Cambridge Natural Sciences (Biological) Interviews - Serine Soul

Bio NatSci Interviews at Newnham College, Cambridge, December 2015

I arrived in Cambridge the night before my interview from the north of England - my first interview was in the morning. A relative who lives a short drive from the college gave me a place to stay for the night, although Newnham did offer me a place to stay in college too.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. I could hardly eat breakfast but managed to force down a croissant because I didn’t want to feel hungry or lacking in energy during my interviews. My dad drove me to the college about half an hour before my first interview. Once there, I registered in and went to the bar (the actual bar was closed, sadly. We used its seating area) where other applicants waited to be called for interview. Some applicants were on their phones, others talked to fellow applicants and helpers, while a significant number were reading through notes. The people reading notes so close to the interview made me feel uneasy; I personally couldn’t bring myself to reading anything, or even thinking anything, about my subject during that time. I found a free seat next to someone hoping to study economics. We talked to each other about our studies and such until she left for her first interview.

I then met another natural sciences applicant, someone I had interacted with on TSR actually, although she was interviewing for physical NatSci. Our conversation was cut short as I was called for interview.

I was led by a helper to a building situated on Newnham Walk, just outside one of the college entrances, and was told to wait in some kind of meeting room. There, I found another NatSci applicant, biological this time. We joked a little about how intimidating it all seems, from the decor of the room we were waiting in (we were almost entirely convinced there were secret microphones installed to hear our conversations), to the whole university itself, and after finding we took the same AS Levels, discussed our dismay at the way Unit 1 English Literature was examined by AQA that year. While talking, an interviewer came in and took away the other applicant and soon after she left, I was taken by another interviewer.

The room I was interviewed in was already familiar to me; I had talked to the second year Bio NatSci DoS about applying during Newnham’s open day in September there. It was decorated in a way that seemed like it belonged in the early twentieth century, I’d say. I had two interviewers that I researched a little before the interviews, so I knew what their respective fields of research were. They dived straight into questions, starting with one about a drug I mentioned on my personal statement, and then another about my Extended Project (EPQ). While one asked questions, the other made notes. The first of the vigorous scientific questions consisted of a series of figures on flashcards, all related to cell biology, and I was made to talk about them and suggest why one figure was different to the other. At this question, I had decided to throw out a phrase I had come across in the reading I had done for my application, and it was correct from what their faces showed!

The second question initially involved me linking my knowledge of GCSE Physics and A2 Level Chemistry in the form of graph-sketching. The question quickly evolved into a mathematical one, where I had to use the graph to work out some answers. For one of the questions, I suggested using a seemingly complex equation but the interviewer said that there is a much simpler way and I felt rather stupid when I realised.

The third question was also mathematical and related to chemistry, but a lot more difficult compared to the previous questions. I was given a diagram to aid me and I remember simply staring at the diagram for a while, not saying anything, while the interviewers tried to push an answer out of me. At this point, my mouth and throat had become incredibly dry, definitely out of nerves, and I had to ask for water to get my brain to work. After doing some whizzing about in my head (I still can’t remember how I worked it out), I blurted out a number and the interviewer responsible for that question confirmed my units of measure, while the other asked if I did it all in my head, without using a formula. I said yes, and she smiled and noted that down. When I later reflected on that question on my way home, I realised that I may have assumed something hugely incorrect and remembered that there was actually a formula that I could use in that situation, one that I used quite a lot in my lab placement. Nevertheless, I decided to check the answer I said with that formula and it was correct :-)

The interview ended at that question and I returned to the bar to wait to be called for the test. There was quite a bit of time at hand until the test so I decided to go out for some air and absorb some Cambridge sights for what may be the last time in the next decade or so. I began feeling a little peckish before midday and got something to eat. I still, for the life of me, couldn’t eat it though. My throat just hurt and refused to swallow. I was completely terrified, and the walk around didn’t help much, I ended up feeling very small when I thought about the amazing minds that walked along the same paths.

