Engineering at Cambridge

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Cambridge's undergraduate Engineering course is different to most universities' in that the start of the course is broad with specialism not occurring until the 3rd year (or 2nd year in the case of Chemical Engineering). Instead of applying directly for the specialism they wish to follow, applicants apply for the Engineering Tripos. The course differs from the course at Oxford in that Chemical Engineering is a separate course in Cambridge which is branched to after the first year, unlike in Oxford where it appears as a specialism option in the third year..


Lots of information on this on the Engineering department website.

Typical offer: A*A*A. Some colleges have been known to give offers based on AEAs you are taking too; and STEP if you're not taking Further Maths. STEP I is now a typical requirement for Christ's College.

Further maths is highly recommended. Not only does it add to your application a lot but it is the first term's maths pretty much sorted.

Departmental Guide to Admissions - College admissions procedures:

Teaching and Assessment Styles


The good old fashioned way... lecturer standing at the front of a packed hall with a powerpoint, OHP or blackboard and sometimes a demonstration. Notes are given out either complete (yay, sleep time) or with occassional gaps so missing the odd lecture is manageable. Lasts 1 hour.

Coursework (1st and 2nd year)

2 hour session. Attendance compulsory which is a bugger if they're at 9 on a Monday morning. "Standard credit" system (1st and 2nd year only) means that as long as you put in the minimum considered acceptable effort you effectively get full marks - this is to stop you spending too much time worrying about labs when you should be worried about your exams.

Some labs are random ones which reinforce stuff from lectures (you might have not covered the lecture material by the time you do the lab). "Short" labs are simply ones where you turn up for the two hours required and get the marks. "Long" labs require a report to be written and marked up separately.

There's also projects which can go on for longer and will require some of your free time to be sacrificed in order to get them finished.

Coursework (3rd year)

Gone are the days of Standard Credit! There's less labs (typically one per module) but you are expected to write a report which you will be marked with "positive credit" (i.e. normally) on. You have more freedom than in first and second year to choose a lab slot that's convenient. There are also the Engineering Area Activity and Third Year Projects which depend partially on which engineering area you have specialised in.

Coursework (4th year)

The major thing is your fourth year project, which might involve pretty much anything (theory, experiments, design). This counts for half of your year. There's also coursework for each module, similar to in third year.


Two students to one supervisor (can be PhD student up to person who lectures the course which is always scary). You discuss examples papers which are question sheets given out with problems based on lecture material. These always come quicker than you can do them so expect a few to be left over from each term to do in the holiday. If you don't turn up to a supervision it's embarrassing and college can charge you the cost of it. Supervisors write reports on your progress each term but at the end of the day they're only there to get you through the exam. These are normally 1 hour.

You get supervisions on each exam paper in first, second and third year. In fourth year you get regular meetings with your project supervisor but no other supervisions.

Examples classes

Classes like mini-lectures run by whoever wrote the examples paper to see if there are common problems which they can help everyone with at once. Attendance strictly optional; some end up like supervisions when 2 or 3 people turn up. Several run at once for different topics in different rooms.



Course Structure


1st yr: All study a broad course.

2nd yr: Continue broad course similar to first year or branch to Chemical Engineering Tripos, a completely separate course.

3rd yr: Choose modules based on chosen engineering area or switch to Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (another completely separate course) or go on exchange to MIT in America, returning to do fourth year in Cambridge. Also option to switch to Management Studies which is not taken by many.

4rd yr: Continue specialised studies with more choice of modules.

The broad beginning is good but it does mean that in the first few years there will be subjects that you hate, and you will at times find yourself thinking "Why on earth am I studying field effect transistors, I want to be a civil engineer!"

First year

Four 3hr exam papers you'll be working towards taking:

Paper 1: Mechanics, Fluid Mechanics & Thermodynamics

Paper 2: Structures & Materials

Paper 3: Electronics, Electrical Power, Digital Electronics & Electromagnetic Fields

Paper 4: Maths & Computing

Maths is split into two lecture courses in the first term with one for those who've done Further Maths and one for those who haven't. Those who haven't done Further Maths cover material slightly more slowly, having one more lecture a week. After Michaelmas term it's all new material!

Typical workload:

Lectures: 11/week (Mich & Lent), 13/week (Easter)

Labs: 4/week (Mich & Lent), 3/week (Easter).

Supervisions: about 2/week (Mich), 3/week (Lent & Easter)

Examples classes: 1/week

Timetabled things stop only a couple of weeks before your exams in the Easter term which is unlike how it works in many other unis.

Labs are mostly based on material in lectures though there is a computing course (C++ programming) and also a drawing course which is half traditional (projections etc) and half CAD using ProEngineer. There's also an exposition course once a week in the first term where you practice presentation and report-writing skills.

Structural Design Project takes up a few labs (and several afternoons) in Mich or Lent and is quite fun - you build a truss bridge or cantilever out of aluminium bars to carry a specified load. There's also a (completely theoretical) design project over the Easter vacation where you design something.

