage in a Midsummer’s Night Dream. Although I was young, the dissection of social
norms seemed sharp and perceptive, especially as in Malaysia the roles in a marriage are
so rigidly defined. I fell in love with plays soon after, Shakespeare’s in particular, and I
quickly learned to appreciate the genius of Puck’s humorous quips. I felt especially excited at his appearances as his comic relief was primarily used as a plot device, meaning that when Robin appeared, so would another twist in the story. I also began to develop an interest in social commentary by reading material revolving around revolution in Les Miserables and the socialism found in Wilde’s Happy Prince, which became fast favourites of mine. The depiction of poverty in these books highlighted the privileges I have grown up with and nurtured a need to show compassion to those in need. As an impressionable young girl, the elements of feminism in Austen’s Emma and Alcott’s Little Women appealed greatly to me as well, but perhaps what affected me the most was Miller’s The Crucible. The rationality of society and courts being affected by religious beliefs terrified me, particularly because in Malaysia, Muslims follow Islamic, not secular, law. The prevalence of religion in my life is perhaps what inspired me to return to Lewis and Pullman’s books in my EPQ, which discusses the influence of religious messages in children’s literature. Lewis’s world depicts the four children as loyal subjects and Aslan as a Christ-like figure, standing in sharp contrast to the chaotic, upsetting child protagonists in Pullman’s trilogy: Lyra and Will, who enact the classic journey to the underworld, a mirror of Christian hell. Both authors deny any religious allegories in their works, yet numerous academic analyses have drawn similar conclusions about the implicit messages to children. More interestingly, only Pullman’s anti-religious books received criticism, whereas Lewis’ writing was universally praised.

Performance poetry provides me with an experimental platform for creative writing. I
regularly attend and compete in poetry slams, as well as recording poems for Malaysian
radio. I also wrote a triptych for the Commonwealth Essay Prize 2017, for which I won a
bronze award. In addition, in my free time, I volunteer for charity events and work in soup kitchens. I also founded a supplementary English program for aboriginal primary school children in Malaysia. The aim of the program was not only to improve the children’s language and encourage education, but also to qualify them for vocational school by helping them break out of the poverty cycle. Last summer, I went back to Malaysia for an internship at the Star newspaper and found the work in the investigative journalism department thrilling, particularly when I was able to cover the Fun With English program that remains so close to my heart.

I hold two grade 8 qualifications in piano and singing and run the performing arts club in college. Balancing my active involvement in music, voluntary work and academic obligations keeps me disciplined and focused, but also inspires me to remain open-minded and creative.


DISCLAIMER: The personal statements on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful personal statements look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good personal statements. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KINDUCAS employs a plagiarism check system that checks applicants’ work against other published writing so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) Personal Statement

This Personal Statement was part of Azman Wazir’s successful application to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), University of Edinburgh and University of Manchester for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).


Observing my grandfather practice Tai Chi every morning led me to pick up Wing Chun. Looking into my Chinese heritage, I was fascinated at how the martial art evoked its origin – its style reminiscent of ‘the softness of water’ as described in the Dao De Jing. Reading commentaries on Taoism, I realised its synonymy with laissez-faire and libertarianism. The interrelation between an ancient Chinese religion to modern political and economic theories enlightened me of the overlap between the fields of philosophy, politics and economics and has driven me to pursue these disciplines at university.

A passion for history, which led me to self-study the subject at IGCSE, was only fed further by A-Level history, where I gained insight into the rise and fall of political institutions. I was especially intrigued by the transformation of the Weimar democracy into a centralised one-party state, where I saw parallels to how autonomous local districts in my country were brought under the purview of the federal government. Having lived in Singapore, my initial perception that authoritarian regimes facilitated stability and economic growth was put into context by my participation in the Malaysia Public Policy Competition, which showed me the inefficiencies of top-down governance; and the difficulties democracies had managing multiple stakeholders. Being the only team of erstwhile strangers in the competition taught us to manage our diversities by capitalising our advantages while compromising our differences. This reflected in our policy of divvying funding and decision-making between state and federal levels, landing us in the semi-finals.

This experience aided me as Head of the Economics Council of the KYUEM Summit, which honed my communication skills and ability to delegate tasks. I found the Summit’s debates surrounding Malaysia’s fiscal reforms as well as participation in free trade agreements stimulating, as these measures were similar to the IMF’s shock therapy recommendations in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, which Malaysia ignored. While this gained Stiglitz’s approval in his ‘Globalisation and its Discontents’, Sharma’s ‘Breakout Nations’ blames Malaysia’s currency controls for causing the fall in its growth rate post-Crisis. This paranoia against ‘foreign speculators’ evoked the sermons condemning ‘Western influences’, resulting in my piece on ‘Islam and Capitalism’, which noted the existence of free capital flows and trade in the Caliphate era.  Analysing contrasting sources from multiple languages required me to formulate my own stances instead of relying on preconceptions.

