Cambridge Economics Interview

Preparing for an interview can be pretty daunting at first, and a Cambridge interview, no less (those can get pretty intense). In this article, I will share my personal experience of the interview day with you.

Arriving at the Scene

I did my interview at Taylor’s College Subang Jaya and was allocated to (probably) the last slot of the day at 4.30 pm, so you can quite imagine the anxiety that had slowly built up throughout the day as I waited for my turn.

Reaching the waiting area 30 minutes early, I tried my best to kill the butterflies in my stomach by praying and recalling everything I’d prepared. Suddenly, someone tapped my shoulder from behind. When I turned around, to my surprise, it was the interviewer himself! (You will know your interviewer beforehand via email.) That caught me totally off-guard and almost gave me a heart attack. And that was how I went into the interview room.

The Interview Proper

Though I was still recovering from shock, things escalated right off the bat! After a quick introduction, he wrote a pretty complicated equation and asked me to sketch a graph based on it. Caught off-guard at how quickly things started, I took a few seconds to calm myself down and analyse the equation before asking him about the few unknowns in the equation. He then wrote down on paper the parameters for the unknowns and explained them to me.

I managed to determine how the first part of the equation would only affect the gradient of the graph and not its shape. The shape can only be determined from the 2nd part of the equation by first deducing how an e−x graph would look like, and work my way towards the end product by slowly explaining how the graph will be affected step by step. After a few hiccups here and there due to panic and carelessness, I managed to complete the sketch with to his satisfaction. He was there to guide me whenever I got stuck.

Next, he then asked me a few more questions regarding what I’d talked about in my personal statement, regarding the effectiveness of microcredit in reducing poverty and the various factors that would affect this proposed solution. Hence, you need to be thoroughly well-versed with all the books and concepts that you have mentioned in both your PS and COPA.

Before concluding the session, he asked me if I had any questions. Trying to leave a meaningful impression, I asked for his view on the effectiveness of supply side policies in combating poverty. That didn’t end well for me: he stopped me midway and said that he didn’t have the time for that. So, maybe ask something simple or don’t ask at all. We then bid farewell to each other and that was it.

Lessons Taken

To sum it up, Economics at Cambridge can be very mathematical and so your interview would most likely be similarly so. Make sure you have a strong grasp of A-levels maths and economics concepts before the interview. Further Mathematics knowledge is definitely an added bonus. I find it very helpful to vocalise your thoughts so that the interviewer can understand your thought process and assist you if you get stuck. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. At the end of the day, the interviewer is trying to find someone who is a good fit at Cambridge and not someone who knows everything. All the best to you if you are applying!

Aaron Goh Zhong Fu’, a Bank Negara Malaysia Kijang Scholar, is currently on a gap year and will be reading an Economics degree at Cambridge University come September 2019. Besides playing a ton of futsal, there is nothing he enjoys more than binge watching a good anime series. Aaron is as humble as it gets and one can frequently hear him say, “All glory to God.” If you intend to contact the author, feel free to contact the CollegeLAH Team at

Cambridge Mathematics Interview

Aerial View of Centre for Mathematical Sciences

Aerial View of Centre for Mathematical Sciences

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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:


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.

Michaelmas Term as a First Year Medic

The Medical Library at University of Cambridge

The Medical Library at University of Cambridge

This post might be a bit late, but better late than never right? :p Anyways, as of the time of writing, I’ve finished my first term at Cambridge, so that leaves me with 17 more terms to go before I graduate! It’s been one heck of a roller coaster ride, but I must say that I’ve enjoyed it tremendously (even though I would probably do some things a bit differently if I had the chance to go back in time). There were good days (thanks friends) and there were bad days too (boo essays), but at the end of the day, everything that happened taught me something, and that’s all that matters.

Things didn’t always go the way I wanted them to; for example I told myself that I would organise my time really well and have time to play badminton every week and go to the gym 3 times a week, but that obviously did not happen. I told myself I would be a social butterfly, but perhaps such a drastic change from being an introvert is impossible. Also, I think that there is a culture gap that has complicated things. As someone who is more accustomed to the relatively conservative Malaysian culture, I’m not really the kind of person who likes to go clubbing, but 90% of the people here do (that’s a rough estimate based on the people I know).

