- The Team
Tell us about your degree – Medicine at Cambridge
I am currently studying Medicine at the University of Cambridge because I would like to become a doctor. I am in the final year of my undergraduate degree. A typical day varies between your preclinical and clinical years at Cambridge. In the first three years, I spent most of my time in lectures and doing lab work. I really enjoyed my anatomy module in first year – we do whole body dissection which is a fantastic learning opportunity. In the final three years, it becomes more hands on. I spend most of my time on wards talking to and examining patients. We are also allowed to assist in surgery!
Medicine at Cambridge is a lot of work which is difficult, however, the knowledge I have gained over the last six years is incredible. The workload is heavier than anything I had encountered before and the learning curve is steep with a short adjustment period but the rewards are well worth it. I love having such an in-depth understanding of the human body.
What was your interview like?
The interview was very similar to a supervision and was very science based with graphs and diagrams. There was also a section on more medicine relevant topics, such as NHS and any current medical news.
Experience of life in Cambridge doing Engineering at Pembroke:
A day in the life – 5th year medical student
As a 5 th year medical student my day to day is very different from in the first few years, but it is important to think beyond undergraduate when choosing where to apply. The clinical half of the course is very varied depending which rotation you are on, general medicine and surgery, paediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics, neurology, general practice, psychiatry and more are all squeezed into an intense 3 years. Rotations involve a combination of lectures and seminars, usually in a crash course at the start, followed by self led opportunities to experience wards, theatres, clinics.
A standard day on the wards will start with the ward round, where students are encouraged to present patients and ask questions. Following this we help with jobs on the ward, take histories and examine interesting patients, get plenty of bedside teaching and follow various members of the team. Afternoons are often spent in clinics or theatre. Your time is largely your own, but there is always someone friendly and willing to help you make the most of it. After hospital I take part in university level sport, which is definitely manageable alongside the clinical workload, in fact students are encouraged to continue with other interests throughout clinical school.
What did you study and tell us about your experience?
During my time at Oxford as a Biomedical Sciences undergraduate, I was able to learn a wide breadth of scientific knowledge and skills, from cell biology to neuroscience, and from immunology to psychology. The environment fostered was both challenging but equally extremely rewarding, and I loved my three years in the programme. The course is set up in such a way that allows you to become more specialised in certain areas as you go through the years – for example, I specialised in neuroscience, whilst others specialised in topics such as endocrinology and cardiac physiology. For me, a typical day involved between two and four lectures during the day, often in the morning, then I would had to the library in the afternoon to either do reading, or write up an essay or problem sheet. Depending on how busy the week was, I would either carry on with this after dinner, see my friends, or relax. On top of this, I would also have two tutorials per week, on average, but this decreased as I neared the end of my degree and became a more independent learner.
How was your inteview and how did you prepare?
In terms of my interview, I went up the evening before and tried to chat to a few people and chill out in the night. It was hard to focus on much else but I tried my best not to cram information right beforehand. Instead, I looked over my personal statement once more and got an early night. Before I had arrived, I was able to have a couple of mock interviews, which, whilst not necessarily as stimulating as a true Oxbridge interview, gave me experience under pressure. In addition to this, I read up on topics I was interested in – being passionate about a subject is what Oxbridge want, so reading up on my interests gave me the opportunity to talk about areas I liked to talk about, and I’m sure my passion came across. On the day, I had four interviews, the first of which went terribly and I came out thinking that I had already blown it. From then on, I was less stressed and began to enjoy having discussions with academics about biology – something I’d not really had the chance to do before very often.
So my overall advice would be – find what you’re interested in and enjoy learning about it. Your love of a certain topic will come across to your interviewer. Oxford is a hard and challenging place to be, but, with a passion for your subject, you will succeed!
STEP is a better predictor of success in the Mathematical Tripos than A-levels, partly because
the questions are less standard and less structured, which helps to distinguish between ability (or
potential) and good teaching.
2. Preparation for STEP also serves as useful preparation for our course.
3. The STEP marks and the scripts themselves are available for inspection by college staﬀ. This
means that it is possible to make allowances for a near miss and to make judgements on the actual
work rather than on just the marks or grades.
4. The meaning of A-level grades may diﬀer signiﬁcantly between the diﬀerent boards, so STEP
provides a fairer across-the-board comparison.