Interning at CenPRIS, a policy research centre at a top Malaysian university, enabled me to study the ethics of immigration and gave me a glimpse into the philosophical dimensions of politics. Being of immigrant descent myself, Rawls’ Equality Principle appealed to me as a guide on migration policy. Utilitarianism further supported this stance, arguing that denying migrants the right to a better life results in diminished utility for the greatest number. Drafting resolutions in MUN conferences allowed me to witness egoism on a global scale, with individuals and countries pushing their own interests. I was thus able to combine practical concerns with theoretical concepts and economic analyses while writing a policy recommendation on migration.

My multi-ethnic background has endowed me with trilingual fluency, making me aware of subtle inferences lost in translation. My interaction with various segments of society while working part-time in a news outlet led to the realisation that despite an increasingly cosmopolitan world, language barriers isolate the poorest non-Anglophones globally; which preparing a research proposal on social housing reaffirmed. I believe that migration is not just an economic or political question, but a philosophical one, and hope that my degree will allow me to delve into it from these distinct but inseparable fields.


DISCLAIMER: The personal statements on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful personal statements look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good personal statements. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. UCAS employs a plagiarism check system that checks applicants’ work against other published writing so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Government & Economics/ Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) Personal Statement

This Personal Statement was part of Bhadra Sreejith’s successful application to the LSE for Government and Economics, the University of Warwick for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and the University of Edinburgh for Politics and Economics.


To change the world, one must first understand it. I come from Kerala, a state with a strong tradition of Marxist ideology and the highest Human Development Index in India, despite its low levels of economic growth. This has given me the opportunity to observe the effect of government policies on development and shown me that economics and politics are inexorably linked, thus leading to my desire to study them, in order to understand the world further.

I enjoy studying A-level economics and try to read beyond the confines of the syllabus. Paul Krugman’s ‘End This Depression Now’ alerted me to the consequences of different macroeconomic policies countries use to cope with a crisis such as the ‘Great Recession’. His criticism of austerity interested me in the political repercussions of austerity, such as the Greek protests of 2011, and the increased popularity of fascist parties. I have also become particularly interested in the economics of developing nations, fuelled by my observation of India, where massive wealth and desperate poverty often coexist. In particular, I desired to learn about the connection between democracy and economic growth. To this end, I read ‘Development as Freedom’ by Amartya Sen. I found it to be engrossing as it argued the case for political participation being a measure of human freedom, and constituting development in its own right. While autocracies may claim a higher economic growth rate, I like the idea that democracy is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

To further my interests in the theory of freedom, I watched Michael Sandel’s ‘Justice’ series of lectures and became attracted to the concept of utilitarianism. It was interesting to relate utilitarianism and the concept of the general good to Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ and the general will. However, I feel that the espousal of the general good could often lead to totalitarianism and the ‘tyranny of the majority’. It could also be manipulated by a loud, determined minority, such as a lobbying group, when applied to current politics. I also read ‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill and found his defense of free speech and liberty compelling, noting its continued relevance in the modern world.

My fascination with politics has been reinforced by taking part in Model United Nations conferences. They have sharpened my debating skills and allowed me to look at situations from the perspectives of various countries with different political systems, teaching me the importance of keeping abreast of current affairs. I am interested to note the consequences of a gradual shift in power towards the East, such as the G-8 gradually being replaced by the G-20 due to the rise of India and China. Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘The New Asian Hemisphere’ described this rise in detail, but I did not think he considered that countries such as India have too many domestic problems to take on a more dominant international role. Living in both Malaysia and India has shown me how differences in political systems can contribute vastly to the amount of political freedom citizens of the country enjoy. I would like to explore these differences in detail at university.

I enjoy writing. I am the Editor-in-Chief of the student magazine, and through this I have learned to write clearly and clarify arguments. I was also vice-President of the local Toastmasters club, which put me in charge of organizing meetings and inviting speakers from other clubs, allowing me to improve my public speaking skills. As a hobby, I play the piano. Balancing my A-levels alongside my extra-curricular activities has proved to be a challenging task, but my time management skills have improved as a result. By studying in a university in the UK, I hope to understand why the world is the way it is, and hopefully change it.


DISCLAIMER: The personal statements on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful personal statements look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good personal statements. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. UCAS employs a plagiarism check system that checks applicants’ work against other published writing so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Actuarial Science/ Maths & Stats/ MORSE Personal Statement

Lim Yeak Seng is currently reading Actuarial Science at the London School of Economics and Politics (LSE). This personal statement is part of his successful application to the London School of Economics and Politics (LSE), City University London, Heriot-Watt University and University of Warwick for MORSE.


I am intrigued by how stochastic processes are applied in probability theory, in order to capture uncertainty in real world dynamic phenomena. The book ‘Time Series Modelling of Water Resources and Environmental Systems’ by K.W. Hipel impresses me with its employment of statistical methodologies for scientific data analysis of environmental time series. The research undertaken by Silva et al in optimising the generation of power from hydroelectric plants, by utilising linear multivariate time series models to model flows into the reservoirs, has saved Brazil about $87 million in five years. From my research, I believe the time series model can provide a rigorous mathematical formulation of underlying structures and their relation to observable random variables, via its latent variables. I realise the importance of holistic and pragmatic time series models in simulating real world situations and for predicting possible future outcomes.