Let me tell you right now that the stories you hear about workload at Cambridge are not exaggerations. I have had at least 3 essays every week (with some exceptions when they were replaced with MCQs etc.), and coupled with all the practicals, I’ve been really busy. It didn’t help that I suck at managing my time and focusing on work, so that made things a lot more difficult than they should have been. Hopefully things improve in the coming terms.

If I have any advice to give, it’s this: time management is EXTREMELY important. If you can focus on your work when you have to, you can then enjoy guiltlessly when you want to. As always, I can be contacted in various ways, namely Facebook (Victor Teh), Twitter (@Zenxenitious) and ( Just drop me a message or something and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Victor TehVictor Teh is a first year medic in the University of Cambridge. His phone is permanently on flight mode but you can always catch him online

Application to Cambridge Engineering

19-10-09: Cambridge University Department of Engineering

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About Myself

Hi! My name is Gan Jia Min. After graduating from KDU University College A Levels, I headed off to the University of Cambridge in October 2014 to study Engineering.

Engineering In Cambridge

The Engineering course in Cambridge is designed such that all would-be engineers (with the exception of chemical engineers) have a common first TWO years (meaning the same courses, etc). Chemical engineers only have a common first year. The good part about this is that if you are still uncertain about which field of engineering you would like to specialise in (for instance civil, mechanical, electrical), the common first two years allow you to explore the different fields of engineering in greater depth before you ultimately make an informed decision. However, let us say you are certain that you would like to be a computer engineer; it may seem redundant to learn how beams bend when subjected to a load or to learn the properties of steel in your first two years whilst your peers at other universities are learning (for the most part) purely computer engineering modules. For more information about how the Engineering course is structured, you may like to visit

Application Procedure

There are 5 simple steps to follow if you wish to apply for Engineering in Cambridge.

Firstly, fill up your UCAS online application. You will need to include a personal statement in this form.

Secondly, find out if you have to fill up another online form called COPA (Cambridge Online Preliminary Application), which can be found here (international applicants have to fill this up, so if you’re applying from Malaysia, you have to submit this).

Fill it up if you are required to and submit it before the deadline.

Thirdly, fill up another online form called SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire). If you have already filled up the COPA form previously, you should indicate that you have done so and you will be guided to the relevant section of the SAQ to submit the form. Again, please check the deadline of submission of these forms.

Next, keep your fingers crossed and wait for an email inviting you to an interview and a written test.  The interview and the written test are most likely to be within a few days of each other.

Lastly, wait for their decision, whether or not to accept, reject or pool you. This decision can come via email or (more traditionally) by post, which could take up to a week or longer than by e-mail. Whether or not you will be notified by e-mail or post will depend on which college in Cambridge you applied to.

Personal Statement

It is important to show the university that you are passionate about your chosen course. In doing so, you may want to elaborate on what inspired you to pursue Engineering in the first place. For me, I wrote about how the construction of the Petronas Twin Towers coupled with my love for Mathematics and Physics fuelled my passion for Engineering.

As far as personal statements are concerned, words have little meaning if you cannot back them up with actions. Elaborate on what you have done to learn more about Engineering. For example, reading a relevant book, fixing a bicycle or signing up for an attachment at an engineering firm. Merely stating “I have fixed a bicycle before” is not good enough because it sounds shallow. Elaborate on what needed fixing and how you did it. Explain what you have learnt from this and how it relates to your passion for engineering.

You should include any relevant ECAs as well. For example, an engineering competition you participated in. Once again, add depth to your points. What have you learnt from the competition, etc. Personally, I wrote about the experience and knowledge I gained from participating in several Mathematics competition as well as a Surveyors’ competition.

Of course if possible, your personal statement should be proofread by someone experienced. If you are in Malaysia, MABECS offers this service free of charge (


If you wish to be interviewed in Malaysia, you will only be interviewed once before your college decides to accept, reject or pool you. Note that you may be re-interviewed via Skype by another college if you are pooled.

