Application

 Cambridge

 Pembroke

 Computer Science

 2003

 rejected

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 N/A

 N/A

 Comprehensive School

 yes (6 A*,3 A,1 B)

A-levels

(A at AS; predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS; predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS; predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS; predicted A; gained A at A2)

Other universities

N/A

Decisions about the application

The obvious really, Oxford/Cambridge are the two “best” universities going, and while they may not be the best for some subjects, Cambridge is #1 for CompSci. Plus its oxbridge….. need i say more?

Cambridge seems to be better for more sciencey subjects than Oxford is. Had an open day at each of them and the computing departments I saw seemed to be better equipped than at oxford, but there probably isn’t much difference.

Well, I had the the prospectuses for most of the cambridge colleges, and Pembroke looked the nicest, it had some fairly decent info on the course i wanted to take unlike some others. I didnt’ want to make an open application, and to be honest I wouldn’t have minded getting in to any of em.

Preparation

no

Well, lotsa of repetitive sessions on interviews, applying, etc etc, but not sure how much they really helped with the benefit of hindsight. I also had a mock interview with the principal, but it was nothing like the real thing. He asked lots of deep and meaningful analytical questions about newspapers i read, and how they compare. While the admissions interview at least was almost solely focussed on CompSci and Physics (my NatSci option). I would almost recommend not preparing at all, because unless you have had an interview there before, any preparation only gets you more worked up about what novels you have read in the past year that you can talk about!

Photocopy your form, scan it and print it, but definitely don’t write on the master copy straight away. I had a few friends that did, and Cambs only sent us about 15 copies, so no spares for anyone. I filled my “mock” scanned copy with about as much precision as i could, and still screwed it up. While i’m sure u won’t get denied an interview on the basis you scribbled out ur name on the form, it can’t help to look good.

Well, read around the subject as much as possible. But chances are if you haven’t done that already, you probably will have difficulty. When I got asked about future of computing (quantum stuff), i really would have been stuffed if the extent of my knowledge was how to word process!

Interview

no

no

yes

Not an exam per se, but the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment). I did the mock one off the website, and it was very similar. Almost so similar that some of the questions were all but repeated word for word. Don’t spend too long on each question, you get a piece of paper, just note down the ones that might require a bit of working out, and come back to them.

They did stress however that this test was still a pilot and that they wouldn’t take the mark into consideration when working out whether to make an offer or not.. I couldn’t help but think the “might” just be lying… what is the point in doing this pilot with real applicants if all you want to use it for is testing the computers work?? (Its done as a multiple choice on computers, much like driving theory test).

Well, my first interview was at 9:15 in the morning, impossibly cold and freezing. Got there about 10 minute before and just stood around waiting for the previous person to come out. I think i walked into somewhere rather secret beforehand as someone ushered me out quickly before pointing me in the right direction. The subject interview went alright, nothing special.

My second interview (admissions) with Susan Stobbs was a lot later, 4pm. I’d made the stupid mistake of leaving cambridge town centre between the morning and the interview, and got stuck in traffic on the way back in. Don’t underestimate how car unfriendly cambridge is, it took as 30 minutes to do about 5 miles. I was late…., only about 6-7 minutes late mind, but it coulda been the nail in the coffin :). I was sitting in the car panicking, so rang ahead at about 3:50 to get a message in that i’d be late, not sure if it ever made it to the interviewer, but she didn’t seem to mind once i got there, she was late too, but by only about 5-6 minutes 😀 (i’ll still looked bad though). I thought this interview went really well even after being late, I knew most of the stuff she asked me, and the stuff that I didn’t, we worked through together and i could pick it up and explain it pretty well.

