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Cambridge Demystified - Philosophy

I am posting this chapter myself, as the writer wishes to remain anonymous

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Reply 1
1. Why did you want to study your subject?

Firstly, I am interested in a lot of things, and Philosophy has breadth unlike any other subject. I view it as more of a method of enquiry than a set of facts, which meant the things I consider through Philosophy can be as varied as I like. It is basically impossible to name any other subject which is entirely divorced from Philosophy Maths, English, History, Physics, Economics, Psychology etc. all find themselves sat on a great deal of Philosophy. Studying Philosophy was the best way to try and be a polymath in the UK system of higher education.

Secondly, I found that Philosophy has an ability to expand my mind unlike any other subject. It examines concepts and ideas which might at first seem simple (freedom, goodness, meaning) and yet uncovers dimensions which are literally unthinkable until they are thought. It’s really quite beautiful and extremely fulfilling.
Reply 2
Yet another amazing chapter by a talented Cambridge offer holder, which manages both to impress us and be a great advert for the subject.

I just thought philosophy means studying thought, but you are linking it to just about everything, and opening my eyes to the many possibilities philosophy offers. If you are this good now, just imagine what you can achieve once you expand your mind even further! Yes, you show us the beauty and the art of philosophy and the yet to be thought of thoughts just make me want to sit at the back of a lecture theatre, listening to you.
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Reply 3
2. Why Cambridge?

Too many reasons! 😊

Philosophy is an incredibly discursive subject it started (at least on one side of the globe) with Socrates arguing with one or two other people about a concept in an attempt to get closer to the truth. Oxbridge tutorials/supervisions seem the closest thing to these dialogues in the modern world, so I was faced with Oxford vs Cambridge for my first choice.

Oxford only offer Philosophy with other subjects (e.g. PPE, Philosophy and Psychology, Computer Science and Philosophy etc.) and I did not like any of the other subjects as much as Philosophy.

Additionally, Cambridge Philosophy appealed more than a hypothetical Oxford straight Philosophy course would. At Cambridge, there is a great focus on what is called the ‘Analytic’ school of thought, which is (in an incredibly oversimplistic and somewhat inaccurate summary) the maths and logic focused side of Philosophy which concerns itself quite a bit with language. This is the method of Philosophy which currently dominates British and American academia and it seemed to me at the time of applying and even more so now to be the best way to do philosophy. At Oxford, there is more room for what is called ‘continental’ philosophy think existentialism and talk of ‘being’ and things generally associated with Philosophy, like discussion about the purpose of life. I had no interest in this personally.

Furthermore, Although Cambridge does not allow you to integrate Philosophy with another course in a joint-honours, I found that there was considerably more breadth within the Philosophy course itself than Oxford offer in the Philosophy side of their joint-honours, thereby still allowing me to dip into related subjects (hence ticking off my goal of learning a bit about everything). Some examples: I can take an Experimental Psychology module from the Natural Sciences course in second year, the optional History of Analytic Philosophy paper includes a set text which Oxford only offer to their Maths and Philosophy students, I can get deep into Philosophy of Physics in the Philosophy of Science module and study things like quantum mechanics and space/time, when at Oxford, the Philosophy of Physics paper is reserved for Physics and Philosophy Students whilst the Philosophy of Science paper does not seem to go into that much technical depth and deals more with scientific method (someone please correct me if I’m wrong about any of these).

