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Blog by: Oli

A 2nd year undergraduate from Bristol, studying Physical Natural Sciences Read more

May Week

It’s happened again. You’ve barely got back to College after the Michaelmas holidays and are happily getting back into the rhythm of things when suddenly it happens: May Ball Ticket Season. Suddenly everybody is planning, some in extraordinarily minute detail, what it is that they will be doing for a week that is 5 months away. And for the next 5 months there will be just one thing to motivate you to get a move on and finish that lab report. The thought of, sometime in the middle of June, having absolutely no work to do and enjoying May Week.

I feel this need a bit of context. Cambridge is hard work, the workload differs from subject to subject and year to year, but the one thing that everybody agrees on is that you do need to work hard.

So, sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century, a group of students got together in one of the many pubs available for such a purpose and thought about this for a bit. They’d evidently been having a bit of a rough week, maybe missed an essay deadline, or struggled with a question sheet, or blown up their supervisor’s coffee, or something, but whatever it was it had made them a bit disillusioned with the whole thing. What they really needed was some motivation to go back and finish that essay, tackle that horrendous question 18, or apologise to their supervisor and dig pieces of coffee cup out of his hair. So they thought about this long and hard – how were they going to motivate themselves? What could they do?

Then, one guy had a fantastic idea. An absolutely amazing idea. An idea the like of which had never been thought of before. Once all the exams were over, when the only thing awaiting them was a ridiculously long 13 week (13 weeks!!) summer holiday, they were going to throw a party. And not just any party. They were going to throw a party the likes of which Cambridge had never seen before. There were going to be multiple live stages, acrobats, orchestras, hog roasts, dodgems, pizza, whisky, crocodile canapés, music, comedy, burlesque, poetry, singing, vodka, wine, jewellery, hot dogs, dancing, ostrich burgers, water features, ice luges, punts filled with beers, fireworks, hypnotists, magicians, steaks, champagne, silent disco, dresses, tuxedos, fireworks again, and Bastille. There was going to be all that and more for just one night, when students could forget about the real world and immerse themselves in a party like no other.

His friends (for they were his friends) liked this idea. They liked it a lot. But then one of them (the sensible one who is always telling you that going out when you have a meeting at 8am the next day isn’t a good idea) pointed out that such a party would be rather pricey and, having just finished their exams, students might want to save up their money for their summer holidays. This was a valid concern, and one that had the friends stumped for a few minutes, until some bright spark suggested that the tickets could be sold months and months in advance in the cold, rainy month of January. Not only would students then buy these tickets in their thousands but it would give them a ray of hope through the bleakness of winter and at the same time motivate them to work, dreaming about whole summer nights spent drinking and eating and dancing in a world of their own.

And so it happened. And it was amazing. They told all their other friends, who promptly became their enemies when they copied the original group’s plan and held their own balls. Soon every College was holding a ball at the end of the year and so, for one glorious week in June (All praise May Week! Nobody knows why it is called May Week when it is actually in June) Cambridge was transformed by night into the party capital of the world. This now happens every year and it is absolutely extraordinary.

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A mediocre week in the life of a mediocre student

So having made a commitment at this point last week to actually keep this blog updated I have come to the first, and possibly only, hurdle: honouring that commitment. With any luck I will spring over this barrier with all the fleet-footedness of a lame gazelle but there is a not-inconsiderable chance that I will fall and bang my head in the proceedings, in which case I can only apologise. Either way, there’s nothing to be gained by not having a try, so here we go. Another average week in the life of a mediocre Cambridge student.

Possibly the only event of note last Saturday was my utterly failed and eventually ruinous attempt to go to the cinema. After a friend posted the trailer of ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ on Facebook I thought it would be a decent idea to try and see this (by all accounts decent) film. Arriving at the cinema to see a queue longer than an English student’s dissertation we abandoned hope and fled to the nearest pub, emerging only an hour later to head to the next pub, repeating ad nauseam (quite literally). It never fails to amaze me quite how many pubs and bars there are in Cambridge – a figure of over 150 was touted at some point. Suffice to say that:

1) This is one utterly amazing reason why you should apply to Cambridge and not believe that rubbish that people spout about ‘all work and no play’.

2) I’ve never met anyone who’s made it to all 150 during their time here.

Sunday was pretty chilled – I imagine I did some work at some point but most of the focus was on the May Ball launch party that evening in Lola Los. We’d sold over 400 tickets to the Launch Party and were hoping that, with any luck, we’d sell out the May Ball of 1200 tickets immediately the next day. May Balls are amazing and possibly one of the best reasons ever to come here – I promise to do a dedicated blog post to them at some point in the next week. Promise. I’ve even written in down on my to-do list (see bottom of page).

Monday: Time for a bit of a non-day. Emerged for lunch at around 1pm before retreating to the library for a few hours, eating again and grabbing an early night. Enough said.

