Cambridge Demystified - Biological Natural Sciences

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Theloniouss
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Introduction:
I have attended non-selective state schools my whole life, achieving 999998776 at GCSE. At A level I was studying Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths (FS1 and FS2).

Why did you want to study your subject?
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I wasn’t sure of my subject until after I’d attended a couple of open days. I eventually decided on Biology because it was the only school subject I’d ever voluntarily used my free time to study and because biological research has the most real life impact. I wasn’t sure which specific parts of biology I wanted to take, so I applied for Natural sciences.


Why Cambridge?
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I was always going to apply to Oxbridge – even if I didn’t want to go it would be nice to know if I was good enough. Oxford forces you to choose between biology and biochemistry when you apply and given I still don’t know which I prefer, Cambridge was the obvious choice. Not to mention almost every important biological discovery was made in Cambridge – Darwin, Watson and Crick, Rosalind Franklin etc.


Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or any other expert (TV presenter etc)
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My GCSE Biology teacher is almost certainly responsible. I went into GCSE hating biology and the guy made it all so interesting. Also, David Attenborough.


Which resources did you use (please name as many as possible) Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?
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Didn’t read any journals (although in hindsight I probably should have).

I read the following books:

Gene Machine (Venki Ramakrishnan) – goes into detail on how the structure of the ribosome was discovered. Contains both challenging science and tells an engaging story

Bad Science (Ben Goldacre) – Didn’t find this very useful (it was interesting though), I read it because it was on a school reading list. Didn’t mention it in my PS

Silent Spring (Rachel Carson) – Historically relevant to ecology, I read this because I applied to an ecology course and wanted it on my PS. Interesting but out of date and American.

Genome (Matt Ridley) – Very interesting book about genetics (also a classic). Matt Ridley isn’t a scientist and his political ideology has clearly influenced some of the conclusions he reaches. Worth reading sceptically, but it’s a very informative and engaging book (aside from the last chapter).

I also completed a variety of MOOCs (through Coursera) in the following areas:

Plant biology (Tel Aviv university) – Interesting and fun. Goes into detail about flowering plants, so if you’re into that it’s probably worth looking at

Psychology (Toronto University) – Intense and long. What does psychology not apply to? Very interesting but not broadly applicable.

Astrobiology (Edinburgh University) – Origins of life, looking for life on other planets. What’s not to like? Applicable to all of biology and helpful at A level.

Philosophy (Edinburgh University) – It was a struggle fitting this into my PS. Easy and fun but only applicable to biology in a very loose way.

I think it would also be worth looking at LMB research, which you can find here. Good as inspiration for wider reading



Did you attend any lectures, or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them, and why?
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No. I didn’t realise things like this existed until it was too late. Not to mention the only [subject] challenge our school enters students for is the Maths challenge.


Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?
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I did work experience at AstraZeneca in Year 10. It wasn’t really work experience, and I never got round to doing any in year 12.


What did you mention in your personal statement and why?
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Books – Adventures of a young naturalist, Silent Spring, Genome.

Courses – All listed above.

I also mentioned that I was teaching myself FS1 and FS2, talked about our Biology field trip and discussed areas of biology I had personally researched.


Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?
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For NSAA paper 1:

Revise GCSE maths (especially geometry). If you get stuck on a question move on and go back to it.

For Paper 2:

I decided to answer one biology and one chemistry question. For chemistry there was usually one organic and one inorganic question, so I always chose organic. For biology the topics varied massively (although I noticed DNA and mutation came up on two of the 4 past papers). For the actual test I ended up answering one and a half biology questions because the question I initially chose wasn’t going well. Make sure to read all the sections of both question before deciding if you aren’t comfortable with either topic.

In general:

Do the specimen paper a month or two before the exam to get an idea of the question style. Revise any particularly weak areas and then do the past papers in the weeks leading up to the exam. From 2019, the specification changed so make sure you know the specification for the exam and do these papers last.


How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?
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I submitted an open application. I went to an open day at Churchill for information about my course and the university in general, but my brother was already studying at Churchill so I didn’t plan to apply there.