Before attending your interview, make sure you know what you have written in your personal statement inside out. If you talked about reading a book, make sure you really know the book because the interviewer can ask you about it. Also, revise your school work, especially the chapters you said you would have covered by the date of the interview in your COPA. These are usually rich sources of questions.

During the interview, you will be asked academic questions. Try your best to answer them. Make sure you think aloud. It is important that the interviewer knows your train of thought. Whenever you get stuck, do not worry, the interviewer will give you hints for you to proceed.

Engineering applicants are, not surprisingly, usually asked Mathematics and Physics questions. Usually the questions will start simple, and then become more complex as you go along. Very frequently, you will be asked unfamiliar questions and be expected to apply what you have learnt in that situation. Let us look at two questions I made up below.

A usual Mathematics question will be graph sketching. Say, sketch y=x and y=sinx. So far, so simple. One is a straight line through the origin and the other a sinusoidal graph. Then, maybe, you will be asked to sketch y=(sinx)/x. This may not be immediately obvious. However, do not panic. Remember, think aloud. You may not immediately know the answer, but tell the interviewer how you wish to proceed. For instance, you could say for x>0, as x increases, the denominator increases whereas the numerator oscillates from 1 to -1 and back to 1 again. So, as x increases (for x>0), (sinx)/x must also be oscillating with decreasing amplitude. After that, the interviewer may ask you to sketch y=xsinx. The point here is, tell the interviewer your train of thought. Do not remain silent.

Let us look at another example. An engineer must be good at estimating quantities. Many errors can be avoided if you have a rough idea how large a number should be. So maybe the interviewer can ask you to estimate the mass of oxygen in the room you are in. So, once again, explain to the interviewer how you wish to tackle the question. Maybe you can estimate the dimensions of the room, and from that, its volume. Then maybe you proceed to say oxygen makes up approximately 20% by volume of our atmosphere. From the volume, you can use the ideal gas equation to estimate the number of moles of oxygen molecules and multiply this with the Relative Molecular Mass of O2.

Written Test

All Engineering applicants will have to sit for the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment). You will also have to write an essay about engineering from five choices. All I did to prepare for the TSA was to do a specimen test they have online which can be found here.

I did it just to get a feel of what kinds of questions they will be asking. Remember though, to always keep an eye on the clock. Otherwise, you may not be able to finish it on time, especially if you are not a fast reader.

All I did to prepare for the essay was to once again revise my school work. It is pretty much the same preparation as for the interview.

imageedit_4_8404278516Gan Jia Min is a Math/Physics lover who is pursuing his Engineering degree in the University of Cambridge under a JPA Scholarship. One of his prouder achievements was to become the high jump champion in his primary school in Primary 5!

Medicine Interview in Cambridge


King’s College, Cambridge

I first laid eyes on Cambridge when I went there for my interview in December 2013 and I must say, it is indeed every bit as beautiful as it appears in photos and postcards. Upon arriving at Cambridge, I immediately realised that I had forgotten to bring formal shoes to match my suit. It caused me great distress as I looked to my worn-out sneakers, which even had holes (on the left near my little toe) in them and I was so sure that I was going to give a horrible first impression. Shopping for new ones were out of the question as I didn’t have much cash on me at the time and I was already due to fly back to Malaysia the day after my interview. In the end, I decided that I’d just hope that nobody would notice that my shoes were completely out of place.

My misadventure then started when I was dropped off by the taxi at the Gonville & Caius main Porter’s Lodge (or as they call it, the ‘plodge’), when in fact I was supposed to check into my room at Harvey Court plodge. Luckily, a kind senior who happened to be there offered to show me the way, and led me to Harvey Court by passing through King’s College. I should take this time to mention that King’s College is what most people think the whole of Cambridge looks like, as it’s always shown in postcards and pictures of Cambridge. I collected my room key from the porter’s lodge and proceeded to lug my suitcase up two flights of stairs to a room in the K-block near Harvey Court. I remember spending the night worrying over my interview, and desperately trying to memorise the process of aerobic respiration.