I was introduced to cladistics by the entomologist, W. Hennig in ‘Phylogenetic Systematics’. The cladograms are assembled by computer analysis of similarities and differences between species, such as characters and DNA sequences. Linnaeus’s classification scheme and Haeckel’s Tree Of Life provide a solid foundation for mathematicians to catalogue nature’s diversity and to reveal the secret of evolution.  In 2010, D. Theobald effectively applied cladistics methods to test this hypothesis, known as ‘universal common ancestry’; the results came down firmly in favour of a common ancestry for all present-day life. I am impressed by how the construction of cladograms can make the classification of organisms more systematic, avoiding the subjective decisions of traditional taxonomy. In the future, I aspire to contribute to society by utilising my numerical ability to analyse statistical data in order to construct models with greater predictive power.

As an intern at Yong Sing Insurance, I was introduced to a variety of policies. I am fascinated by how an actuary formulates a policy, taking different variables into consideration with the aim of maximising profits. My second internship at Hong Leong Bank exposed me to the resilience of Malaysia’s existing financial systems. An integrated regional crisis management framework, alongside surveillance mechanisms, puts policymakers in a constant state of preparedness for any eventuality. I am intrigued by how better risk assessments by an actuary allow the best decisions to be made by policymakers for implementing pre-emptive measures. The causes and impacts of the current world financial crisis fascinate me. My reading suggests that the limitations and defects of D. X. Li’s Gaussian Copula model caused the U.S. Subprime Mortgage crisis to aggravate. The unstable correlation between financial quantities and the unpredictability of the parameters of the economic models have made it difficult to assess hugely complex risks accurately. In my view, sufficient historical data about actual defaults needs to be assembled and the indication of rising default risk, such as the soaring price of credit default swap, should be considered when constructing statistical models.

I enjoy solving complicated maths questions and I am currently enrolled in a Data Analysis and Statistical Inference module on Coursera. I am very curious about how statistical theories work; currently, I am studying frequentist and Bayesian inference.  Both are useful in parameter estimation, depending on the data size and the availability of the prior distribution.

I have developed my leadership skills and discipline as a Scout Leader. Working as the Treasurer of the Maths Club has given me invaluable experience in managing funds. I enjoy sports and athletics; I represented my District in the International Ekiden Run.

I am a motivated, passionate and determined student who is looking forward to acquiring the skills I need by studying as an undergraduate at a prestigious UK university.


DISCLAIMER: The personal statements on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful personal statements look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good personal statements. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. UCAS employs a plagiarism check system that checks applicants’ work against other published writing so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Physics Personal Statement

Jiaxen Lau is currently reading Physics in University of Oxford. This personal statement was part of his successful application to University of Oxford, Royal Holloway, University of London; University of Warwick, University of St Andrew and Durham University.


For me, the most exciting thing about physics is the thought of what it can help us achieve in our future. The fundamental nature of subatomic particles could develop new forms of qubit-based computers; superconductors could alleviate inefficiencies in public transport and electronic circuits; the nature of space-time could even allow a fast spaceship to noticeably slow its own passing of time. As I explore books and other media, I find that our world’s intricate clockwork is beautiful, intellectually stimulating and full of discoveries to be made. By uncovering and understanding these phenomena, we allow ourselves to make great leaps in our own technological capabilities. I aspire to explore the physical world with like-minded peers and professors, as well as do research to contribute to this extraordinary field.

I keep up to date with current developments in Physics through online science news and communities including the Institute of Physics. To add to my knowledge of physics, above popular physics books, I am currently also reading Feynman’s transcribed lectures and undertaking Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum course online. I find them challenging yet rewarding, as they use more complex diagrams and intriguingly more sophisticated manipulations of mathematics than my A-levels. I especially admire their intricate use of mathematical principles I know to spawn ideas in physics, such as the use of geometric lengths of a light ray’s path from different reference frames to arrive at the theory of special relativity, or the solving of differential equations to determine concepts in classical mechanics.

Physics expresses itself through mathematics, and apart from representing my school in various maths and science competitions, I had the opportunity to practise using mathematics during an internship with Accenture, where I helped to develop software to predict a company’s categorical expenditures. The project involved using Excel and Visual Basic programming to manipulate large amounts of data. I enjoyed applying my mathematical knowledge, in particular the process of generating and understanding various graphs from the complex sets of data I sorted, and then modelling and making predictions from trends. I also enjoyed writing technical procedures and explanations for the software’s user manual.

Becoming my school’s Film Club President taught me a lot about communication. Making films made me think of creative ways to deliver information; I also enjoyed teaching junior members in the club filmography-techniques and how to use editing software. Over time, I learned to articulate ideas more efficiently and to think from others’ perspectives to make my explanations captivating. I further practise this skill in my school’s maths club, where I regularly prepare and give mathematical demonstrations and lessons. I love to talk about useful applications of mathematics in the sciences; one of my favourite topics to present was an introduction to Fermi Problems, an estimation technique used by scientists to induce approximate values from limited data. Sharing ideas and teaching others allows me to solidify information in my own mind, which I find helpful when studying. I look forward to challenging myself to use these skills at university to convey increasingly complex and technical ideas in physics to others.