Tuesday: Orchestra. A true geek’s pastime, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. Finished quite early so ended up heading to Queen’s College Bar (it’s pretty close to the concert hall) and conducted an extremely scientific tasting analysis on their cocktail selection. For some reason the later ones sampled tasted better. This was followed by a mildly hungover Thursday in lectures and labs (I’m not sure where Wednesday went) before the inevitable cinema visit to see ’12 years a Slave’, a film that can best be described as a sheer experience more than anything else. Utterly extraordinary. Still thinking about it now. Incredible.

That concludes my experiences from the last week, but it strikes me that despite mentioning a lot of different events I haven’t really had room to adequately explain what it is that a lot of the words above mean. To that end, I am from now on abandoning this silly idea of a ‘weekly update’ and shall instead focus on dedicating one blog every week to explain in more detail what it is that I do. Here is the to-write-on-this-blog list, in no particular order:

1)      Labs – what are they? One for the budding scientists out there.

2)      Lectures – what are they? This may seem self-explanatory but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

3)      May Balls – what are they?

4)      The Cambridge Union – what is it?

5)      College bars – what are they? (I think you’re beginning to get the picture now.)

6)      College choirs………..

7)      Accommodation and Rent. You’ll see what I mean.

See you next week.

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So what’s it really like?

Hi everybody, apologies for taking a few weeks off – the unfortunate thing about a Christmas break is that it instantly transforms me from a fairly diligent and constructive worker (I flatter myself) to a fantastically lazy sloth whose idea of an active day is to move from the living room to the kitchen for another leftover turkey lunch and then back again afterwards.

N.b. Repeat for dinner.

Moving swiftly onwards, my last two posts (or rather, my first two posts) dealt with the unfortunately thorny issues of Cambridge interviews. I felt that I tackled this just about ok, even if I would have preferred to write a bit more, until somebody (hello Clare) pointed out that everything that I’d written was essentially just repeating word for word what every website on Google will tell you once you type in “Cambridge interview help”.

This made me realise that I have practically nothing unique and useful to offer to potential students that they can’t find out from other internet sources (I love the internet). Yes, I’ll accept that my taste in film is particularly eclectic and my knowledge of the local breweries pretty decent, but I was put off writing about that by the good old medium of common sense and the laughter ringing in my ears when I mooted the idea in the college bar last night.

So what can I write about? I thought that the best thing to do at this, the start of Lent term (Spring term to everybody else in the country but for the few ancient, wise and hairy old professors at the heart of this ancient institution who control the university’s nomenclature) was to promise to write every week about what it was that I’d actually done over the past seven days. Plus anything else that interests me, if I get bored.

That’s right, I’m going to do my best to actually say what it is that Cambridge students do during their time here. Starting now.

Monday was pretty fantastic – lectures hadn’t started yet and Russell Brand was coming to speak at the Cambridge Union. I work on the Press side of the Union, sending off press releases to all the national news stations and outlets whenever we have a big speaker come and visit. Russell Brand was the biggest speaker we’d hosted in, oh, a few weeks (Rev. Jesse Jackson came at the start of December) so we were having to deal with a lot of media attention. The talk was absolutely hilarious, with Russell ending up seated on the lap of a student in the front row, and we got a huge amount of national attention out of it which is always fantastic. Plus it means that I did my job ok!

Tuesday wasn’t bad, lots of journalists getting in touch about Brand, and I did a bit of work on the College May Ball preparation. We then had the College bop, which was absolutely brilliant – the theme was ‘History’ so I ended up copping out and going as James Dean (read: jeans, t shirt, leather jacket) while the Bayeux Tapestry and the Berlin Wall drank and danced around me. By far and away not the most surreal moment of my time here.

Wednesday was work day – I had three deadlines due for Thursday and realised at around 11am on Wednesday that it was unlikely I’d make them. Cue a day in the library (with a short break for a choir rehearsal at 6pm) culminating in a 1am Thursday morning food run to the fast food van outside college to 1) get some food and 2) chat to the people coming out of the clubs. A late night ensued.

Thursday was lecture and practical day. I left my room at 9am and returned at 5pm, drenched in chemistry. Also responded to an email from my supervisor informing me what time my supervision was on Friday.

Friday. 3 supervisions (“Did you manage to finish the holiday work?” “Yes, last night.” being a typical exchange) and a lecture on the development of French institutions around 1800 (I study Natural Sciences) to round off a pretty great start to the term. Weekend plans consist of a cinema trip to see the Wolf of Wall Street and a birthday formal (a nice dinner in suits/dresses. With any luck I’ll manage to stay in the former) on Sunday evening.

Stay tuned for Week 2 in the life of an average Cambridge student. If I see Prince William I promise to tell you.

