Application

 Cambridge

 Downing

 Natural Sciences (Biological)

 2007

 offer made

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 home

 N/A

 Comprehensive School

A very bog standard one, at that!

 yes (11 A*)

A-levels

(A at AS (275 UMS))

(A at AS (281 UMS))

(A at AS (295 UMS); predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS (299 UMS); predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS (290 UMS); predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS (300 UMS); predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS (595 UMS); predicted NA; gained A at A2)

Details about the offer

 conditional

A in Biology, A in Chemistry

plus the A in Maths I already had

yes

N/A

 grades pending/unknown

Decisions about the application

Because it had been my dream for a very, very long time, ever since I came to the country. There was never a question of not applying; just what to apply for and which to.

Cambridge offered the Natural Sciences course. I did consider Oxford, but at the time I couldn’t even decide between biochemistry or biological sciences! Plus, I liked Cambridge better as a whole and I felt their selection procedures were far more clear-cut and transparent – they ask you your UMS marks, interview the majority of applicants, etc.

It accommodates great flexibility without compromising the depth. I couldn’t decide between the different branches of biological sciences so wanted to postpone my decision until later on, when I would have more knowledge (A-levels aren’t particularly a good indicator of degree-level science!). I also wanted to study Maths and Chemistry to an advanced level alongside biological sciences as I feel they complement the subject well and make me a more rounded scientist overall.

I didn’t go to any of the official open days but had a look around on a normal day. The other colleges all looked a bit samey but I was stunned when I saw Downing – all the buildings are cohesive, without any of those ugly ’60s buildings of other colleges. They also did not have the Thinking Skills Assessment nor required us to send in work/do tests – so there was some tactical thinking as well. And above all, it has an extremely good location for NatScis, a huge plus point for a lazy sod like me.

Preparation

no

Not really. I had three mock interviews, none of which helped much, and the real one was completely different. Our school doesn’t have much of a history of sending people to Oxbridge, so it was more of a case of me finding out everything myself.

Do your research – there are millions of resources out there if you just take the time to look, without needing anyone to spoon-feed you. Start preparation early, especially reading around the subject. Get some work experience, go to summer schools etc that may make your application that bit better.

Interview

no

no

No, I purposefully chose a college that didn’t.

no

Ditto above.

Very very very friendly and different to what I had expected. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, come to that – perhaps I thought they would be insanely difficult, or that they would be mean. But the interview was actually a lot more straightforward than I had imagined, which left me a bit off guard. At the end I wasn’t sure what to think and above all I felt that I didn’t have enough time to shine or do myself justice.

I had two subject interviews with two interviewers each, and they were both 100% scientific; no ‘general’ questions at all, apart from the first question relating to my work experiences. Both concentrated on topics that were my particular forte, so I guess I was quite lucky in that I already had some background knowledge. There were quite a few questions related to some of the science stuff I put in my personal statement so be prepared to talk about anything you put in it – I was grilled on a certain recent discovery for half of the first interview, at one point making me reply with “I’m sorry, I don’t know”! Don’t be afraid of making suggestions, even if you don’t know if it’s right, but make sure you can justify what you are saying – when I said something they always asked me why I thought it, or how exactly I could implement a suggestion for an experiment etc.

A suit and blouse. Don’t overdress as you’ll get hot and flustered!

Impressions

Friendly and inviting. The helpers tried their best to make you at ease (not that I still wasn’t shaking and petrified, though!).

N/A, didn’t stay over. Have heard that the majority of the rooms at Downing are en-suite, and that some rooms are hotel-standard in their quality.

N/A, didn’t eat at college (but heard it was great).

Very friendly and very encouraging.

Friendly (I sense overuse of this adjective), down-to-earth. Not rah at all and none of them fitted the rather unpleasant ‘Oxbridge stereotype’.

Final stage

Sick. Over the holidays I managed to forget about it, but when January arrived I felt so apprehensive.

I was supposed to receive the letter on the 3rd, but it decided not to come – it was horrible prolonging the wait for another day when everyone else was getting offers. Then when it came through about midday on the 4th, I jumped down the stairs, shooed my parents away, opened the letter, saw the line “we are pleased…” and just screamed.

Looking back

Definitely. There were numerous occasions where I had doubt whether I had a chance though, and there is a lot of stress involved with the process (endless forms).

Remember to ready for rejection, but have confidence as the interviews really weren’t as scary as I thought. Prepare, but don’t over-prepare. I veered towards the latter as I felt so insecure, but in the end only about 1/3 of my interview preparation paid off directly (although they may have had an inadvertent effect on my confidence or general knowledge) and I should have spent far, far less time stressing about every tiny thing. Even if you don’t get in it would still be an incredibly unique experience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who regrets applying. Good luck!