Advice for students hoping to study Natural Sciences at Oxbridge

In a webinar designed to offer prospective Cambridge University and Oxford University students to prepare for their applications and interviews, members of the CamVision team discussed applying for Natural Sciences. Two are former Cambridge University graduates, and one, Rachel, is currently at Magdalene College studying Natural Sciences.

How did you prepare for your interview?

Rachel: I think the best preparation came from actually practising. I was given mock interviews at my college, there were other societies that offered them, and at CamVision they can also be arranged. I would definitely recommend doing at least one mock interview before you actually go for the real thing. For Natural Sciences we also had to take an entrance exam before being offered an interview. Then on the day of my interview I had an extra paper that I had to sit specifically for my college as well. This last one will vary from college to college, so it’s worth keeping in mind that there may be slightly different processes for each. 

How did you feel before your interview and what did you do on the day to calm your nerves?

Rachel: I was super nervous, but that’s not unusual; everybody gets nervous and the interviewers know that. So, know that it’s ok to be nervous and accept it’s part of the process. On the day, I had a bit of a break between interviews because I had two, so I had a bit of a walk around because if you’re interviewing with your chosen college they sometimes let you have a tour.  Exploring the grounds and walking around was definitely helpful – getting some air. It’s usually winter by the time you visit, but it’s still lovely to look at and it does help a little. 

What would you recommend if we’re having an online interview because of Covid-19?

Rachel: I feel it’s an opportunity to help yourself to feel more confident because you’re not actually required to dress formally for the interview. So, wear whatever makes you feel your best. If you’re just more comfortable with casual clothes, then by all means go with that, but if you find that wearing something more formal gives you a boost then go with that instead. The interviewers don’t mind. 
Ed: In the past students were often told to wear a suit and to dress formally, but now more than ever I don’t think it matters so much. Another thing I think about online interviews, is that it’s almost quite nice because you can get yourself into your most comfortable and familiar place possible, and aside from what interviewers can see on the camera, you could be doing anything else. If you want to fidget with something because you’re anxious, you can do that without being seen. In many ways it’s quite an advantage being on Zoom for your interview!

Can you tell us a bit more about the application process and how many interviews you had?

Rachel: For Natural Sciences you apply to the course, but you have to specify which aspect of the course you want to do; if you come in as a first year for Cambridge University, you have to specify whether you want to do Physical Natural Sciences or Biological Natural Sciences. Based on that, your college will give you different interviews. I chose the physical side, but no matter which one you opt for, you’re going to have to sit the NSA; that’s the name of the paper that Cambridge started doing the year before my application. It’s just for Cambridge Natural Sciences applications, and it’s split into Physics, Chemistry and Biology. You get to pick two out of three. Then, there’s a Further Maths section as well.  Based on your personal statement and your score on the NSA, you’re offered an interview. If you interview in Cambridge itself, you normally get two interviews, but if you interview in your home country you usually get one interview. 
Ed: I applied from outside the UK, but the process depends on which country you are applying from. I had an in-person interview in my home country, so they sent someone over, and I had to go to a nearby city to be interviewed. 

What types of question were you asked?

Rachel: As mentioned, I applied for Physical Natural Sciences, for which they usually ask problem solving questions. They’ll probably start off with something that you’re familiar with and that you’ve seen before in class, then as you go on, they’ll slowly up the intensity of the questions and at some point, everybody gets stuck. From there on they will give you hints. They just want to see how you respond to new things. 

Do they touch on your personal statement at all?

Rachel: It depends on the interviewer – they are able to make their own decisions on what they want to ask. 

Could you give examples of things you did well or not so well in interviews?

Rachel: One thing I was told that I improved on was thinking out loud. As we said, they want to give you hints and the interviewers are actually rooting for you. They’re not trying to catch you out and they actually want to help you. So, it’s important that as you try to solve your problem, you speak aloud and tell them your thought process. If you keep quiet and you get stuck, they won’t know where you’re stuck.
Ed: This reminds me of one of my interviews. I had a general interview for the college and a subject-specific interview with my future Director of Studies – the person who would be responsible for my academic development. In the general interview they asked me a question about languages, because that’s what I was going to study, and I think I spoke for five minutes, which felt like eternity. At the end I still said ‘look, I don’t know. I just don’t have the answer to this question. I can’t get to it.’ When I looked it up afterwards, I realised that even among the top scientists, they just don’t know. It’s debated. I think that is the classic example of a question – they really just want to see how you work. It’s important to think aloud and not be afraid of making mistakes. 

What advice would you give students on preparing answers to questions in Natural Sciences?

Rachel: It’s about building on that last question; when there are things that you don’t do so well, or you forget something that you’re supposed to know, don’t let it freak you out and don’t panic. They’re usually ok with it and they’ll tell you – it’s not the end of the world. Also, there’s a difference between Oxford and Cambridge, when it comes to Natural Sciences. At Oxford, you directly apply to one specific science, while Cambridge does it under one whole course. So, pick which one you like better. I chose Cambridge because I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to specialise in at that time, so I got to do a whole range of subjects in my first year.

Also, for Cambridge if you’re applying to Natural Sciences and you’re quite sure that you’d like to specialise in, say Physics, it’s also advisable not to neglect the other subjects. If you’re applying for physics but not biology, you’d be able to get away with not caring about biology but brushing up on your chemistry helps because it may come up on the NSA. In my case, I had this… it was a very time-pressured setting and I didn’t have time to do the two full physics questions, so I went with one chemistry question instead and that saved me time. 

Do you have any advice, or do you know someone, who’s switched to Chemical Engineering via Natural Sciences? 

Rachel: In your first year you actually get a choice between doing the Natural Science stream or the Engineering stream. I think if you’re going via the Natural Science route, your interview is pretty similar in terms of problem-solving questions. So, as we said just now, learn to think aloud while you solve your problems. I do have friends who switched to Chemical Engineering and did natural sciences as well. I think it’s just something you get into once you’re at the university and so in many ways a very similar interview process.

How do you prepare for the NSA?

Rachel: Your AS or equivalent college should be able to give you some questions that give you a base for what you need to know, but it will be a step up, as in you won’t have seen this level of complexity before.  I’d say go and check on their past papers because by now they will have at least four or five online with the answers, and work on your mental maths – you won’t get a calculator – and work on your speed. 

In interviews where you have to work things out you seem to get a whiteboard where you can show workings. How can you do this with online interviews?

Rachel: It may be that you share a screen, but it’s up to the supervisor to provide that, so you shouldn’t need to worry about it. Your college will probably find a way for you to be able to write online so that they can see any workings at the same time as you.

What extracurricular activities do you suggest doing?

Rachel: At my college, the guidance we got is that they don’t really care that much about your extracurriculars, but if you would like to boost your application by doing things that you like and put them on your UCAS applications and personal statements, then by all means do. I think things like physics competitions and chemistry competitions could be helpful, but it’s not make or break.

Are you expected to finish the NSA? 

Rachel: I did manage to get through all my answers in time, but from what I heard from my friends a lot of people didn’t finish and many of those who said they didn’t finish are my classmates now. 

Would you be disadvantaged if, in your personal statement and NSA, it shows you are stronger in one science than in another?

Rachel: I would say no, don’t worry about it, because I also have friends doing physics alongside me now who wrote a personal statement that was entirely on physics.  Cambridge does take that into account, because they know they only offer one science course, which is Natural Sciences, and if you want to study Physics at Cambridge you have to go through that application process. I said just now not to neglect the others, but it doesn’t matter if you’re stronger in one, I just think it’s a beneficial strategy.