“If Maths or a Maths-related subject is something you want to study at university, conceptual understanding is key.”
Interested in a Natural Sciences degree but not sure how to prepare? This week, we interviewed Richard and Rachel, who both studied Natural Sciences (Physics) as undergraduates at Cambridge. They told us how they knew this course was the one for them, and shared tips on how to make an application stand out.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we speak more about their experience studying Physics at Cambridge and how maths was central to their course.
You can check out last week’s article about Medicine at Cambridge here.
Which subjects did you take for A Level (or equivalent) and was there a particular reason why you chose those combinations?
Richard: I took Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
Maths is a requirement and Further Maths is heavily recommended for the Natural Sciences course. Physics and Chemistry are both very complementary to Physical Natural Sciences, though I initially chose these subjects because I felt they were where my strengths lay.
Rachel: I actually took the IB, and I chose to study Maths, Physics and Economics for Higher Level – the first two subjects were required to study my undergraduate degree. For standard level, I studied German Literature, History, English Language and Literature.
Why did you choose the degree you did?
Rachel: I enjoyed studying Physics.
Richard: I had some interest in Physics, but my main focus was to do a numerate subject that was less abstract than a pure Mathematics degree. I found Maths and Physics to be the easiest subjects at school and I always did best in them. This indicated to me that I would do well in Natural Sciences.
How did you prepare to apply to Cambridge? Were there additional preparations once you’d secured your place?
Richard: I wanted to show that I was self-motivated and capable, so I taught myself and enrolled for an additional Further Maths module (Mechanics 3). To prepare for interviews, I made sure I knew my A Level syllabus well and practised drawing functions (which was emphasised by some admissions teams). I also attended Physics lectures in Cambridge and participated in a National Rail engineering project.
The interviews were based entirely on content that I had covered during A Level Maths and Physics. I found that Further Maths was enough to “bridge the gap” and I would definitely recommend doing it if you are considering Natural Sciences.
To prepare for first year, my college sent a maths revision packet for us to complete during the summer holidays.
Rachel: When I applied in 2015, there was no admissions test at my college – I made sure to check the course page on the Cambridge website and specific college requirements too.
For the interview, I practised some maths from my syllabus, just to ensure that I knew it well. Everyone has a different way of doing things, so they need to do different things – for example, some people need to prepare a lot to gain confidence, whereas some people have a more relaxed approach – there’s no universal formula.
Remember to keep things in perspective. When you interview for uni, you might feel that your entire life hinges on it, but it’s just one aspect of your life.
When you studied Maths, what learning methods worked best for you?
Rachel: I found that learning with videos was more useful and efficient than just using a textbook. But you can’t pick up conceptual understanding from just textbooks and videos – the best conceptual understanding comes from playing around with concepts yourself. Although I haven’t used interactive graphs, I think I would have enjoyed manipulating coefficients on a graph or playing with them to experiment.
I think too many people focus on getting the ‘right answer’ and memorising maths, but you need to be able to understand the foundational aspects. If Maths or a Maths-related subject is something you want to study at university, conceptual understanding is key.
Richard: I found the best way to revise for Maths by far was to do past papers. I completed and reviewed every Maths and Further Maths past paper that was available to me at the time. I took very few notes, relying mainly on doing practice questions.
Textbooks were useful for initially learning the content, and I then relied on study guides once I had a general understanding of the topics.
Want to read more about maths in university courses?
Click here to check out our interview with Eddie, who studied Maths at Cambridge.