As my school’s Head Boy, I lead a team of prefects in a multitude of activities aimed at maintaining a positive learning environment, while also playing a part in coordinating social events such as fundraisers, concerts and the Sixth Form induction. I find that the organisational, time management and teamwork skills I gain through these experiences help me to plan my studies well and work comfortably in groups.


DISCLAIMER: The personal statements on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful personal statements look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good personal statements. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. UCAS employs a plagiarism check system that checks applicants’ work against other published writing so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Pre-U Subject Choices for UK-Bound Students

Earlier this year, the Russell Group published their 2015/16 “Informed Choice” pamphlet, accompanied by a video, explaining the value and importance of taking facilitating subjects as a dominant part of a student’s Pre-U subject choices. These facilitating subjects, e.g. the sciences, history, maths, further maths, languages, English Literature and geography, as the lobbying group for the 24 research-intensive universities characterised, open up a wide range of options for university entries and career choices. Indeed, across the Russell Group universities and more specifically the top echelon of this group e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, facilitating subjects go far more than mere “opening up wide options”. Their “preferred subjects” reflect their umbrella group’s facilitating subjects, albeit with more restrictions and are seen as subjects to rigorously formulate the skills necessary for different courses at their universities. LSE and certain colleges of Oxford and Cambridge openly publish a list of preferred and non-preferred subjects. Generally, non-traditional ones such as accounting, business studies, sociology fall into the latter group. Indeed, reading the Russell Group’s “Informed Choice” pamphlet and watching their videos will immediately kick this question into your mind – “Why does this seem so aloof of the Malaysian context?” Very clearly, “Informed Choice” is meant for the British audience. Malaysian schools/colleges are shaped very differently, likewise the subjects they offer and the normative biases that parents, peers and teachers tend to have.

 

Where should I start?

Generally, you will have to consider three things – the prerequisite subjects that your preferred courses have, the preferences your universities/courses have and whether or not you will be able immerse yourself into the joyous journey of learning the subject. While the first two are technically important criteria that you should never forsake, the last one tend to be underrated. I cannot stress how important that is, given that you will be spending more than a year studying that subject, dedicating your soul to the devil just to go to university. You might as well just murder yourself over a subject that you will enjoy.

Let’s deal with the bits where you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice i.e. the first two criteria are relatively simple to fulfil. Go on to the websites of the courses that you are applying to and take note of the required and suggested subjects. For instance, Physics at Oxford requires applicants to have studied Maths and Physics at Pre-University level and likewise, Medicine at Edinburgh will require Chemistry and Biology. In the “Informed Choice” pamphlet, though insufficient and inadequate, there is a generalised list of prerequisites for commonly applied courses. These are essential subjects that you must take to be considered by your prospective universities.

Figuring out which subjects are not preferred by your course also follows a similar approach. Though most universities will not make it explicitly clear that they don’t prefer certain subjects, Cambridge and LSE definitely publishes their own non-exhaustive list. Nonetheless, their list generally applies to the other Russell Group universities, having all collectively expressed that they prefer at least 2 facilitative subjects before releasing their first series of “Informed Choice” guidelines. There are, however, caveats regarding this. The most competitive courses and universities tend to prefer applicants not to have any “soft” subjects e.g. media studies, accounting (even for accounting applicants), law (yes, for law applicants as well) at all. Keep in mind that while not all non-facilitative subjects are soft subjects, all soft subjects are non-facilitative. Indeed, there is hardly any strict definitions of what soft and hard subjects are but the generic implication is that hard subjects formulate the core skills that are useful in undergraduate study rather than specific skills that soft subjects tend to train. Another generalisation that you can take note of is that traditional subjects such as economics, the hard sciences, maths and the ones in the list of facilitative subjects are also considered to be hard subjects. Moreover, there are some statistical backing to this preference. In 2008, Durham University ran a study on the relative difficulty of different A-level subjects and there was an obvious trend that across all 5 statistical models used, “traditional” and facilitative subjects tend to be harder than otherwise. Though more than half a decade ago, deviations hardly were significant across years.

The last bit is fairly straightforward at face value, choose the subjects that you will actually enjoy. Of course, if you’re eyeing on the more competitive universities e.g. Oxbridge, LSE, Imperial, look only at the traditional/hard subjects. However, considering the different circumstances UK-bound Malaysians can be in – being enrolled in a college/school with limited, bundled subject choices, restricted by IBDP requirements or simply limited by the choices available via STPM/Matrikulasi, this is a tricky question to answer.

 

In the foreseeable future, accessible Malaysian schools/colleges are probably not going to teach subjects like Latin, politics, geography, history and classical studies. And you have just told me that I shouldn’t take accounting, business studies, law and a whole lot of subjects that are bundled together. Just what subjects should I take?