The next day, I spent most of my time in the JCR at Old Courts, waiting for my interviews and generally having panic attacks while listening to other people talk about their interviews. My first interviewer started the interview by asking me a few questions about my work experience to help me settle down and make me less nervous about the interview, and followed this up with questions relating to my work experience. Since I talked about how I had learnt to take blood pressure while volunteering at a nursing home and mentioned that I shadowed a urologist, I received questions pertaining to these experiences. I was also asked about the latest issue of biological sciences review and what the main story was, but I could not give an answer as amidst all my other interview preparations, I did not manage to find the time to keep up with it. That made me feel pretty bad, and was definitely not the best morale booster.

My second interviewer also tried to make me less nervous by talking about his experiences in Malaysia when I told him I was Malaysian, but soon after, he cut the chit-chat and moved on to the serious stuff. This interview was mostly a discussion about the various organelles inside a cell, specifically focusing on mitochondria and their respective functions.

The third interview was the one I felt I screwed up the most, but I suppose it was my fault for not studying my AS syllabus in enough detail. We discussed about the organelles of the cell again (mostly about the mitochondria) and then moved on to discuss the sex chromosomes, followed by a series of questions about kidneys and oxygen dissociation curves.

I made sure to thank each of my interviewers after the interview for their time and also for teaching me something new, because I truly did learn something new in each interview. I should also note that each interview is conducted sort of like a typical supervision, so as to give a taste of what Cambridge life would be like.

If you have any questions or would like more details, I can be contacted via:
Facebook: Victor Teh
Twitter: @Zenxenitious

Victor TehVictor Teh is a first year medic in the University of Cambridge. His phone is permanently on flight mode but you can always catch him online (details found above :P)

Cambridge Engineering Application


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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: 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: 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.

AndrewAndrew Foong is a JPA scholar pursuing Engineering in the University of Cambridge. He has a profound love for cookies, especially chocolate ones.

Penangite Guide to Studying Medicine at Cambridge


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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hello there, my name is Ming and I’m from Penang. I studied at The International School of Penang (Uplands) for my entire secondary school, ending with the International Baccalaureate for my sixth form studies. The next step is Cambridge, where I’ll read Medicine and graduate in 2020. I haven’t ever been under a scholarship and won’t be under one at Cambridge as far as I know.

What was included in the application process to your university?

Well, like any other applicant to the UK, I had to go through UCAS, which means a predicted grade from the school, a personal statement of 4,000 characters and a boatload of information they requested. Then as a medical applicant, I had to sit for the UKCAT, an aptitude test for admissions to most medical schools in the UK. On top of that, as a Cambridge medical applicant, I had to sit for the BMAT, which (as far as I know) is an aptitude test only for medical admissions to Imperial, UCL and Oxbridge in the UK.

I had the option of writing additional essays for Cambridge on COPA, which is the application portal for Cambridge (basically doing UCAS a second time). I chose not to write additional essays because I knew I wouldn’t be able to write something of good quality within the short time I had.

How did you write your personal statement?

The personal statement has been described to me (by an applicant to the USA, might I add) as “mechanical” and “formulaic” although it is meant to be unique and personal, as its title suggests. Perhaps applicants to both the USA and UK may think that because they write touchy feely essays for Commonapp about how their life was shaped and all. In my opinion, you do need some structure to your personal statement, but you also need to make sure it doesn’t sound computer generated. I chose to include why I want to do Medicine, how I’ve shown to have passion for it and the skills required for it (and thus elaborating on my extra-curricular activities), and how my previous experiences in the field have affected me.

Did you perform any attachment before applying?

Attachments and internships are important not just for your CV and application, but to find out if you actually like what you think you’re interested in. I (rather obviously) chose to do a few attachments at a hospital, watching surgeries, shadowing consultants, observing in Accident and Emergency etc. I found that I didn’t particularly like surgery and that I’m rather interested in oncology, which I think was useful for me. If I could go back a few years, I would also do some care work, like volunteering at a home for the aged, as such things are quite common for medical applicants and are useful to talk about at interviews.

What ECAs did you participate in?