Some other cool reasons to choose Cambridge over Oxford, which only validated the decision I had already made:

Philosophy supervisions are 1 on 1, versus 2/3 on 1 tutorials at Oxford
Much easier to write a strong statement, as you can just write a straight Philosophy statement and not worry about trying to integrate the other joint honour without alienating other UCAS choices (e.g. Philosophy and Linguistics is not offered at that many other unis outside Oxford and Edinburgh)
I love Wittgenstein and he was pretty active in Cambridge, so it is cool to study where he did (lots of other eminent 20th century philosophers too like Bertrand Russell, G E Moore, Frank Ramsay etc. but Wittgenstein was most interesting for me)

Oxbridge though really is not the be-all and end-all. With that said, here is another great option which I wanted to mention. LSE’s Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method course: despite the name, you should be fine if you mention formal logic and a little Philosophy of Science in your PS. This course offered a bunch of really cool modules and the opportunity to dip into virtually any module from other courses, as well as the possibility of learning a language. Way better pipeline into corporate too (except for some law positions) if that is something which interests you. I know of at least one person this year who turned down Cambridge to take up a place on this course and I don’t think anyone can say that was an objectively unwise decision.
Reply 4
In this superficial age, getting closer to the truth is something we should be striving for, but unfortunately few do. Maybe we will hear about your journey to the truth some day.

As a mathsphobe, I studied French philosophy, and switched off when Descartes started mentioning it! I am glad that you are tackling this head on and the course sounds more rounded than the Oxford one.

A real plus is the 1 on 1 supervisions as well, I didn't know that.

You have to be the only chapter writer to actually recommend a non-Oxbridge course. This is very handy, if you want a similar course, just in case Cambridge ever fell through. I always advise students to really study the courses (as you have done), so you don't end up with the wrong one and it's too late to change.
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Reply 5
3. Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or any other expert (TV presenter etc)

I studied Philosophy at school as one of my A levels and had a super inspiring teacher who was always happy to discuss questions I had and gave me lots of reading recommendations. Don’t worry if you haven’t previously studied Philosophy though you DO NOT need to have done and it does not even seem to help at all. Tutors will judge you in your academic context.

Besides my teacher, I would say I was really inspired by a lot of philosophers I was studying on my own. Some lived really colourful lives (Socrates, Wittgenstein) and some perfectly boring ones (Kant). The thing that tied all of them together was a devotion to clear and correct thinking and I found it really inspiring that I was becoming part of this tradition by reading their ideas and actively engaging with them.

As noted above, I was a big fan of Wittgenstein in particular and his activity in Cambridge was a big push through the process as the sentimentality of studying where he worked on the bulk of his Philosophy is something nowhere else offered (he worked on engineering at Manchester, not Philosophy and I did not intend to get a degree from the trenches of World War I…).
Reply 6
Original post by Oxford Mum
3. Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or any other expert (TV presenter etc)

I studied Philosophy at school as one of my A levels and had a super inspiring teacher who was always happy to discuss questions I had and gave me lots of reading recommendations. Don’t worry if you haven’t previously studied Philosophy though you DO NOT need to have done and it does not even seem to help at all. Tutors will judge you in your academic context.

Besides my teacher, I would say I was really inspired by a lot of philosophers I was studying on my own. Some lived really colourful lives (Socrates, Wittgenstein) and some perfectly boring ones (Kant). The thing that tied all of them together was a devotion to clear and correct thinking and I found it really inspiring that I was becoming part of this tradition by reading their ideas and actively engaging with them.

As noted above, I was a big fan of Wittgenstein in particular and his activity in Cambridge was a big push through the process as the sentimentality of studying where he worked on the bulk of his Philosophy is something nowhere else offered (he worked on engineering at Manchester, not Philosophy and I did not intend to get a degree from the trenches of World War I…).


Ah the inspirational teacher is a massive help, as are the great philosophers. If you don't have such a teacher, you can always look for inspiration elsewhere. As long as someone believes in you, or you believe in someone/something, that is enough to send you on a fascinating learning quest.

I also note you value clear and correct learning, which shows a discerning mind, which has been trained to think critically.
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Reply 7
4. 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?