If you live in the UK, you should be able to sit the STEP examinations in your school. If you live
abroad, then it is still possible for you to sit STEP at your own school providing your examinations
oﬃcer is happy to administer the test. This may involve setting up the school as a CIE (Cambridge
International Examinations) examination centre; further information can be obtained from the STEP
e-mail help line (see above). Alternatively, you can sit the examination at a British Council oﬃce, but
the British Council may apply a signiﬁcant additional fee; or the STEP help line may be able to advise
you of a nearby school in which candidates are taking STEP papers.
Here are two important pieces of advice:
• Do not worry if your school is not able to provide much help with STEP.
There is plenty of material with which you can help yourself. The best preparation for STEP is to
work through past papers. Full solutions (and much more) are available to guide you if you get stuck
from the Meiklriggs mathematics site http://meikleriggs.org.uk/ and other help for some papers is available from the Cambridge Assessment STEP website (http://www.stepmathematics.org.uk)
in the same zip ﬁle as the examination papers.
You will ﬁnd the following booklets useful. Both are down-loadable from
– Advanced Problems in Core Mathematics; this would be a good starting point for your STEP
– Advanced Problems in Mathematics; this consists of 43 STEP-like problems with discussion,
hints and full solutions.
You can get tuition and much more from the Further Mathematics Support programme:
You can get online help (including a discussion forum) from the NRICH
NRICH is a free website produced at the University of Cambridge, with thousands of mathematical
resources designed to develop your problem-solving skills, mathematical conﬁdence and mathematical thinking. As well as AskNRICH which as mentioned above, you might like to look at the more
general NRICH site (http://nrich.maths.org/university) which is intended to help students
to prepare for studying mathematics at university.
Finally, if you are from a non-selective UK state school that oﬀers no help with STEP preparation,
and you hold a conditional oﬀer to read mathematics, you may qualify for the Easter STEP Study
School, which is held over four days in Cambridge. The college to which you apply is responsible
for nominating you, and this happens in January after you receive a conditional oﬀer; no need for
you to apply yourself.
3• Do not worry if the STEP questions seem very diﬃcult.
STEP is supposed to be diﬃcult: it is aimed at the top 2% or so of all A-level candidates. It is
therefore important to adjust your sights when tackling a STEP paper. The questions are much
longer and more demanding than A-level questions (they are intended to take about 45 minutes,
rather than the 10 or so minutes for an A-level question). They therefore look daunting; but you
should not be daunted. In most years, good answers to four questions are suﬃcient for a grade 1.
You may be interested to know the exact borderlines in terms of marks. They vary from year to
year, since the marks are not scaled to ﬁt pre-stated borderlines (such as UMS marks at A-level).
Here are some examples (questions marked out of 20); more information can be found on the
Cambridge Assessment STEP web site.
2009 S/1 1/2 2/3
Paper 1 95 72 58
Paper 2 98 71 61
Paper 3 95 67 55
2003 S/1 1/2 2/3
Paper 1 94 73 55
Paper 2 95 70 55
Paper 3 77 56 43
Hi, I’m Harry and I’ve just finished my first year as a mathematics student (or a ‘mathmo’ as we are called here) at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. In my blog I’m going to write a few short paragraphs on why I chose maths, my college and ultimately, what the application process itself was like and how I successfully prepared for it.
At school maths had always been something I really enjoyed and found I had a ‘natural’ ability for so applying to study it at university seemed like a natural progression. My Cambridge application seemed like a daunting prospect with so many things to think about. What college do I choose? How do I prepare for my interview? Are the interviewers going to ask me some really wacky questions I’ll have no chance in hell of answering? When I got down to it these things were a lot less stressful than I had imagined.
Firstly choosing a college. It turns out that college choice really doesn’t have much bearing on whether you get in or not. A system called pooling means that the colleges talk to each other to make sure that the applicants who will get an offer do get an offer. I suppose trinity has the strongest reputation for maths in Cambridge but ultimately it won’t matter because if they don’t have space then they will hopefully find a college that does.
Something unique to maths is the number of offers they give out to applicants. They give out double the number of offers they have to places for because you have the added hurdle of the STEP exams, the only advice I can give for this is start early (like now!) as practice really does make perfect.