Leadership and organisation is something all universities and subjects appreciate. You want to be able to stand out in a crowd of thousands. I’d say stick to your strengths, wherever they may lie, and be the best at whatever it is. Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like because you want a nicer CV. You might hate it, and you might not do as well. For me, notable ECAs included music (orchestra), sports (basketball and badminton), leadership (Student Council), charity (founding a volunteer/charity organisation in my school), public speaking (Model United Nations), organisation (Student Council committee, organising an MUN conference, organising events for the charity organisation). So there you see I did things I like, and thus had the passion to excel at each.

How did you prepare for your admission tests?

I sat for the BMAT and UKCAT. Aptitude tests are generally difficult for me because my thought process is rather slow and my reading is yet slower. My tip is to just do lots and lots and lots of practice. A week before my UKCAT, I realised I was on track to get 50% (poor is an understatement), and so I put everything on hold and just did UKCAT for that entire week and ended up in the 98th percentile – I suppose it paid off. Don’t stress yourself out like that, learn strategies and do lots of practice early, using the ton of books available out there.

How were the medicine interview sessions?

I had three interviews in total, one for Cambridge, one for King’s College London and one for Southampton University. King’s and Southampton gave me very standard medical school interviews, asking questions such as “why do you want to be a doctor?” and “why not be a nurse or someone else in the medical profession?” At King’s, there was one interview; at Southampton, there was one group interview and one individual interview; and for Cambridge, I was interviewed in Malaysia and thus had one individual interview.

In each case, I tried to make the interview a discussion, which didn’t work at Southampton, but worked to an extent with Cambridge and King’s. This made things a lot less awkward and tense as I was much more able to connect with my interviewers. Most of them were friendly except those I encountered at Southampton, perhaps because they were medical practitioners while the rest were academics.

To prepare, I read up on medical news, be it advancements or ethical case studies (which are quite important). I also practiced some interview questions in a mirror to take note of my facial expressions and how to change them to reflect more positively on myself. I don’t think the latter helped me very much though.

What do you think contributed to the success of your application?

I believe universities look for individuals who add to and improve the standing of their schools. As such, you should look into the course you are applying to and the university you are applying to in order to know what sort of people they are looking for. In my case, it was a well-rounded, passionate and compassionate communicator and scientist, and so I included experiences and achievements that (I felt) showed/helped develop these qualities. I essentially moulded all the activities mentioned above to fit these and included the more significant and recognised ones.

What advice would you give to future applicants?

START EARLY! I think that’s the most important thing. Resources will be different for everyone, so starting early will give you the time to look up all the things you need to be the best applicant possible. If you’re stuck, look to forum sites like ‘The Student Room’ as you are almost definitely not alone in your struggles. Good luck!

imageedit_12_8589795891Lai Ming Yi is a Penangite heading to the University of Cambridge to read Medicine. He is interested in leadership, management and all things frisbee, and can be frequently found in hawker centers on the streets of Penang.

Chemical Engineering at Cambridge University


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

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

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

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

2. What did you include in your personal statement?

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

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

3. How was the interview session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What advice would you give to future applicants?

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

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

I hope you guys find this useful!

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

Of Robes and Long Dining Tables, of Fireplaces and Scholars.


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Besides being THE most prestigious university in the world, Cambridge has been my dream. A dream that never was. I mean, me? Surely, there must be more qualified candidates around the world.

So there I was, scrolling through Cambridge’s entry requirements after receiving my AS Level results. Imagine my joy when I found that I met the minimum entry requirements. But that was only the first step of a long and arduous journey.

Personal Statement

THE personal statement. Quite possibly the most formidable step of the UCAS application. (Interviews aside, of course.) What on earth do you write? How do you get someone to take notice? Well, it might be a good idea to grab hold of some successful samples online, just to have a brief idea of what to include. Generally, the outline would be: catchy introduction and why you chose your subject; what you’ve done that demonstrates your passion towards the subject; your extracurricular involvements and the type of skills they inculcate. But of course, you already know the drill.