Indeed, unless you have the luck and privilege of being admitted to the more resourceful schools such as KTJ, KYUEM or ISKL, your choices of subjects will be restricted. For one, elite schools like these offer almost every traditional subjects there is, including A-level Geography, Music, History and IB French, German etc. If you are in schools of this sort, you don’t have any problems. Just choose the traditional subjects that you will enjoy and are related to the course that you want to further your studies in. Elsewhere across the board, the hard sciences and maths are often bundled together in for A-level, Matrikulasi colleges and STPM schools. The problem begins for students who wish to take on the social sciences/humanities in competitive universities. Often, traditional humanities/social sciences are bundled together with non-traditional ones e.g. “English Literature, Sociology, Law”, “Economics, Maths, Accounting, Business Studies” for A level, “General Studies, Accounting, Economics and Maths” for STPM.

Under these restrictions, it is important to recall that the social sciences and humanities often don’t require a stringent traditional social sciences/humanities subject combination at pre-university. History degrees don’t even need history as a prerequisite and would see English Literature as an indication of having the sufficient skills to cope with such a reading and writing-heavy subject. Likewise, economics only required maths. Given that, it is perfectly fine filling up the rest of your subject spots with the sciences or any other available traditional subject. Keep in mind that if you are not eyeing at the most difficult universities, it is alright to take the bare minimum of 2 traditional and/or facilitative subjects that the Russell Group universities collectively prefer. Given that, a subject combination such as “Economics, Maths, Further Math, Physics” will work for economics, accounting and similar subjects while “Maths, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature” seems adequate for law, history and accounting.  It is unlikely for IB students to face this problem, making it almost uniquely one for A-level, Matrikulasi and STPM students.

For the latter, where schools tend to be inflexible and under-resourced in terms of subject choices, it is perfectly fine writing to the universities themselves when applying, explaining the restrictive circumstances you are in. Of course, it is unreasonable to make someone who wants to apply for a history course to take a full “Sejarah, English Literature, Ekonomi” combination where that combination is unlikely to exist except in the more resourced urban schools. Likewise, expecting a Matrikulasi student to take that subject combination is also unreasonable given that it doesn’t exist. On top of explaining about the circumstances you are in to the universities, your UCAS personal statement should then be able to immensely display your academic potential in the course that you are applying. In that case, just take whatever that’s available to you e.g. “Science Stream” or “Accounting Stream”; it’s another Hobson’s choice.

 

Wait, just to be clear, you’re saying that even if I want to be a lawyer, accountant or business manager, I shouldn’t be taking law, accounting and/or business studies if possible? What about taking economics and business studies together?

The short and perhaps, grim, answers are yes and no respectively.

As explained earlier, the three subjects listed in the first question i.e. law, accounting and business studies are soft subjects. They should only be taken, at best, an additional subject. For applicants to the most competitive universities, just avoid them. Lawyers don’t need to do law at A-level (I doubt this subject is an option for other examinations). In fact, building the core analytical and writing skills via a mixture of essay subjects e.g. Literature, History, the social sciences and/or the hard sciences tend to be more preferable at university. Likewise, building up the quantitative, analytical and thinking skills via a mixture of traditional social sciences, mathematics and hard sciences would be more preferable and helpful.

For the second question, economics and business studies are considered to be overlapping subjects. However, economics is a traditional subject while business studies isn’t. Given that, you should either take economics and ditch business studies or take business studies as an additional subject and ditch economics. Generally, however, where economics is available as an option at your school/college, taking business studies isn’t a wise option. For instance, LSE explicitly has this preference.

 

Just what if I have no idea what do I want to study at university?

That then depends on the extent of uncertainty that you have. We will use a scale with 3 spectrums here – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, “I know that I want to study something in, per se, the humanities but I have yet to settle on a particular course” and “I have absolutely no idea”. Notice that this is a more in depth dilemma for A-level students given the immense options that they have. For IBDP, STPM and Matrikulasi students, choosing your subjects along these principles will do.

For the first one on the scale – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, it shouldn’t be highly difficult to take up subjects that fulfil the needs of both courses. Of course, this is under the assumption that there are some significant differences between them e.g. PPE and Medicine. Notice that these two are rather extreme but it is not impossible to take up, for instance, Biology, Chemistry, Maths and also History; of course, taking physics as well would be good and it is unlikely that your uncertainty will persist for more than 3 months, whereby thereafter you can drop the more unrelated subject. For more similar choices such as PPE and Economics or Chemical Engineering and Physics, incorporating the needs of both subjects won’t be difficult e.g. English Lit/History, Economics, Maths and Further Maths fulfil the former while a standard Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths combination works for the latter.

Moving up the scale and we find ourselves in a situation where a student only managed to narrow down to one particular field. The key idea then is to take up traditional and facilitating subjects within that particular field. It is perfectly fine going cross-disciplinary e.g. a mixture of social science, humanities and sciences as long as the field that you wish to be in is reflected in your subject choices. Applicants who might be set on the social sciences but unsure of which particular course to further their studies in might be interested in taking a quantitatively analytical subject e.g. maths and economics, coupled with another more qualitative one e.g. geography to cater for the less quantitative-centric social science courses. On the contrary, while it is generally normal alright to apply for the more maths intensive science subjects e.g. Physics, Engineering with a full natural science with maths combination, that is hardly optimal. The best solution is to decide as soon as possible, preferably within a 3-month period.