There are literally too many to name and Philosophy is too broad for me to give a definitive list that would be useful for everyone. If you want to do Philosophy read and read and read and read as much as you can. With that said, here are some sources for finding good stuff and some places to start:

If you haven’t done any Philosophy before, the general recommended starting place seems to be Simon Blackburn’s ‘Think’
The Cambridge reading lists. You can head on to the faculty website and click to 1A under current students which will allow you to access the reading lists. If before even getting to uni you have read, understood and thought critically about something first-year students read, you’re doing pretty well!
YouTube: some great lectures Searle on Mind/Language/Society (3 separate ones watch the one which interests you), Peter Millican’s Oxford General Philosophy Lectures (really good romp through metaphysics you can find some matching lecture slides on his website)
Formal Logic: this is the thing which *I think* Cambridge would expect incoming students to be least prepared for when starting as it is sort of like language maths a little different to anything you would have done before. If you can teach yourself a bit, that should give admissions some confidence in you. Lots of textbooks but it is about finding the one which works for you I used forallx (the one Cambridge use and freely available online). If you don’t do maths A level, do not be put off firstly, it is arguably even more important you show you can cope with the logic side of things since they say maths is good prep. On a more individual note, I found my work with languages was honestly more useful in understanding logic than any maths I’d ever done, so believe in yourself you’ve got this.
In terms of spread and distribution it is definitely OK to have an area of particular interest, but in first year there are five compulsory modules and no choices. Everyone has to do metaphysics, ethics/political philosophy, meaning (language), set texts, formal methods (i.e. logic with a little probability). I would aim to try and touch on each of these a little in your statement, so that you show you are aware of the course’s breadth and ready to tackle it in all its glory.
Reply 8
Question 4 is so important, as all prospective candidates will want to know where to start, and particularly where you, as a successful student, started. It is difficult to list everything, firstly as there is so much and also, each person's journey is different. Rather than just have a narrow area of interest, I love it that you point us towards the five compulsory modules, so it shows you are willing to address them and have fund exploring them.
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Reply 9
5. Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?

Not really ☹. If you can make it to an in-person Philosophy lecture, go. Or perhaps discuss some seemingly unrelated work experience through a Philosophical lens. Worked at a law firm = are people morally obligated to follow the law?, mentored a younger student = how is it that people learn things at all? (Read Plato’s Meno on the latter question it’s one of the first year set texts!). These are just some examples though, and I think generally that tutors will like to see you thinking philosophically about aspects of your life it will make your personal statement personal.
Reply 10
This is one of my favourite answers. Whatever you do, you can analyse it in a philosophical light. Suddenly, everything becomes much more interesting and your personal statement will mark you out as different to the other cookie cutter ones.
Reply 11
6. Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ? What was it? How did you go about your research?

I didn’t do an EPQ, or really have a specialist subject. That said, in my statement, each paragraph consisted of me laying forth my opinion on a philosophical question or issue, referencing the sources I had read to reach that conclusion. As such, although I did not write an EPQ or anything, I tapped into some weird and wonderful interests I had and thought through them over periods of weeks or months to the point that I probably could have written an EPQ on some of them…
Reply 12
Not only do you enjoy thinking, you find sources to back up your thoughts. I would love to read one of your essays and marvel.
Reply 13
7. What did you mention in your personal statement and why?

I’m a bit anxious to give specifics, as it’s very important that you look into different areas yourself and then write about what YOU think about what YOU are interested in.

With that said, here is a broad and vague survey of my statement to give you an idea:

Very quick introductory paragraph on why I like Philosophy and what my relationship with it is like referenced a collection of Philosophy essays I like
My own unique take on a METAPHYSICAL question referenced one of Searle’s courses, a modern academic article and an early modern philosophical text
An attempt to apply an idea in PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE to the HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY referenced two secondary texts on different philosophical movements, an introduction to Philosophy of Science, a classical text, a modern article on that text and a lecture I watched online (long paragraph)
Very quick reference to a lecture on ETHICS/POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and then discussed a theory I had about PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE (which I now know to be very very wrong lol…) referenced a discussion with my friend, a 20th century work, forallx (the Cambridge LOGIC textbook) and two more 20th century works
Quick conclusion about how my view of Philosophy has shifted from my own study and statement about how I want it to develop at university

Forgive the obnoxious capitalisation, but I wanted to show the range. The only thing that is explicitly missing is reference to the Cambridge set texts (Plato’s Meno, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women). Since they could see I’d clearly read lots of original philosophical texts, I assumed this was fine.