  • I like Physics/Chemistry/Biology. No, no, no. Be a little bit more subtle.
  • If you’re going to start your personal statement with some cliched quote from Darwin, Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, forget it. At least use a slightly obscure quote that no one else ever uses. It might pass you off as slightly more intelligent than the other candidates.
  • If you’re going to mention the New Scientist or Cosmos magazine, please be a little more original. At least every other (if not all) Natural Sciences personal statement includes a mention of those articles.
  • If you have no idea what to write, grabbing a few books off the suggested reading list or watching public lectures related to your subject might be good starting points.
  • Demonstrating how the activities you’ve partaken in qualifies you for a Science degree undoubtedly requires some creativity. Being a club member improves your team-working skills, and that will help when you’re in a research team, for example. Well, if you’re involved in a remotely interesting club (like Geography), that would hone your patience, which is ABSOLUTELY essential when carrying out experiments.
  • But do try getting yourself involved in international science competitions, volunteering for science fairs, attending public lectures and writing about them in your personal statement subsequently. They would vastly increase your chances of getting noticed.

Interviews (Or not)

Next go hours, days and months sitting before the computer screen, waiting for that all-important email. Certain colleges require that you send in copies of your written work prior to your interview (essays, assignments etc.). But don’t worry if you don’t have any – just send them an email to explain. I didn’t have any either.

As the interview would likely be centred on your personal statement and whatever else you wrote on your COPA, it would be helpful if you familiarize yourself with whatever you wrote. Say, if you wrote that you like evolution, read a few books about it so that you are ready for whatever the interviewer throws at you. They’ll probe you just to check that you actually know what you wrote about, but that’s about it. The other questions will likely be about A level topics, specifically, the modules you wrote about in your COPA.

There will also inevitably be a section on drawing graphs, so just be prepared to draw a graph for a given equation and explain why it should be like this or that, etc. Oh, while I’m at it, just think aloud. It’s good entertainment for the interviewer as he/she tries to figure out your thought process and deliberate on whether you’re teachable. My interviewer was actually trying to teach me about proteins during the interview session. There will also be paper and pencil laid before you, so feel free to use them if you need to illustrate your thoughts.

The good thing about Cambridge interviews is that you don’t need to smile and put on a whole bubbly, cheerful personality. Just be yourself (in the truest sense of the word). One interviewer once said that what distinguishes offer-holders from non-offer-holders is the sparkle in their eye. Be really passionate and treat the interview as a tutorial session.

If you were having your interviews in Malaysia, there will be a TSA assessment followed by an essay question a few days after the interview session. It would be worth going through “Thinking Skills” by John Butterworth and AS Level Thinking Skills past papers. As for the essays, they would likely be on stuff that you have learnt during your A levels. You might find some sample questions on college websites (I think Magdalene College has it).

That’s about it for applying, I guess. Good luck and may you achieve your dreams!

This student will be pursuing Biology in University of Cambridge, although she has also received an offer from Imperial College London. The aforementioned student has chosen to remain anonymous for fear of invoking the anger of Geography students.

Application to Cambridge for Mathematics


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When people find out that you are planning to read Mathematics at university, they will usually give you funny looks and say, “Wow, you must love Maths very much!” or “Are you going to be a Maths teacher?” To all my fellow potential maths applicants out there, brace yourself, as this will be something you have to deal with for a very, very long time.

Hi, I’m Ong Shin Yin. I was previously from Catholic High School, PJ and TCSH. I was a KPM bursary scholar and I just received an unconditional offer from University of Cambridge.

 Cambridge Mathematics Interview

As quoted from the University of Cambridge website, “interviewing contributes to our assessment of applicants’ academic potential and suitability for the course chosen – whether they have the potential to study it to a very high level, engage with new ideas and think conceptually, and how they will respond to the teaching methods used at Cambridge,” and “gives applicants the opportunity to expand on the written elements of their application and show us how they think about their subject; and to demonstrate their passion for and commitment to their subject, and their ability to think critically and independently.”

For the University of Cambridge, you can opt to be interviewed in Malaysia or the UK. The interview fee for students opting to be interviewed in Malaysia is GBP130 (as of the time of writing).

Dr. Stuart Martin interviewed me. I received the details about the interview approximately two weeks before the actual date through email, which included the interviewer’s name, date, venue and time. The interview lasted about 30 minutes, though it might vary a bit between different applicants. However, a long or short interview is by no means any indicator whether you do well or not. But in case you want to know, my interview was slightly longer than usual.