Lastly, for the “I have absolute no idea what I want to further my studies in” students who will have a seriously difficult time figuring out which subject combination will be best. The issue with most standardised qualifications is that your options are generally restricted. As per mentioned earlier, you should be deciding as soon as possible before finalising your subject choices, optimally within a 3-month period of starting your course, so that you will be able to catch up with the work done by your possibly new classmates. Generally, in terms of subjects, the idea is to have a mixture of subjects from different fields. Although conventional wisdom is that taking a pure natural science plus maths combination opens up all doors, that isn’t necessarily the case. Most of the humanities and some social science courses will want to see indication of academic writing and reading capability, from which subjects like English Literature, History and the Languages can indicate. Given that, start off with a mixture and then narrow down your course choices and Pre-U subject choices as soon as possible.

 

So is this the holy book that I must follow?

No, this article is entirely advisory and based on the team’s research, experience and access to various sources of information.


Written by: The CollegeLAH Team

A Coffee Enthusiast’s Application to Oxford for Physics

Oxford JX

Applying to Oxford for Physics (Not my Dad’s)

If you’re reading this, you just might possibly be considering the thought of maybe perhaps APPLYING FOR PHYSICS at Oxford.

Do it.

My dad (whose physics application advice is also on this website) and I are the only Malaysian physicists here and we’d love for you all to join the *cough* fun.

Brian’s Journey to Oxford (Part 1)

Brian’s Journey to Oxford (Part 2)

No. He’s not my real dad.

I’ll have more information concerning my interview than anything else, because that’s the most memorable part, and dad’s article sums up all the good tips for everything else already.

Here we go!

 

FIRSTLY, THE PAT

I honestly cannot remember much from my sitting of the PAT.  Nevertheless, my checklist for preparing for it was along the lines of:

[] Read through the PAT Syllabus ( https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/study-here/undergraduates/applications/physics-aptitude-test-pat/pat-syllabus ) and note down any topics which your Sixth Form course has not covered

[] Read through AS-level and IGCSE physics

[] Brief research of eclipses and astronomy (which my A-level studies did not cover)

[] ALL the past year PAT papers from http://www.physicsandmathstutor.com/pat/ . This here website is your new best friend. Don’t forget to check with its model answers

[] A few servings BPho (British Physics Olympiad, not the Vietnamese noodle soup) from http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/olympiad/PastPapers.html#BPhOP1 . Again, these have marking schemes and, as dad said, they do in fact resemble the PAT questions

When it gets to the PAT, keep calm and just show them what you know! Very few people can complete every single question with confidence. I remember blanking out for a few math concepts I had not used for months but give everything a good shot and cross your fingers for…

 

THE INTERVIEW

Hehe. I remember getting my interview email in the middle of Lumut’s jungles covered in soil and sweat on my teacher’s iPad. I was in the middle of KTJ’s Outward Bound School trip for Sixth-Form students and frustrated that books were forbidden during the course. Good times…

I had two interviews over Skype: the first with Oriel and the second with Pembroke (obviously, the Pembrokian tutors who interviewed me and are now tutoring me are nicer 🙂 )

The link to the interview questions and solutions are at the end of this paragraph. I urge you to not look at the answers and instead give the questions a worthy go before checking your attempt with my answers.

JX Physics Interview and Solutions

Preparing for the interview

  1. Do lots of Fermi Problems
  2. Do lots of Puzzles
  3. Chill
  4. Drink coffee
  5. Read and practice from the following list

Book recommendations: These are just some books that I read or read excerpts from that were very interesting or helpful to the interview.

Jearl Walker – The Flying Circus of Physics

This book, although incredibly elusive, is a treasure trove of physics brainteasers with awesome explanations.

Conservation of Momentum blog

https://conversationofmomentum.wordpress.com/

Lots of physics interview questions and puzzles.

Richard Feynman – QED ; 6 easy pieces ; Tips on Physics ; Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman

Great look at an unconventional perspective of physics. The last book isn’t really about physics but it’s the only biography I have ever enjoyed reading.

George Gamow – Mr Tompkins in Paperback

A pretty fun exploration of physics you should be interested in. You can find these (legally) free online.

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality – Manjit Kumar

A nice historical overview of modern physics.

 

All in all, I hope you have a great time applying for and studying Physics (if you’re here not for the physics, good luck with whatever you’re doing anyway!). I hope the advice here helps. I know it’s short, but it’s so that you have more time to practice which is what will really matter.

All the best! Hi Mum and dad (Oxford and in real life)!


fullsizerender

Jiaxen Lau, full time physicist, coffee connoisseur, photographer, videographer, fashionista, poet, cryptoanalyst, is currently reading Physics in Pembroke College, Oxford University. Indeed, he may have forgotten lunch but he will never forget about coffee. Make no mistake, this man is not a Victorian dandy but, with certainty, a Victorian gentleman who, as rumour has it, seems to have a girlfriend. Shame on him if that’s true, he’s supposed to love physics and coffee and only physics and coffee.