Quick tip: I hate mind-maps (very much a bullet point sort of person), but drawing one up when I had my initial ideas on what to write about massively helped me write a fluid statement, rather than the disjointed mess I would have had if I hadn’t thought conceptually about how my topics and favourite books or ideas link together.

Note also that I referenced a literal conversation I had with a friend. This not only made me look like I’m actually interested in Philosophy (somewhere on the faculty page, Cambridge brag about the fact that Philosophy done properly spills over from the lecture hall into the pub), but also allowed me to mention a topic from the third year Mathematical Logic paper, without stressing about knowing it in anywhere near the depth they would have expected if I had referenced a book about it. Don’t be afraid to reference some slightly more informal sources.
Reply 14
Although personal statements are bound to be different, you are giving us some very important pointers on how to structure a highly effective account. I am very impressed that, amongst all those famous academics and philosophers, you give equal standing to your friend's opinions. Everyone's thoughts are fascinating, that is what defines them rather than their appearance.
Reply 15
8. Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?

Grind out all the past papers again and again (if you search Cambridge Philosophy Admissions Assessment on google, you get more than if you just stick to the initial page on their website like there is a page you can only access through that google search weird to explain). When those are done, do some of Oxford’s TSA papers. Read lots to understand how to write a good essay. Be calm on the day. That’s about all I have to say on that. Sorry!
Reply 16
Yes, there is no quick fix to doing well on the admissions tests - it's practice, practice, practice.

I do not know of a single Oxbridge Demystified chapter writer who had never looked at an admissions test paper, or developed a strategy on how best to cope with it (ie play to your strengths, find out which questions carry the most marks etc). Admissions tests may be more boring than your self directed study, but they are an essential part of the application process.
Reply 17
9. How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?

I wasn’t that fussed about college, so I chose one that was medium-sized, old, pretty, central and that was that, based on looking online (google images and YouTube). My college is in some sense ‘mid’ in most ways, but it screams Cambridge in vibe and that is what I wanted.

(I initially wanted to apply to Trinity because that’s where Wittgenstein was, but a lot of the big colleges seemed to have really bad reps for atmosphere and inclusion, so I looked at medium-sized ones instead.)
Reply 18
I agree. You shouldn't get too hung up on one particular college, as you may not end up there and after all, Cambridge is Cambridge! Glad you chose a college to suit you, rather than where your philosophical hero studied.
Reply 19
10. How did you find the interview process?

Stressful for the first minute and a half, then enjoyable, then wondering how the time had gone so quickly.

I was convinced I had failed my first interview and literally only showed up to the second for the experience. I had some pretty good other offers in the run-up to decisions and came very close to withdrawing multiple times, because I was CONVINCED that I was not going to get in. It really is true that you cannot predict your result I didn’t even get pooled in the end, but rather accepted straight up.

All of my interviewers were actually really encouraging (I know from friends that this won’t be the case for everyone). Every time I finished speaking, they would clarify that I had said what they thought I said and give me the chance to change my mind or say something a bit more clearly, which meant the discussion progressed pretty nicely. In my second interview, there was one question in particular (NDA means I can’t share details unfortunately), where it really felt like we were working towards an answer together. Near the end, we were both sat there thinking when the interviewer shouted out ‘I’ve got it!’ and then caught himself before he revealed the answer when he remembered he was meant to be interviewing me, rather than vice-versa.

Supervisions were the main reason I was drawn to Oxbridge. After my interviews, I wanted Oxbridge even more because I had in some sense experienced one for the first time.

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