Plus unless you've got it in the bag already you're expected to spend 8 weeks of your summer holiday doing relevant work experience. for more info including detailed syllabus descriptions.

Second year

Instead of staying with Engineering for the second year there's the choice to move to Chemical Engineering which is a totally separate subject.

Eight 2-2.5 hr exam papers:

Paper 1: Mechanics

Paper 2: Structures

Paper 3: Materials

Paper 4: Thermodynamics & Fluid Mechanics

Paper 5: Electrical

Paper 6: Information (Linear systems, Fourier transforms etc)

Paper 7: Maths

Paper 8: Introduction to Business Economics + 2 options

Paper 8 is the start of specialisation process as students can choose two of seven modules which each correspond to one of the disciplines they may choose in the third and fourth year.

Typical workload:

Lectures: 11/week (Mich & Lent), 8/week (Easter)

Labs: 4/week (Mich & Lent), none (Easter).

Supervisions: about 3/week (Mich & Lent), non except revision ones (Easter)

Examples classes: 1/week

Labs are similar to Part IA but with no drawing course; instead a course in Matlab / Octave is given. There is a slightly greater emphasis on independent investigation as a series of experiments on buildings in earthquakes culminate in you devising an experiment yourself and presenting your findings to other people.

The lab sessions of half of one of the terms are given over to the Integrated Design Project. This is a project where students work in teams of six to design, build and program a mobile robot which follows markings to navigate round a course and perform a task which normally involves picking things up and placing them in the correct place depending upon their properties. Towards the end of this you're likely to find yourself spending afternoons and even some of the evening in the department trying to get it finished in time, especially if you're doing software. It's a real test of the skills you've learnt so far and is fun but stressful.

Third year

There's the option to switch to Manufacturing Engineering (M.E.T.) for the rest of the course. Alternatively there is an option to stay with Engineering but take this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, returning for the fourth year.

Engineering students get to choose ten from a large range of modules, though six of them must be from one of the following "Engineering Areas" which will ultimately be the title of degree they get:


Energy and the Environment

Aerospace and Aerothermal

Civil, Structural and Environmental

Electrical and Electronic

Information and Computer

Electrical and Information Sciences

Instrumentation and Control

Engineering for the Life Sciences

Each module has an associated coursework, which may or may not be based on a practical lab session. The courseworks are marked separately to your exams and only the best eight coursework marks count, which is reassuring if you end up having to rush one.

There is also the Engineering Area Activity (a coursework in the afternoons over about a week) which happens at some point in Michaelmas or Lent term, and two Third Year Projects, which both happen after the (early!) exams. Many of the projects are group-based and can be a nice way of finishing the year, as you see all your friends doing other subjects panicking about exams!

Across third and fourth year everybody needs to take at least two "Management" modules, from a selection covering a variety of topics in business, economics and management.

Fourth year

In fourth year, students continue with their engineering area from third year, choosing eight modules from a long list. This allows further specialisation within each area, for example a civil engineer might decide to have a structural, geotechnical or environmental bias, or take a broad selection of modules. Labs work similarly to the third year, although some modules are 100% coursework.

A major part of the fourth year is the Fourth Year Project. This is selected (from a very long list) towards the end of your third year, and goes on until a few weeks after your fourth year exams. There is a massive range of fourth year projects to choose from; it may be highly theoretical or practical or somewhere in between; it might be brand new research, it might be a design project or it might be for a company who's funding you; it might be highly useful and relevant or an academic curiosity. Though they're all unique, they are all expected to take up half of your time because they count for half the year. Assessment is mainly through reports and two oral presentations, one of each given partway through (at the end of Michaelmas) and at the end.

The fourth year is unusual in how it is graded because a Distinction/Merit/Pass is awarded rather than I/II.1/II.2/III. The exams and module coursework are marked separately from the fourth year project, and the lowest of these two marks determines your final grade.

Chemical Engineering

Students have the option of transferring to Chemical Engineering for their second year onwards where they are joined by others who have transferred from Natural Sciences Tripos.

Manufacturing Engineering (M.E.T.)

Optional Activities

Language Unit

Students can take classes run by native speakers within the engineering department for French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. Self-teaching resources for other languages are available. There is (unfortunately) homework, but second years can use it as one of the "Selected topics" on Paper 8 and Fourth Years can use it as a module. The Language Unit also runs trips to visit the France, Germany and Spain in the vacations where you can see the countries from an engineering perspective.


The department runs activities for local schools and at the Cambridge Science Festival which can be a fun way to use some of your spare time.

Engineers Without Borders

Engineers With Borders UK (EWB-UK) is a student-led charity that focuses on removing barriers to human development using engineering. Its programmes (Training, Research, Bursaries, Education, Placements and Outreach) provide opportunities for young engineers in the UK to learn about technology’s role in development, and get practical experience on overseas placements.

EWB-UK was founded in Cambridge in 2001, and has since grown to have branches in 17 universities around the country in addition to EWB-Cam. Today Cambridge remains the centre of EWB-UK operations, providing Cambridge students with excellent opportunities to become involved with all parts of the organisation's work.

More information is on their website.


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