Cambridge Mathematics Interview

Aerial View of Centre for Mathematical Sciences

Aerial View of Centre for Mathematical Sciences

Image Source

My interview session was held in Taylor’s College (where I did A-level), and was one- on-one. I forgot who my interviewer was, but I remember he was a math professor at Cambridge and had Erdos number 4 (whoa). The interview was scheduled for half an hour, and he pretty much cut me off at the mark. He started out asking me some questions about my family background, e.g. siblings, parents’ occupation, probably as ice-breaker.

Then we moved on to the fun part. He scanned my personal statement and realized I’ve done a lot of Olympiad math and chose a problem he thought was appropriately challenging for me. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but I remember it was something like proving that for any real polynomial, there is a root that has a certain property. The problem statement called for familiarity with polynomials and complex numbers, and the proof required some ‘well-known’ fact about real polynomials. Don’t fret if you are not too comfortable with those yet, as the interviewer should ask if you are familiar with them.

Solving the problem wasn’t straightforward, as it very well shouldn’t have been. The interviewer first asked if I preferred for him to give hints and guidance along the way or keep silent. I opted for silence. I started out working with a few test polynomials, e.g. X^2 + 1, just to poke around and see what I might find. The interviewer offered to give hints (perhaps I was slow), but I declined again. I looked at what was to be proved: some condition on some root… I tried to visualize the locus of complex numbers satisfying that condition, and of course drew it out so the interviewer can see my thought process.

After about ten minutes, clearly behind time, I asked for one of the two hints. The first hint was a fact I had no trouble proving, but didn’t really see where it fit into my progress so far. Then after a little while longer, I asked for the second hint. It was the ‘well-known’ fact that every real polynomial can be written as the product of real polynomials of degree at most two. I knew this fact, but didn’t think to use it until then. But once he said it I basically saw the rest of the proof and just blurted it out.

I asked the interviewer what was the shortest time someone took to solve it. He said five minutes.

My initial approaches were pretty much useless in solving the problem, way off mark from the intended solution, but maybe the interviewer saw something in my method that was intriguing. So write down and draw out and say everything you are thinking. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for hints. If the interviewer thinks the problem is challenging for you, then you should expect to need help.

Towards the end, the interviewer rushed through some questions not related to math and then basically shooed me out the door (because we were running a little late, me being quite slow on the problem).

 

Erdos number: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/ErdosNumber.html


tham-ying-hong

Ying Hong Tham is pursuing a Computer Science degree at Stanford University under Astro scholarship. You can find him sneaking into lecture halls at night to use the chalkboards for math scratch work and random doodling.

Cambridge Interview: Natural Sciences (Churchill College)

Churchill College

Image Source

So you wanna make it to Cambridge? Well listen up, fellow knowledge-seeker, for this path is not for the faint-hearted. The journey to Cambridge is difficult and for the most part a lot of luck. I will recount to you my experience being interviewed in Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Do not however, expect a guarantee that you will get into Cambridge. I only seek to explain to you my own understanding of what Cambridge wants from a prospective student, and this will differ between courses and colleges. For the most part though, please enjoy my story. Oh and honestly, I don’t fully recall the questions or my answers but I hope this article helps you in whatever way possible.

Now, some background is probably necessary. I was studying A-Levels at KYUEM, taking the accelerated course (1 and a half years). I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. In my COPA and UCAS application, I wrote my predicted grades were 4A*s. So, in my opinion, your grades are super duper important. They won’t even offer you an interview without substantial grades.

Furthermore, another important facet about my interview is that I wasn’t offered an interview in Malaysia. Honestly, it felt like a slap in the face. At first. But, beggars can’t be choosers and I’m very grateful I was offered a place to study there. It’s also very likely that my interview differs greatly from those interviewed in Malaysia. With this article, I hope to help all those students given the “honour” (how you interpret this is up to you) to be interviewed in Cambridge.

On another note, something I feel is quite important is the pattern of questioning. For the most part, each question started off with the interviewer checking how well we grasp a certain topic. They do this by asking easy questions then hard questions about the topic. Then, the really important part comes. They’ll ask something related to the topic but out of the syllabus. Some advanced reading beforehand may be helpful but it is unnecessary. In fact, you can get by with just your syllabus knowledge. If you get stuck, then you can just say you’re not sure. The interviewer will give tips to guide you to the answer. What they really want to see is your critical thinking skills; how well you use the info given and what you’ve learnt before to find a possible solution to their question.

The First Interview

I arrived at Churchill College at around 8am (even though my interview was at 9, you know nerves and all) on the day of the interview. I met many other candidates there, all nervous wrecks like me. Some stayed at the college for the night before while others just made it this morning. Some of them even had to take some tests along with their interviews (Math people watch out, this means you). I was brought to my Interview Room by a first-year Churchill student, where I waited outside for a very long 15 minutes before my interview started.

At 9.00am, I knocked on the door and meekly stepped into the room, greeting my assessors. There were two of them inside. I saw straight through their friendly smiles. What I really saw was a determination to gauge my level of understanding and critical thinking (more like “Let’s see what this bub is made of”). Hands shaking, I nervously shook their hands and asked if I could have a seat. They complied and I felt my bum shaking the chair itself (I have a rather big bum unfortunately).

