Advice from Director of Studies for Biology at Peterhouse, Dr. Justin Gerlach
Cambridge University's Natural Sciences course gives exceptional opportunities for undergraduates to explore the sciences before specialising. This enables students either to develop their interest over three years, or to construct a course that complements existing interests. Most other universities provide a prescriptive course, or a narrow range of options. Prospective applicants should consider the range of biological modules carefully.
Cambridge is a collegiate university, meaning that the colleges admit the students, arrange much of their teaching and are their home during their time at Cambridge. This makes the choice of college something worth considering carefully, although not everyone gets into their first choice college. Many different things that can be taken into account in choosing a college, such as size, location, accommodation, facilities and teaching. All colleges will find something they consider an attractive attribute and there are many sources of information on the colleges (the alternative prospectus is quite informative, as is the Cambridge Colleges site). Peterhouse lays claim to a very friendly and supportive atmosphere because of its small size, and it could hardly be more conveniently located for the biological departments. It is also particularly good in terms of student accommodation, plus who can resist the appearance of the oldest college in Cambridge?
Applicants to Natural Sciences at Cambridge have to sit an admissions assessment in maths and sciences. This is based on what students can reasonably be expected to have encountered at school and is designed to test their ability to think. As such, reading the available information on the assessment is useful, but tutoring for them is pointless. These tests are only one small part of the application. The Personal Statement will also be read carefully, looking for evidence a genuine interest in the subject that the applicant is hoping to study. This may be through anything notable the applicant has done: projects or work placements, books or articles they have read, lectures they have attended or seen on-line, science competitions they have entered (such as Peterhouse's Kelvin essay competition) or just a clear explanation for their biological interest. We are aware that some applicants will have had more opportunities than others and a notable-sounding work placement is not necessarily more impressive than an applicant who has been genuinely inspired by something they read. The admissions test and the Personal Statement will be used to decide who is to be interviewed. The interview gives the college the chance to decide whether the applicant and the college are right for each other.
Colleges and subjects may have different interview arrangements; Natural Sciences at Peterhouse has two interviews, each conducted by a pair of interviewers. This enables four Fellows to evaluate each candidate, and for the candidate to be asked questions on a range of biological and chemical topics. These interviews are very much about problem solving and not about knowing the right answers and our aim is not to intimidate, but to get the best out of the candidate. We want them to be as relaxed as is possible in an interview, and to let us determine whether they will suit the university and the college, and whether we will suit them. In order to do that we take the applicant's backgrounds into account and we take pride in judging everyone fairly.