The interview itself is also quite unique to maths, forget questions like ‘why cambridge’, ‘why x college’ or your interests outside of maths. The interview itself will most likely just focus on maths and how you approach problems. The key is being able to show your interviewer how you think. They want to get inside your head to see how you tick so make sure you express all your (mathematical) thoughts aloud. This helps when you have no idea what they are talking about because you can try and explain the bits you do understand. Some colleges require a test before hand which you will discuss and go over the questions in the interview itself so make sure you look at that before you apply to a certain college (do you enjoy explaining things aloud or doing them quietly in an exam setting?).
Do not stress out after the interview. You will never know how it went (well usually never). If it was easy, then you might just be a genius! If it was hard then they might have pushed you to your limit. You can just never tell. The point is to challenge you and move you out of your comfort zone.
You can, however, prepare a little for the application process by reading some books. I personally read some of the Olympiad primer books, which seemed to help me think a little more abstractly even though I’m hopeless at the maths challenge. Algebra and geometry is also rather interesting and incredibly useful for the first year if you want to have a look at some more advanced material as well as making you think a little more deeply about the subject. The best way to prepare is probably to do some STEP I questions as these are set up in a way they try and make you think in interview and you will be getting ahead for if you do get an offer.
Good luck with your applications! I shall be writing another post shortly about STEP and how to start preparing for it early.
Harry is a Mathmo at Cambridge and representative of Oxbridge Maths.
It’s not too late! Here are some top recommendations for fun and study:
And a few more, courtesy of a generous American college:
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body. 2007. Jennifer Ackerman. The author explains the findings of recent research on how daily rhythms affect the way our body works. Why are some people early risers and others are night owls? How does this change with age? What is the best time of day to learn and remember? What has science learned about the interactions of time of day and sex, sleep, eating, drinking, and dreaming?
A Naturalist and Other Beasts: Tales from a Life in the Field. 2007. George B. Schaller. George Schaller has had a long and important career as a field biologist and conservationist. In this book, he shares his stories about his work to understand the biology and conservation of animals across the world. He may be best known for his work with gorillas and lions in Africa, but he also tells of his work with caribou in the arctic, tigers and pandas in Asia and many others.
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire– Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do. 2007. Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. This book differs from my usual choices because the authors are psychologists, not biologists. Their topic is about what we have learned from recent research that uses the biological principles of evolution to explain human psychology. Before jumping into this book to find the answer to questions like “Why are almost all violent criminals men?” and “Why are diamonds a girl’s best friend?” DO NOT skip the introduction. In the introduction and throughout the book, the authors remind us to be aware of two important mistakes in thinking. Read the introduction to see what they have to say about the “Moralistic Fallacy” and the “Naturalistic Fallacy.” Then, take the authors’ invitation to jump around and read the sections of the book that interest you in any order.
Condor: To the Brink and Back- The Life and Times of One Giant Bird. 2006. John Nielsen. The California Condor has been the focus of expensive and controversial efforts to prevent it’s extinction. Is this bird worth it? What are the causes of it’s population decline? Who has worked to preserve this species, and what have they done? These are the questions that Nielsen addresses. By the end of the book, the reader should learn important lessons that may be applied to similar efforts for other endangered species.
Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. 2005. Paul S. Martin. When did humans arrive to North America? How did they interact with Mammoths, American Lions, Giant Sloths, Camels and other “Megafauna?” What caused the extinction of this megafauna? In this book, Martin evaluates three competing hypotheses: “overkill, overchill and over-ill.” Perhaps most controversially, Martin discusses the proposal to “rewild” North America by returning megafauna to the ecosystem.
Why Do Men have Nipples, Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. 2005. Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D. Well, the title says it all for this one. The authors give scientific answers, when available, to many biological questions. Topics range from digestion, to body parts, to sex, drugs and the accuracy of medicine in the movies. This book is aimed for a popular audience and uses a lot of humor, references to alcohol and sex and a bit of vulgar language. I decided that it was still a worthwhile read, with one caveat. The authors frequently refer to a scientific paper in medical and scientific journals, but this book contains no bibliography. So, if you choose to read this book, there is one additional requirement for your review. Find and read one original scientific article referred to in the book (I can help.) Compare the results of this article to the author’s response in your review.