The first thing they mentioned after all that was, “This interview is going to be an academic one. We will ask you questions based on the A-Level syllabus you’ve already covered. If you haven’t learned a topic yet, please tell us. Also, if you are unsure about our questions, you may ask us to repeat ourselves. Is that clear?” I nodded and mumbled a rather silent “yes”. And so, it begins!

For the first question, my interviewer asked me to write down what compounds does hydrogen form with all the elements in Period 2. Relatively easy, as we’ve already learnt about the compounds formed by hydrogen with Period 3 elements. These were LiH, BeH2, BH3 or B2H6, CH4, NH3, H20 and HF. I might have mumbled quite a bit (the interviewer kept asking me to repeat myself) but at least I made logical arguments (which is important).

Second, what were the difference in electronegativities between the 2 elements of these hydrogen compounds? I just remembered how the Period 3 hydrogen compounds worked and found myself facing this question rather comfortably.

Next, they asked me to explain which of these compounds were covalent and which were ionic. This was simply an extension of the previous question. As you should know, the difference in electronegativities play an important role in determining the covalent and ionic characteristics. Also, the relative polarities and polarising power of the elements had to be considered.

For my next question, they asked me to compare and discuss the boiling points of CH4, NH3, H20 and HF. They wanted me to explain why H20’s boiling point is the highest among these compounds. I kind of flapped at this question because I forgot to mention the key point they were looking for. That made me worried.

For the next question, they asked me about benzene. I talked about its delocalized system of electrons and the bond lengths of C-C, comparing those in benzene with C-C single and double bonds. Man, was I thankful this came out in class before.

And then comes the tough one. By relating the knowledge of benzene’s structure and the properties of boron and nitrogen, I was asked to predict the characteristics of a boron nitride compound which had the same shape as benzene. They asked me to compare this compound to that of benzene; such as its relative electronegativity and bond length. I think I managed to answer this one, but with quite a lot of help from the interviewers.

BoronNitride

Figure 1: Boron Nitride (same shape as benzene)

My interview ended at 9.30 and what a relief that was. I felt I could’ve done better, could’ve been more logical, and could’ve been more confident in answering my questions. But what’s done is done so I said thank you to the interviewers and quickly stepped out of the room.

The Second Interview

After that gruelling first session, I made my way back to the main hall. There, I was once again escorted to my second interview room at 9.45 am. After the terror and anxiety of my first interview, I felt more relaxed and confident for my second. I thought to myself, “Meh, there’s nothing to lose. So I’ll just be less reserved and more outspoken!” With this renewed sense of self-belief, I entered the room at 10.00am and greeted my interviewers with a big smile.

Their first question was about NMR spectroscopy. I told them that I hadn’t learned about it yet, so they gave me some basic information about reading NMR graphs. Personally, I think I did really well in this section of my interview because I thought it would’ve been difficult due to my lack of prior knowledge. I was given some 3D models of organic structures (which were isotopes of each other) and some NMR graphs. They then asked me to match the models to the graphs. I managed to do this successfully, getting all of them correct.

Then, I was asked to suggest a chemical formula for the structures and figure out the structural isomers. Then they asked me to predict the composition of an unknown substance based on those isomers and the NMR graph provided. It wasn’t too hard as I saw the pattern to reading these graphs after the earlier introduction they gave me.

For the last section of this interview, I was asked about Mathematics. They wanted me to determine the distance of a line/magnitude of a vector. They asked for the formula and I provided it. Then, I was asked to determine the shape I would obtain if I plotted in an x-y graph, all points that corresponded to magnitude = 1. This was the formula (which isn’t really necessary):

Magnitude2D

Figure 2: Formula for Magnitude in 2D

I concluded that the shape had to be a square and the interviewers told me I was right.

Next, they asked me to determine what shape I would obtain if I did the same thing but in a 3D graph. This was slightly tricky, but I managed to figure it out when I patiently thought about it. This formula was also provided:

Magnitude3D

Figure 3: Formula for Magnitude in 3D

I can’t quite remember it now, but I think I answered a sphere, which was wrong. Then, they asked me to rethink and I think I managed to draw out the right shape, but I forgot what it was called. So, the interviewer told me what shape it was and I was like “Ohhhh, right right. It was on the tip of my tongue. Thank you!” Then he concluded our interview and I was thanking them and walked out the room satisfied.

Conclusion

Overall, I think I did rather well, at least for my second interview. The first one was an amalgamation of nerves and mumbles hahahaha. One thing I do suggest for all hopeful applicants is to always be inquisitive. Start early with out of syllabus reading and research. Always maintain a curiosity to learn new things and attempt creative problems. These will definitely help you in facing interviews like these. So good luck to all you aspiring to go to Cambridge and remember, don’t let failure keep you down. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal” Winston Churchill


amzar

Amzar Muzani is aspiring to be a scientist. Studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge under Yayasan Khazanah Scholarship, he hopes to bring to life the love for science in the nation’s youth. He is often found to be quiet but really enjoys spending time with his close friends.