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How to nail a Cambridge Interview

A few days back (last Tuesday, to be precise) I got a Facebook message from a friend of a friend of my sister’s. I had never met this friend before, I had met my sister’s friend twice over the course of two years and I had met my sister sporadically over the past few months. The presence of this message was, therefore, more than a little bit surprising. The message went as follows (suitably anonymised, of course):

Hello Oliver.

 My name is xxxx. I’m xxxxxx’s friend, she once told me that you’re studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge. I’ve applied to Cambridge and in a few weeks I have an interview at xxxxx College. I would really much appreciate your advice about how to prepare my interview, and what to expect in one… Kind regards, and many thanks indeed!”

This got me thinking. Interviews are scary. It’s true, they just are. My post last week gave a short introduction to the world of the Cambridge interview but I feel that, seeing as I’ve helped at least one person that I’ve never met before with this, I might as well go out and try and help as many people as possible. I mean, whatever’s worth doing is worth doing properly, right?

The overwhelming majority of stuff that I’m about to write is the usual stuff that absolutely everybody will tell you, but there’s a reason for that – it’s all TRUE! However, I hope that there’s some more whacky stuff in here that you might not have heard before. If not then I can only apologise for having wasted your time. Sorry.

Ok, here we go.

The absolute best preparation you can do is to make sure that you know the AS syllabus in your subjects, whatever they may be.

There are no tricks. Seriously. I mean it. All the interviewer is interested in is whether you know your stuff. That is it. Extracurriculars, charity work, etc. are all great things to do and make you a much more well-rounded person but they will not help you in your interview.

Ok, it’s all going well and you’ve tackled the first few questions without embarrassing yourself. Congratulations! The end is in sight, nearly time to leave and celebrate. But then it happens. A question that you have never even heard of before, let alone thought of answering. You do not know the answer. What do you do?

This happens in every interview. I mean, what’s the point of them asking you loads of questions that you know all the answers to? So the way to tackle it when you don’t know the answer is a simple one. You sit there and think. Just think about it. More importantly, say that you don’t know the right answer off the top of your head and talk the interviewers through your thought process. Literally say out loud what it is that is going through your head. You might feel like an idiot but that’s not the point.

Right now your interviewers are no longer interested what the right answer is or whether you will get to it. Instead they want to know how you tackle stuff that you haven’t seen before. If you sit there in silence, petrified (as most people do, myself included) they will help you through it but it is much better to have a stab at it yourself, and if you fly off on completely the wrong tangent then they will help you back onto the right track. The interviewers are there to help you, not to intimidate you. Honest!

Lastly (and this is my favourite one….) you will make silly mistakes. I forgot the equation for Kinetic Energy in my interview. I have a friend who asked whether Australians spoke English, and another who asked her interviewer what procreation was. It happens to everybody, and it’s inevitably embarrassing. When it does, do not stress – the interviewers are there to help you and guide you through the process, not to tell you off for occasionally being a bit of an idiot. Remember that they’ve seen it all before, and the best thing you can do when you slip-up – as everybody inevitably does – is to laugh about it and move on. Don’t worry. No matter what you say or do they will have seen and heard much worse. Guaranteed.

If you want any more advice do have a look at the links below, they helped me when I was applying so I feel that it’s only right to pass them on everybody else:

Good luck!

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It’s that time of year again – the ten day countdown to the end of the undergraduate term has begun, talk has turned to Christmas holiday plans, and it is no longer possible to walk from College to lectures without losing all feeling in your frost-bitten hands. All of these can mean only one thing. Interviews.

I hate interviews. Hate them. If I have been on this earth for nearly 18 years (which I have. I feel old.) how on earth can I possibly hope to convey anything about myself to a faceless interrogator in a grand total of two 20 minute sessions? I’ll squat there, on an antique sofa, tongue-tied, shaking, dribbling into the glass of water provided for just such a purpose while some 6ft 7ins evil demon dressed all in black and known only by the title of ‘Professor’ exposes my lack of intelligence for all to see. It’ll be humiliating.

That last paragraph, more or less, summed up my thoughts this time two years ago. Utterly terrified.

I could not have been more wrong.

The interview process is, I’ll admit it, nerve-wracking. It’s completely foreign to anything that the majority of students will have ever come across before. But everybody is aware of this. From your fellow interviewees that you meet on the day, to the current students that come down to the waiting room bringing biscuits and juice, to the porters that direct you to the interview, to the interviewers that guide you all the way through it, there are very few moments in your life in which you will find so many people helping you. The key to the whole process is to just relax – you clearly know your stuff, or you wouldn’t have made it this far. The interview is only one of over a half-dozen different metrics that Cambridge uses to decide whether you’ll get in or not, so even if it goes horrendously (like mine, but more on that later) it is by no means the be-all and end-all of the entire process. Just chill, and you’ll be surprised at how fun you’ll find it.

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