The Earth Moved: On the remarkable achievements of Earthworms. 2004. Amy Stewart. Each year, I try to choose a book that praises the virtues of some of the world’s least sexy critters. Stewart does a great job of showcasing the work of those rare worm biologists that have helped us to marvel at the powers of the lowly earthworm. You may never look at a fishing worm in the same way.
Pandora’s Baby: How the first test tube babies sparked the reproductive revolution. 2004. Robin Marantz Henig. Did you know that the first human case of artificial insemination occurred in 1884? What was the reaction to the first “test-tube baby” born in 1978 in Great Britain? In this book, the author traces the history of reproductive technologies and the ethical debates that have surrounded them. She relates these to the present debates over stem-cell research and human cloning.
The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. 2003. Matt Ridley. Sex is not necessary for reproduction in many organisms. Not all organisms that reproduce sexually have males and females. This book is about the evolution of sex and the evolution of traits in sexually reproducing species. Ridley examines what we have learned about the evolution of sex in other species and considers how this may have shaped our own evolution.
Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human. 2003. Matt Ridley. In this book, Ridley relates our emerging understanding of the ways that the environment affects our genes. Instead of the usual argument over whether human behavior is the result of nature versus nurture, he shows how behavior is the result of the interaction of the two.
Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. 2002. Olivia Judson. This book is about the many, many variations in bizarre mating habits of animals. She takes the approach of writing as a sex-columnist in response to questions from animals. This makes the book interesting and funny to read, but be careful. She is giving “advice” to the animals, NOT to the human readers.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s –Eye View of the World. 2002. Michael Pollan. This book is mostly about the process of artificial selection of plants. The author often takes the view that the plants have manipulated humans into growing and caring for them. The book takes an interesting look at four very different plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes.
The Secret Life of Dust. 2001. Hannah Holmes. Like dust, this book is all over the place. By studying dust, the author takes us through topics from the origin of the universe, to global climate to microscopic organisms. Maybe your expectation for a book on dust is not very high, but this book should surprise you.
Wild Solutions: How Biodiversity is Money in the Bank. 2001. Andrew Beattie & Paul R. Ehrlich. In this book, two prominent ecologists explain how little of the earth’s biodiversity is understood. Chapters explore lesser known examples of great biodiversity. Most importantly, the authors point out the great value of biological diversity.
Parasite Rex: Inside the bizarre world of nature’s most dangerous creatures. 2000. Carl Zimmer. According to Zimmer, parasites may outnumber free-living species 4 to 1. In this book, he relates examples of parasites from Costa Rica to Sudan. He explains how these creatures can change their host’s behavior and DNA.
Viruses, Plagues, and History. 2000 Michael B. A. Oldstone. Smallpox, HIV, Ebola, Hanta virus… This book talks about what viruses are and how they work. The author also discusses how viruses have affected history and speculates on how present viruses may affect the future.
The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses. 2000 Dorothy Crawford. Smallpox, HIV, Ebola, Hanta virus… What, exactly, are viruses? Where do they come from? Why are they here? How can we fight them? This is a great little book about our most up to date understanding of viruses. The author also discusses the link between viruses and cancer and briefly discusses using viruses for genetic engineering and disease treatment.
Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition. 2000. Tim Birkhead. This is a fascinating book about the evolution of animal mating behaviors. Relatively new DNA technologies have led to big changes in biologists understanding of mating patterns. In this book, the author explains how these discoveries have changed our theories about mating behavior. Along the way, he discusses bizarre examples such as fruit flies with the longest sperm in the world (58 mm or >2 inches); penis fencing among hermaphroditic slugs; and bedbugs that inseminate by injecting sperm directly through the wall of the female’s body.
A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. 2000. Samantha Weinberg. This book was fun to read. The author introduces us to the people that have discovered the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been long extinct. She begins with the 1938 discovery by Marjorie Courtnay-Latimer of the East London museum in South Africa (brought to her by the captain of a fishing boat.) Next comes the long search to find the second coelacanth and then to discover its natural habitat. She explains the efforts that continue to this day to understand this important creature. The book really reads like a science adventure novel.
Genome: The Autobiography Of A Species In 23 Chapters. 1999. Matt Ridley. Ridley writes about the ramifications of our advancing knowledge of the human genome. He devotes one chapter to each chromosome and uses one gene from that chromosome to explore a “theme of human nature.” Themes include intelligence, conflict, sex, stress, memory and free will.
