Ellen is from Litcham, a village close to King's Lynn in Norfolk, and is now in her second year here at King's College, Cambridge, studying Maths. Ellen did her A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and also took STEP papers (required for Maths).
Why did you choose to study maths at Cambridge?
Throughout school I always enjoyed science and maths; and I always knew I wanted to go to university.
The hardest decision I had to make when applying to Cambridge was whether to apply for Natural Sciences or Maths. Deep down, I knew I would enjoy the Maths course more, as I love the logical thinking that is required and I was never a fan of experiments, however the STEP offer was a huge worry, and I thought I’d have a better chance of getting in if I applied for Natural Sciences. In the end I realised that although it may be harder, there was no point applying for a subject I didn’t love, as I would spend the whole of my degree regretting that choice.
I chose Cambridge because it is one of the top universities in the world for maths, and I wanted to give it a go and just see how far my application got. The maths course here also offers such a wide range of choice, for the third year in particular.
How easy was starting at King’s?
A corridor party in the Keynes accommodation
So, so easy; fresher’s week at King’s was amazing – there is a whole timetable of different activities designed to help you make friends and just generally get you settled into life at King’s. There was so much to get involved with that I forgot about the enormity of moving away from home and any anxiety I had over meeting new people.
The great thing about the college system is that there are 120 people in your year; which is just the right number that you get to know everyone pretty quickly but also large enough that you get to find a group of friends who you just seem to click with. Also there is a lot of interaction between years as well, so by the end of first term you really feel like a part of the college community.
How is the maths course taught?
Your understanding and learning of the course comes in three main forms: lectures, private study and supervisions. In first year maths, you have two hours of lectures a day from Monday to Saturday, where you go along, take notes, and try your best to follow what is going on! For nearly everyone, it is impossible to fully comprehend the material covered in a lecture in that hour, which is where private study comes in.
King’s has a beautiful library with loads of textbooks; which is especially useful if maybe you need a different explanation of key ideas or a few more examples of a certain method you covered in lectures. For each course you also get four problem sheets spaced through the term which you complete in your own private study as well. You then hand in your solutions and attempts to your supervisor who marks your work and then goes through it with you in an hour-long supervisions.
Eager maths freshers in King's Library!
What are supervisions like?
Supervisions at first can seem extremely daunting, but once you realise that the whole purpose of the supervision is for you to ask as many stupid questions as it takes for you to understand the maths, they become a lot less stressful and really rewarding.
If you prepare well for supervisions, then you gain so much more than you ever could from a whole day studying on your own.
How different is studying maths at Cambridge compared to sixth form?
There is a huge step up, not just in workload and difficulty, but also in how you go about thinking and solving a maths problem. At A level you would be taught a small section of the syllabus, shown a few examples and then be made to answer lots of very similar questions. The problem sheets at Cambridge, however, are very different; every single question is very different, and they all require a lot of thought and understanding of the lecture material. Problem sheets are usually about 12 questions long, and each question could take you a couple of hours, sometimes longer, to solve.
At first, I really struggled to persevere with questions, and would lose faith in my ability and give up. Although this is still something I am working on, I can definitely see how far I’ve come since starting my degree.
Do you have much time for extra-curricular activities?
With Alice and Miriam (the oboe section) after a CUMSO concert in Amsterdam
Despite the large workload, it is extremely important to get involved and do something other than maths! I knew before coming here that I wanted get involved in music at Cambridge, and when I looked around the societies fair in Freshers' Week, I was amazed at the number of ensembles there were.
I got a place in the University Wind Orchestra (CUWO) which rehearses weekly and through which I got to make a lot of friends outside college. This year I am going away on tour to Belgium with CUWO (completely paid for by the King’s College Travel Grant!). I also got involved with the King’s Music Society who put on termly concerts in the college chapel, and the University Ceilidh Band which is a very relaxed ensemble, open to anyone of any level of playing.
King's W1 crew at the Lent Bumps (I'm the one holding the chain!)