The first interview with Michael Wise was mainly about Prolog (many others seemed to have this from previous years too). I’m not sure knowing prolog would have helped, it wasn’t lines of code or anything, just the principles behind it. It involved a small “database” of records in the format FatherOf( X, Y ) where Y was the father of X. i.e. FatherOf( Abraham, Isaac). There was then a fair few questions about how all these things linked together, how you could express Grandfather of X etc. Bit hard to remember, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think my preconception of a database looking like a Microsoft Access table didn’t help, but then i guess it didn’t hurt. Another questions was simply, “what is the maximum number of pieces you can cut a cake into, using four, straight cuts?”.. Now, I thought i knew this quite blatently, and it was stupid question, so in about, 5 seconds i said “16”. He made me write this down, and paused a second. He asked me to explain how you can cut a cake into 16 pieces using four cuts, so i started… “Well, the first cut cuts the cake into two pieces, then the second cut cuts the two pieces in halves, so you have 4 pieces. Then the third cut cuts the cake into 8 pieces….” …. he stopped me there. He said that was fine, and I’d got it right, he said it was very impressive and we moved on. It was not until after I had left the interview and thought about it, that the third cut couldn’t possibly cut all 4 pieces in half without moving them around. My way only cut it into 8 pieces. Later someone told me that you could cut the cake horizontally half way up, to cut all pieces in half, but i’ve still not really worked out how to get 16…. After this I spoke for a few minutes about a couple of projects i had on the go using visual basic (only lang. i know), he seemed fairly interested and made a few suggestions about how I can make them better. We did start to look at a “step function” graph, or summin like that, but as he started explaining it to me, he stopped and we did something else instead, just as well! (warning, for computing/physics students only :p) Right, the second interview was a bit more mixed. After she’d asked me whether I had thought about what NatSci option I wanted to take (i replied physics), she asked me a few questions about it. The first was “why does light pass through glass and not metal?”. A fairly stupid question on the face of it, until you think about why light passes through any solid at all. This was the question i needed a bit of help with. She asked me what the properties of a “light wave” are. I knew this, and explain the transverse wave with electromagnetic energy in the curvey bit (or summin to that effect). She then asked what distinguishes metals from other materials (free electrons). And from that i got the general idea and explained that the wave excites the electrons up and down, sapping energy from the wave. By the time the wave gets part way though, it has lost all its energy, and no longer “shines”. As glass (sand etc) has no free electrons, it can pass right throo it. I thought an intelligent question was in order, so i asked what then makes any normal material reflective to light rather than let it pass throo like glass, she explained, i nodded, we moved on. The other physicsy question was about paperclips, and dropping them on the table. I had to explain the force exerted by the table over time, as the paper clips hit it one by one. After having done mechanics in maths, and physics, this was pretty easy, and we moved on again pretty quickly. As it was an admissions interview i got the obligatory “why cambridge”, “why compsci” questions. She also asked “what else i thought i’d get from coming to cambs apart from the degree”… i said sport, friends etc, trying to sound remotely interesting without ignoring the fact that i wanna go to uni to do compsci not have 4 years of fun! She liked that, something about liking “focussed students”, and how pembroke like focussed students. She also asked about any projects I had on the go with VB, i chose a couple of different ones to talk about this time, and that was about it. (Penultimate question honest) Another questions was about how modern microprocessors work and why don’t manufacturers like intel just make their chips bigger, instead of smaller, and what is so good about small? I took a while to think about this, then realised that the speed of electricity was relatively slow (compared to light), and that the smaller you can make the circuits, the more clock cycles per second you can do. (she must have been tired of nodding by 4pm, but she nodded again) and said that was right, and asked about the limitations in making them small. This is where reading around the subject had come in handy. A few weeks before I had read an article about how Intel have realised there is a brick wall they will hit by about 2015-2020, where its physically impossible to make them smaller as electrons no longer follow the paths on the chip… guess what… she nodded and said this was right, and this would spur people to develop new methods of making chips. The only other question I can remember was quite an open question: “Where would you like to see computing going in the next 20-30 years?”. I initially thought this meant more about the applications of computing, and how it will automate homes, everyday tasks etc, but after i replied should re-explained the question. She wanted to know what physically will happen to computers in 20-30 years, and what form they will take. I know a bit about quantum computing, so said briefly that in that time frame its possible we could have built the first quantum computer, or at least got a fair way in developing one. She nodded and agreed in a way that said to me that was what she was looking for. She asked how they work (or are supposed to), i said summin about the orbits of electrons represnting 0’s + 1’s and everything in between. Again she said yeah, and said that she has a friend who runs a quantum computing lab and how the development is going well or something. As I was late i think the interview was a bit shorter, praps only 15-20 minutes, but i left having felt it went well.

Well, I decided pretty early on that if they weren’t gonna make me an offer based on the fact I didn’t wear a suit, it wasn’t a uni i wanted to go to anyway. So i wore a shirt, hoody and jeans. Just what i wear everyday. I wore this to my other 5 uni interivews/open days, and they all made me offers, so didn’t see why cambridge should be all THAT different. After all, you get made an offer, and what do you wear on ur first day… normal clothes. I just wanted to feel comfortable and not an idiot as i walked around.

Impressions

Pembroke is a very nice place, even though there was a bit of building work going on, it was incredibly attractive. Lots of “don’t walk on the grass” style gardens, old buildings (dah), and with the frost it looked like a wonderland. A pity i’m gonna take an offer from Imperial now (london) !.

Well, I only met Michael Wise, (computer science tutor). He was pretty much how i expected him to be. I would advise having a look on the net first though. Just type their names into google before the interview, and you might be able to dig up a bit of information on what they have done, what they specialise in etc. It didn’t come in handy, but it might for some.

Didn’t see any in the college.

Final stage

hehe, i was still in bed when the post came, but my brother brought it upstairs after reading the cambridge postmark. I opened it, read it, it wasn’t a huge surprised.

It was worded very politely, saying they have to turn down lots of high calibre applicants every year. A nice touch was the admission that they may well have made the wrong decision, and the process is fallible, and that the people they turn down may turn out to be a lot better and more interesting than most of the people they give offers too.

Texted a few other friends, see whether they got offers, just as you’d expect.

Looking back

Yeah, of course. Even though i didn’t get an offer the interviews were still good fun and well worth it. It may be me being resentful, but I can’t help but think if I applied again, the result may turn out differently. It is probably in part down to how you get on with the interviewers there and then, and whether you get the questions you wanted.

Ignore anything you’re teachers say about the process (especially regarding interviews). The most useful bit of information I got from them was the deadline (oct 15th). Anything else wasn’t helpful at all. Read around the subject, make sure you know why you want to go to oxbridge, or u stand no chance. They don’t want to give offers to people who are just going along for the ride and “pleasure” of actually applying.