Around twenty minutes before my test, I went back. I sat next to someone who was also applying for Bio NatSci, a different person this time. I started conversation, but bothered her no more after seeing she had brought out a thick book of notes from her bag. I turned around to find the person I met just before my first interview, the other Bio NatSci applicant, with others and a helper, so decided to join in the conversation.

We were then called to our tests, NatSci and Lit applicants together. The test was in a large room, filled with generous amounts of natural light. Coming to think of it, it was a rather nice room. While doing the test, I cursed my vanity as I realised I think better with my hair tied up in a ponytail – as I always put it in exams. The test was an hour long, with half an hour of mathematics and fifteen minutes each of biology and chemistry. The maths section seemed fairly okay, although I left some questions unfinished as I couldn’t progress them any further. They were definitely accessible with a strong understanding of C1 and C2 maths though. My memories of the chemistry section seem to be limited only to some of me scribbling and scrawling diagrams of molecules all over my answer page, and something about shapes I think. The biology section was more difficult, it was a piece of text I had to read and then answer questions on, a comprehension test. I can’t quite remember the questions any more but there was a lot of inference, deduction and words that I had never come across in my entire life. When leaving the test hall, I found the first Bio NatSci applicant I talked to and neither of us knew what one word in the stem of a question meant, and both wrote the same incorrect answer.

Back to the bar I went again. I was quickly called for my second interview, led again to the waiting room with the applicant who was interviewed during the same time as me the first time round. We were both taken by interviewers at the same time. The second interview room was similar to the first interview room, though its furniture seemed slightly older. I was welcomed in by two interviewers again, and one of them was the first year Bio NatSci DoS. I can’t quite remember the order of the questions anymore but one challenge that stuck out was being given a picture of four species and told to simply talk about them. It was something I wasn’t expecting at all and I’d say this question was the hardest I faced; it was a ‘typical Oxbridge’ interview question. I was thrown right into the deep end, but I somehow managed to float back to the top using some knowledge from GCSE and A Level Biology and a bit of imagination (at least I think I did anyway, it was all nonsense to them really).

Another question I was faced with was based on a graph and I had to make some predictions about it. This was also a ‘typical Oxbridge’ question and I was given a lot of hints to help me reach some answers. After what seemed like a long, dreadful ten minutes or so, we finally reached the topic I was most interested, most comfortable in, molecular biology. I remember smiling as I answered some questions on this. The questions started off with simple biological molecules then later included one related to a particular topic I mentioned in my personal statement and had read around in great depth.

The molecular biology section ended to pave the way for virology, the area the first year DoS specialises in. The first question in this topic was fairly straightforward and again, I combined my knowledge of GCSE and A Level Biology. The questions got progressively more difficult and at one, I repeatedly tried to use something I remembered from a book I had read but to no avail. I finally reached the answer to the question by thinking out of the box a little (I couldn’t verbalise it so had to demonstrate it on some paper) and although I felt a huge sense of achievement after the interviewer nodded at it, I knew I required a fair amount of hints to reach it. Still on the topic of virology, I reached the final scientific question of that interview. When I heard the question, I began beaming as I remembered coming across a similar question in an AS biology lesson (kudos to my teachers!). Unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed answering that question.

I suppose the interviewers had some time left over as the DoS began reading through my personal statement and asked about the volunteering I did. The question came as a complete shock to me as I was told by numerous people to not expect any questions outside the subject I’ve applied for. I inwardly sighed in relief and talked to them about my duties as a volunteer and how I got first pick of all the good stuff that comes through to charity shops. They were very casual and friendly at that point and I felt rather relaxed.

The interview ended there and the DoS wished me luck in my exams. I walked back outside slowly and found my dad waiting for me outside the Porter’s Lodge.

I was interviewed for 2016-2017 entry and received an offer to study at Newnham in January 2016.