The boat club is one of the best societies I joined. Despite not being at all athletic, I felt really included and welcomed. This year I coxed a race on the Thames, something I never dreamed I would have the confidence to do before coming here, and loved every minute of it.
I also have been heavily involved in the Art Room Society here at King’s, the art teacher Nigel runs weekly workshops on a Saturday afternoon which are a great way to unwind and forget about work for a couple of hours.
What is the social life like at King’s?
One of the reasons I love King’s so much is the inclusiveness of the student community. During term there are weekly formals; fancy three course meals in hall where you can get dressed up and have a great night with friends. Most people go to a couple every term and then after each formal there is music, sometimes a live band or karaoke, in the bar which a lot of the college turns up for. These are the best nights of term and a great way to celebrate at the end of a particularly stressful week. If that isn’t your kind of thing though there are also fortnightly pub quizzes, welfare tea and cakes, and sports matches shown in the bar, to name a few things.
Where do you live in college?
I am currently in my second year, which means I chose the current accommodation I am living in at the end of my first year.
I really love Webbs Court, where I live. I have a huge desk, sink, loads of storage space bookshelf and fireplace (!) in my room, and I share a kitchen between twelve and a bathroom between six.
What’s even better, is that you get to enter the accommodation ballet as a group of people if you want to; so the staircase I live in is nearly my entire friendship group. I live right in the centre of college, opposite the library which means that everything I need is extremely close.
How did you find the application process and what advice would you give to anyone applying?
I did find the idea of the interviews very daunting, as I had no idea what to expect, and as a result, I think I tried to do too much in terms of preparation. I tried to get ahead of the syllabus I had covered at A level and cover lots of new material, when all I should have done is made sure I was very familiar with the content I already knew. They aren’t interested as much in the amount of maths you have come across, but instead in how you think about and approach a problem, (I found STEP Paper I questions a great way to practice this). You have to fill in a form called the SAQ which gets you to put down what modules you will have covered by the interviews specifically for the purpose that they don’t ask you questions on material you don’t know.
On the actual interview day I had a test in the morning of ten questions of which I only answered three or four, however they weren’t expecting anyone to finish the paper and they would much prefer to see completed answers than lots of half-attempted questions. If you do have a test on your interview day, the advice I give would be to focus on yourself, try your best, and ignore what everyone else says afterwards.
I panicked a lot at the start of my first interview but the interviewers were really nice and prompted me in the right direction. They were able to tell that I was nervous in my first interview and it didn’t match how well I did in the test in the morning so I was called back for a second interview which went much better. The main thing to remember in the interviews is to think out loud, so they can see your thought processes even if you have no idea how to solve the question.
How did you prepare for STEP?
As I mentioned, before I got my offer I had already started looking at STEP I. The main way I prepared for STEP was just by doing lots and lots of past papers. It was scary at first, as I could hardly answer any STEP II questions let alone STEP III, but I tried to work on it a little bit each day and gradually I got better and better.
At around Easter I started doing timed papers, which I think is really important practice; mainly to get used to concentrating for a full three hours, but also to practice having a choice of questions and knowing when to give up on problem and start a new one. However, nothing could have prepared me for the pressure I felt on the day. My STEP II exam didn’t go very well, and I was convinced that I had missed my offer. Nonetheless, I picked myself up, and decided to go back in the next day and give STEP III everything I had. It's a good job that I did, because I had managed to scrape the grade I needed in STEP II. So the main advice I would give is don’t give up until the last minute has gone on the last exam paper, because you don’t know anything until you get the results in the summer, and even then, in a small number of cases, you could still get a place.
What is your favourite memory of being at King’s?
It is so hard to choose, as there have been so many great memories. One of my best memories is probably May Bumps (a boat race between all the colleges, where the aim is to try to catch and ‘bump’ the boat in front of you) last year. A group of us all went down to the river to cheer our college crews on, exams had finished and the weather was great. And then after that was the Boat Club dinner where we all sat together in our crews and celebrated a year of rowing together.