I arrived at the waiting room along with my friend. After a while, Dr. Martin came out and called my name. I greeted him and he led me into a room, which consisted of only a table and two chairs. He introduced himself and made himself clear: he was there to observe how I think and whether I will fit in to Cambridge’s supervision system. Then he asked me some ice-breaking question such as: Why Sidney Sussex? How do you find your current A-level college, lecturers and college mates? For the first question, it would be better to show him that you have done more research than merely looking at application statistics and the Tompkins Table.

I was given 3 problems to solve during the interview and, guess what, 2 of them were actual MAT past year questions! However, during that time I had not looked at MAT questions yet; I only realized after I started preparing for MAT as part of my Imperial College London application. To be honest, the interviewer will not be impressed if you can solve the problem immediately. He/she will think that you have seen the problem before and give you another problem instead. “Thinking out loud” is very important during an interview so that the interviewer knows how you approach a problem and he/she will guide you from there.

1st question is actually a very easy question.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 1.35.16 PM

(MAT 2007)

What I first did was I tried to express all the terms in the equation as powers of 2, and then I could not proceed anymore. At first, I was explaining while writing the solution in front of my interviewer then I paused and stared at the question (probably not the best way to show that you can’t proceed). Dr. Martin then gave me a hint: try expressing in terms of 2^x. Then it dawned upon me what this question is all about. I managed to express the equation as a cubic equation in terms of 2^x and found the factors of the equation by considering trivial cases (substitution).

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Last but not least, the interviewer asked me to justify why 2^x cannot be -2 even though -2 is also one of the factors of the cubic equation. This can be easily explained by using the graph below.

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2nd question was a Number Theory problem.

Given a group of 6 consecutive positive integers, does there exist positive integers A and B, where A is a product of 3 positive integers in the group and B is the product of the other 3 positive integers, and A=B?

If you have learnt the basics of Maths Olympiad before, this question may seem easy.

I figured out it would be better to use proof by contradiction. First I used Pigeonhole Principle by stating that in any group of 6 consecutive positive integers, there must be exactly 2 integers that are multiples of 3. Hence assuming that there exist such A and B, if one multiple of 3 is the factor of A then the other one MUST be the factor of B. Similar reasoning for multiples of other prime numbers (such as 5) will lead to a contradiction.

However, this question almost got me into trouble with the interviewer because I was solving it too fast – he thought I’d seen this question before. So I explained to him that I’ve done quite a number of Maths Olympiad problems before, especially number theory questions; I even asked him whether he would like to give another problem to me, but he said it was okay.

3rd question: Sketch the graph sin y = sin x

Of course, during the interview the options below were not available, but this is apparently a past MAT question.

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(MAT 2009)

I did not have much time left, so what I managed to do was I stated that the graph y = x and y = π – x are possible solutions. I totally forgot about the periodicity of sine graph during the interview; if not this question can be solved within a few minutes. In the end, time was up and the interviewer asked me to solve this question at home. By the way, the answer is C.

Lastly, the interviewer told me that the average applicant solves one problem during the interview. He also gave me advice on how to prepare for the Mathematics written test (compulsory for students opting to be interviewed in Malaysia).

General advice:

  • Stay calm even if the problems seem tough (it’s not meant to be solved at first sight!)
  • You might want to practise talking in mathematical terms
  • Be open-minded and prepare to learn new things – the interviewer is there to teach you, not make you look stupid or scold you if you don’t know
  • Show that you love the subject – show that you are passionately curious
  • They want to see whether you are teachable – respond well to their hints!
  • Be you!

I’m no maths genius or expert, and my advice might not suit everyone. Follow at your own risk!

Mathematics Admission Tests

Unlike other subjects, if you want to read Mathematics at a top university in the UK, then sitting for an admission test is almost unavoidable. This is because getting A* in Mathematics and Further Mathematics is too mainstream. Just kidding. The true reason is that universities think that getting A* in Mathematics and Further Mathematics is not a good indicator whether a student has the ability to thrive in an undergraduate mathematics course.

There are two main admission tests: Mathematics Aptitude Test (MAT) and Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP).