How did you find the interview process? (NO INTERVIEW QUESTIONS PLEASE - this is against TSR guidelines)
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The interviews were fun (although I was very stressed). The questions were challenging but not impossible and I enjoyed answering them. My interviews were at Girton and they were very structured - I had two 25-minute interviews, each with two interviewers and each interviewer asked two questions. My interview topics were: Biochemistry and Chemistry in the 1st and Organismal biology and Maths in the 2nd.


Any interview tips?
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Say whatever you’re thinking. Practise curve sketching – from personal experience and the advice of other students and admissions tutors this is likely to come up. Don’t expect to get the wacky questions you might find on the internet.



How did you feel after the interviews?
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Nervous. It’s impossible to tell how well you’ve done at interview, so I was just hoping it had gone okay.


Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?
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I got my offer at 8 am, so I was still in bed. I was initially confused because I’d been pooled so my email was from the ‘wrong’ college, but I was mostly just relieved to have got an offer.


Are you looking forward to coming up to Cambridge?

Of course! It’s the best university in the country and I enjoy learning.

Other users' suggestions:
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden)

Oxford Mum
Last edited by Theloniouss; 4 months ago
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Oxford Mum
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Theloniouss
Reality Check

Thank you very much for your wonderful chapter, Theloniouss!

So a few words:

I love the fact that you decided to apply to Cambridge almost on a whim, because it would be "nice to know if I was good enough". Readers of this chapter take note, if you are curious and clever, have a go! I dread to think of all the people who did not apply, despite being good enough, because they didn't have your attitude.

Thank you very much for explaining the difference between NatSci and, say, biology at Oxford. I must say, those who do end up studying Natsci at Cambridge absolutely swear by it and are glad they did not apply to Oxford. Yes it is more flexible, but others, who just one to stick to just one scientific subject, tend to look at Oxford.

The inspirational teacher is often lauded by chapter writers. Thanks to your teacher, you went from hating biology to loving it, to getting a place at Cambridge for it. I would love to shake this teacher's hand, they are a credit to their profession.

You list some fantastic books and resources here!

On your PS you mentioned teaching yourself FS1 and FS2. This "self directed study", as Oxbridge calls is, is highly prized by both great unis. You did something outside school because you wanted to, and on your own initiative.

Also you "discussed areas of biology I had personally researched". Again, this is vital in getting an Oxbridge offer. Nobody can rely completely on their A levels to get in, even if you get 100% for them!

You found the interview "challenging" but you "enjoyed answering" the questions. Again, this is the perfect attitude.

I say to every applicant, forget the worry that you may not get in and try to enjoy having a conversation about the subject you love with the admissions tutors.
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Oxford Mum
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Further resources:

Sample interview questions:

https://www.cambridgeinterviewquesti...ural-sciences/

https://sites.google.com/site/oxbrid...tural-sciences

youtube interviews

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNgZq-TzEsQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MycP2U7QFOY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXH6SMOc8lU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0IjOypRwuY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13ws6-37Mys
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Mona123456
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Thanks for this chapter - NatSci is quite popular, so I’m sure many people will find this helpful! I especially liked your tips about the NSAA, and wow, well done completing all those MOOCs! You clearly love the course. Good luck with everything
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K-Man_PhysCheM
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Fantastic guide! Just thought I'd mention one book that loads of bionatscis seem to have read:

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology - by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden.

The book is an approachable introduction to biophysics, which is a very exciting emerging field. I've been recommended it by several people (especially in first year when I was taking both physics and biology of cells) and there's stuff in there e.g. about how the quantum mechanical phenomenon of quantum tunnelling is critical for the action of the electron transport chain which is a key structure involved in aerobic respiration!

I'm afraid to say, however, that I haven't actually read it yet... but I am assured by many people that it is an excellent interdisciplinary book!
Last edited by K-Man_PhysCheM; 5 months ago
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Theloniouss
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(Original post by K-Man_PhysCheM)
Fantastic guide! Just thought I'd mention one book that loads of bionatscis seem to have read:

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology - by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden.

The book is an approachable introduction to biophysics, which is a very exciting emerging field. I've been recommended it by several people (especially in first year when I was taking both physics and biology of cells) and there's stuff in there e.g. about how the quantum mechanical phenomenon of quantum tunnelling is critical for the action of the electron transport chain which is a key structure involved in aerobic respiration!