Fearsome Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Live in You. 1999. Roger M. Knutson. This book is about the many kinds of parasites that can live in your body. The book is fascinating to read in the same way that we are fascinated in watching science fiction movies like “Alien.” The difference, of course, is that although these creatures may be alien to our bodies, they are NOT science fiction. The author writes with a sense of humor and this book is a sequel to his previous book: Furtive Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures that live On You.
Rock of Ages. 1999. Stephen Jay Gould. Have questions about how Science and Religion relate? In this book, Gould outlines why there should be no conflict between the two fields of inquiry. The book’s title comes from an old saying that illustrates Gould’s argument. “Science gets the age of rocks, religion, the rock of ages.” Gould is a paleontologist and is best known for his monthly essays published in the magazine, Natural History and as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.
At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, And How Life Came Ashore But Then Went Back To Sea. 1998. Carl Zimmer. This book deals with the subject of macro-evolution, or the long-term evolution of species and forms of species. The author focuses on two dramatic transitions. As suggested in the title, these are the transition from fish to land dwelling tetrapod and from a land mammal to whale. The book includes many recent relevant discoveries and is detailed, but enjoyable to read.
The Clock of Ages : Why We Age-How We Age-Winding Back the Clock. 1997. John J. Medina. This book takes you on a tour (aided by many figures) of the anatomical and physiological systems and shows the effects of aging on each. The author also discusses current theories of aging and recent research experiments investigating senescence and the possibility of “turning back the clock.” Along the way as a side note, the author describes particular details of aging of some famous people in history.
Full House. 1996 Stephen Jay Gould. This book is probably unlike any you have read before. Gould is a paleontologist and is best known for his monthly essays published in the magazine, Natural History and as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In this book, he is teaching us how to interpret trends in complex systems. Gould is fanatical about baseball and draws on examples such as the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball to explain his ideas about progress and increasing complexity.
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. 1996. Matt Ridley. Are humans ultimately selfish or cooperative? Is cooperative behavior actually selfish behavior? Under what circumstances does natural selection favor helping other individuals? These are some of the fundamental questions addressed by Ridley in this book. Ridley examines what we have learned about the evolution of cooperation in other species and considers how this may have shaped our own evolution.
Broadsides from the Other Orders. 1993. Sue Hubbell. The author of this book spent many years raising bees for honey and writing books in the Ozarks of Missouri. In this book she looks at 13 major groups of insects and tells their story by telling about her own observations and by interviewing people that work with the insects. You can’t help but find this book fascinating.
The Third Chimpanzee, 1992. Jared Diamond. Diamond is an amazing intellect with two careers. The first is in physiology and the second is in ecology and evolution. This book deals with many things, but is primarily about human evolution. (I’ve used this in several years and it was always a favorite of students.)
The Selfish Gene. 1989. Richard Dawkins. This book is fascinating because it looks at evolution from a different angle, from the perspective of a gene. In essence, Dawkins explains that organisms are vehicles that function to reproduce genes. The book was originally written in 1976, but this new edition incorporates notes of clarification and answers to critics of the original. This edition also includes two new chapters. One is on the evolution of cooperation and the other introduces his more recent book, The Extended Phenotype.
The Panda’s Thumb, 1980. Stephen Jay Gould. This book is one of many collections of essays originally published in the magazine, Natural History, by another famous and sometimes controversial Harvard scientist. Gould is a paleontologist and is best known as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. This collection of essays may get you started on reading more from Gould.
On Human Nature. 1978 Edward O. Wilson. In this book, Wilson explores using an understanding of population and evolutionary biology to explain aspects of human sociology. Chapters explore the role of evolution on aspects of aggression, sex, altruism and religion. E. O. Wilson is an expert on ants and other social insects and has had important influences on scientific thinking about biogeography, biodiversity and environmental ethics. His writings are interesting to read because his sense of intellectual curiosity is contagious.
Lives of a Cell, 1974. Lewis Thomas. This is a classic collection of essays explaining cell biology to non-biologists, among other topics. If you have an interest in cell biology, organelles, etc., read this one.
The Edge of the Sea. 1955. Rachel Carson. Carson is best known for her classic, Silent Spring, which was a very influential book about the effects of pesticides in the environment. In this book, she writes about the creatures that live at the edge of the sea. If you are interested in marine biology, you should read this book