Mathematics Aptitude Test (MAT)

MAT is mainly used by University of Oxford and Imperial College London for all its mathematics undergraduate courses. You can find the list of courses requiring MAT here: Note that students who are applying for different joint courses are required to attempt different problems. More information can be found here:

The MAT is set with the aim of being approachable by all students, including those that do not take Further Mathematics A Level (or equivalent).

You will usually take MAT during early November, and it acts as a preliminary round for Oxford to shortlist interview candidates and for Imperial to give out offers.

Personal opinion:

I find that MAT questions are rather unpredictable and they are less straightforward but as soon as you are able to pick up what the question really wants, the rest should be fine. Having a Maths Olympiad background is a massive advantage for this exam as some of the questions (especially the “weird” ones) will seem familiar to those who are experienced in solving Maths Olympiad problems. The weird questions would require more insight rather than algebraic skills; it may take you a bit of time to “play” around with the question before you notice some sort of trend/pattern hidden in the question.

How I prepared:

Finish the past year papers. Time yourself while doing every single paper to get used to solving problems under exam conditions. Trust me, it will be very likely that you will underperform during the exam (not trying to jinx it) due to stress, nerves, distracting invigilators etc. Hence, you should aim to perform way better than the average score among successful applicants during your mocks, so that you can make room for certain mistakes during the actual exam.

Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP)

STEP is used by the University of Cambridge as the basis of conditional offers. Other universities such as University of Warwick, University College London will also ask candidates to take STEP as part of their offer. Detailed information is available here. Students who do not have a conditional offer that requires STEP are encouraged to take STEP too as it will prepare them well for their undergraduate degree. Note: Imperial College London may ask a candidate who is unable to take MAT or a candidate who took MAT but achieved a borderline score to take STEP.

You will usually take STEP during end of June, after your A2 exams. Note that you will only be required to take it if your offer states that you must achieve certain grades in certain papers, let’s say 1,1 in STEP II, III.

Personal opinion:

As compared to MAT, STEP requires A LOT MORE effort and preparation rather than just raw talent (unless you are some sort of genius). Since STEP has 13 questions (8 pure, 3 mechanics, and 2 probability and statistics) and marks for only the 6 questions with the highest marks will be counted towards the final mark, it would be advisable to devise a strategy which will work best for you (since 6 months is really not enough as you have to juggle your A2 exams as well). Some people I know focused entirely on pure questions, but if you think you are strong in Mechanics or Statistics, do not overlook them, as there might be some easier questions among them. However some knowledge required might not be taught in your A-level/IB syllabus; hence you have to self-learn them.

How I prepared:

I started attempting STEP II papers at the beginning of semester 2 of A-levels, just to get a taste of it. It helped because if you are opting to be interviewed in Malaysia in October, you will have to take a 2-hour written test in addition to your interview. The test consists of 10 compulsory short problems and 6 long problems from which you only have to choose 2. For the long problems, they tend to be really similar to STEP II problems; hence I was able to solve them.

After I received my conditional offer from Cambridge, I started preparing seriously by working through past year papers. The Student Room is a good place to interact with like-minded students who are on the same boat as you and it also has an archive of the past year solutions for the earlier STEP papers. Most of the time I prepared for the exam independently. I only asked for help from my seniors once, and I also received some sample solutions from a lecturer in TCSJ.

STEP may seem difficult at first and you may need hours just to solve one problem, but do not, let me emphasize – DO NOT – read the solutions before solving the problem. Reading them will not help you at all because you may miss out the opportunity to go through the thought process before reaching the solution. Don’t worry: the more problems you solve, the more you will get used to it (and hopefully it’ll get easier!).

General advice:

  • Keep a clear and calm mind
  • Even if you don’t know how to solve the question entirely, writing something that shows progress will help a bit
  • Do not waste your time on one single question for too long
  • Practise, practise, and practise!

May the odds be ever in your favour.

Links which you may find useful: 



Ong Shin Yin is a JPA scholar who will be pursuing a Mathematics degree at University of Cambridge. A fan of Quora and rock music, Shin Yin is determined to eventually discover the right career for her. She hopes to be more than just a name or a face in the crowd.