I'm afraid to say, however, that I haven't actually read it yet... but I am assured by many people that it is an excellent interdisciplinary book!
I've added it at the end and will certainly consider reading it. Sounds interesting
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Academicbee123
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Hi! I was wondering if I’d have a chance of getting an offer for biological natural sciences without having done maths at as or a-level? My a-levels are biology, Chemistry and psychology.
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Theloniouss
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(Original post by Academicbee123)
Hi! I was wondering if I’d have a chance of getting an offer for biological natural sciences without having done maths at as or a-level? My a-levels are biology, Chemistry and psychology.
Maths is not required, so you certainly have a chance.
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Academicbee123
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(Original post by Theloniouss)
Maths is not required, so you certainly have a chance.
Do you know anyone on your course without maths? I’ve been told by other people I have no chance because I’ve not done maths since GCSE.
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Theloniouss
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(Original post by Academicbee123)
Do you know anyone on your course without maths? I’ve been told by other people I have no chance because I’ve not done maths since GCSE.
I don't, but I don't know many other people on my course (as I'm an offer holder). My brother assures me there are a number of Bio Natscis without Maths A level (he's a 2nd year doing Physical Natural Sciences). You'd be in the minority, but if it was required they would tell you. You might want to brush up on statistics with an online course or something.
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Academicbee123
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(Original post by Theloniouss)
I don't, but I don't know many other people on my course (as I'm an offer holder). My brother assures me there are a number of Bio Natscis without Maths A level (he's a 2nd year doing Physical Natural Sciences). You'd be in the minority, but if it was required they would tell you. You might want to brush up on statistics with an online course or something.
Thank you, that’s reassuring! Could they make me do maths questions during interview?
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Theloniouss
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(Original post by Academicbee123)
Thank you, that’s reassuring! Could they make me do maths questions during interview?
They will probably tailor interview questions to what you should be capable of. If you haven't done A level maths they won't ask you to integrate or differentiate (etc.) because obviously you can't do that. They might ask you to do GCSE maths, as you will need some maths for a Biology degree.
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R T
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(Original post by Academicbee123)
Do you know anyone on your course without maths? I’ve been told by other people I have no chance because I’ve not done maths since GCSE.
I knew a few students who got in without Maths A-Level. They were definitely quite rare, in the total Natural Sciences intake of ~700 (presumably around 300 bio or so) - I think about 10-15 got in without it.

While there is flexibility in bio for not requiring Maths A-Level, I think they would want to see evidence of the ability to think mathematically and use models and perhaps apply some rudimentary statistics. If maths was flagged as a weakness at interview this could easily be the deciding point for a rejection - because Biological Sciences do require quite a strong Mathematical ability (strong relative to the average person, not necessarily strong relative to top STEM students applying for uni).
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mpaprika
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(Original post by R T)
I knew a few students who got in without Maths A-Level. They were definitely quite rare, in the total Natural Sciences intake of ~700 (presumably around 300 bio or so) - I think about 10-15 got in without it.

While there is flexibility in bio for not requiring Maths A-Level, I think they would want to see evidence of the ability to think mathematically and use models and perhaps apply some rudimentary statistics. If maths was flagged as a weakness at interview this could easily be the deciding point for a rejection - because Biological Sciences do require quite a strong Mathematical ability (strong relative to the average person, not necessarily strong relative to top STEM students applying for uni).
so would AS level maths suffice?
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R T
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(Original post by mpaprika)
so would AS level maths suffice?
AS is better than nothing, and A2 is better than AS. But neither AS nor A2 maths is required for biological natural sciences - they are simply helpful and useful.
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Theloniouss
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I've just spotted this unofficial offer-holders guide in my bookmarks, might well be useful to anyone looking for wider reading etc. (no idea where I got it, unfortunately)
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Oxford Mum
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(Original post by Theloniouss)
I've just spotted this unofficial offer-holders guide in my bookmarks, might well be useful to anyone looking for wider reading etc. (no idea where I got it, unfortunately)
Excellent, thanks
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