Student Perspective: Fraser

Fraser is from Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. He did his A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

What attracted you to Engineering?

The most interesting thing about Engineering for me is how you can use it to understand the world around you and then to create new things from your knowledge. The ultimate result of Engineering is always really tangible and therefore incredibly fulfilling (when it works!).

I’m planning to specialise in aerospace engineering in my third year because I’ve always been interested in the industry and just think it would be awesome to make stuff that flies! A lot of people already have a vague idea of what they might want to specialise in but many will end up changing their mind as they begin to discover what topics they do and don’t get on well with.

Why did you choose the Cambridge course?

I think that Cambridge is pretty much the best place to study Engineering in the world. The breadth of the course is huge, which means that you get to properly try out every area of Engineering before you specialise in a specific discipline in your third year.

Even if you are certain about the discipline you want to go into (like I was) then it is worth bearing in mind that in reality, no engineer works alone: you will be working on projects alongside engineers from a range of disciplines, so it is incredibly useful to know a fair amount about their subject areas as well.

The Cambridge Engineering course lasts four years as it includes a master’s degree. This makes it far easier to become a Chartered Engineer after you graduate. Four years may seem like a long time but remember that university is widely known to be the best years of your life... and you get an extra one! Also, don’t worry about losing all your friends for the fourth year because a lot of courses last four years, including a number that may include a year abroad with students returning return in their fourth year (examples include Languages and Law).

What was starting at King's like?

Starting at King’s was one of the best experiences of my life. At some point during our first day here each of us was suddenly hit by an ecstatic moment, thinking ‘Wow I’m going to uni at that place on all the postcards!’ This seemed to dispel all fears and apprehension and fill the air with pride and excitement.

For the first term you are looked after well (as much as you want to be) by your College parents. These are second years who introduce you to college life and answer all your eager questions! Usually one of them does the same subject as you so they can tell you all about that as well.

My college dad is an engineer, my mum does Natural Sciences, and I have a college brother also studying Natural Sciences. I met my dad first, outside the front of King’s when I very first arrived. He was really helpful with all my questions about the engineering course and which lectures I should go to (it turns out, most of them...). My college mum and brother came shortly later, and we all got a drink in the bar before heading to hall (the canteen) where our parents bought us dinner.

It seems that settling into Cambridge is much easier than at a lot of universities due to the fact that Cambridge is split into colleges. Rather than being dropped into a sea of thousands of people, you find that you have lots of automatic circles of people in your College - those who are doing your subject (about ten in my case for Engineering at King's), those who live on your corridor, those who have the same tutor, and those who sign up to the same societies and activities. Making friends couldn’t be easier!

How does the teaching work in Engineering?

In first year Engineering, you have about ten lectures a week, which start at either 9 or 11am. Despite what you hear from other unis, these are pretty important to go to (well most of them).

Then you have lab sessions, which are dotted about on random afternoons. Lab sessions are pretty easy experiments but vary in how interesting they are. The last one I did was one of the more enjoyable sessions. Me and my lab partner first had to plot a force–extension graph for a piece of steel, stretching it on a rack until it snapped in half. Then the fun bit came when we had to cool it to -200C in a box full of liquid nitrogen and test it again, before being given free rein to put various objects in the liquid nitrogen and mess around with them (mainly by shattering rubbers all over the floor).

This was one of the ‘long labs’ which are actually the same length as ‘short labs’ but you have to write up a report on them. The lab reports are supposed to take 2 hours to do but usually end up being 3 hours work and around 1500 words in order to cover all the necessary points.

Your main work will be ‘examples papers’, which are short sets of questions on each of your lecture subjects. Then you have supervisions to help you complete them if you get stuck. There’s an average of 2 or 3 a week and usually take around 5 hours each to have a decent go at. Examples papers aren’t made to be easy to do. Inevitably you’ll get stuck on something, look through all your notes, realise you still can’t do it, ask your mates, they can’t do it, go to a supervision, they tell you how to do it!

What are supervisions like?

In Engineering, supervisions are basically where two of you sit down with your supervisor (a lecturer/professor) and they help you with ‘examples paper’ questions. Supervisions are mainly there to supplement your teaching and focus on what you struggle with. They’re certainly not massively high-pressure as you might imagine before you arrive. It may not be the same across the board, but I've found supervisions to be way more chilled out than I expected. If you want to there's time to chat about the general field of engineering, whether its relevant to the course or not. For example, the other week we discussed how airliners maximise fuel efficiency and how this is affecting the commercial aviation market.

You’re expected to have made a good effort on the questions beforehand, but whether you’ve been successful on them or not, the supervisors are really good at helping you think through problems yourself and making you improve. My favourite supervisions are the ones where I turn up having really struggled to grasp the topic, then the supervisor explains the concepts in a different way to the lecture notes: so I can walk out feeling like I have all the knowledge I need to complete the questions.

How is studying at Cambridge different to your experience of studying at school?

You may have heard that at uni your timings are really flexible and you can do your work anytime… or never. Engineering deviates from this due to the lectures and labs giving a schedule to your day and making it a bit more like school. This is actually really helpful as it avoids the arts students' problem of putting off work 'till the deadline day.

Most of the year I don’t find the course too stressful. It’s pretty much the case that if you turn up to things when you have to and do your work when you can, then you’re going to get through two terms fine. I’ve only started to feel a bit pressured recently now that exams are approaching, but hopefully after some solid revision I’ll be up to scratch in plenty of time.

The fact that the engineering course is so wide-ranging means that in the first two years you’ll nearly always find you’re studying some topics you find really interesting and some you just can’t wait to drop. At the moment I’m really enjoying learning about digital electronics as it’s something I’ve never studied before and the questions feel more like puzzle problems than maths questions.

What is your workload like and is there time to do other things?

There’s no brushing over the fact that the workload is more than school and (I suspect) most other university courses. Some rough weekly numbers I work by are:

  • 10 hours of lectures
  • 10-20 hours of question papers
  • 5-10 hours of labs
  • 3 hours of supervisions

Everyone has got used to this amount of work pretty quickly and finds it perfectly manageable.

You’d have thought that with more time working you’d have less time to do other stuff, but what I find is that I still manage to fit in sports, societies and nights out… but I just end up being less lazy in between (goodbye TV, Netflix and games on my phone).

What do you like to do when you're not working?

Cambridge is such a great place to try everything out for free, that I fit in as much as I reasonably can around my work. My official commitments this term are:

1. King’s College Student Union

This is the college’s political body of students that represents the interests of King’s undergraduates on issues in the university. Their activities include: organising lots of college events like formals (special meals, sometimes with a fancy dress theme); campaigning for issues in the college such as rent prices; reporting back to the Cambridge University Students Union on university-wide issues; providing welfare support to students; and organising access events. I go to committee meetings and try to keep improving college as much as possible.

My role in KCSU is as one of two Access officers. Together we organise access events including: school visits to King’s; a helpdesk for interviewees; and the ‘Access Bus’ where we tour around schools in the Middlesbrough area giving presentations about applying to university.

2. University Officer Training Corps

I get paid to do army-style stuff a few weekends each term. It’s fairly relaxed and you get to meet people at other unis too. I found out about OTC at the annual fresher’s fair and then went along to a medical assessment day (no fitness test), where I signed up. It’s really flexible with time commitment. There are about 4 weekends away each term but you can go to as many or few as you like and get paid accordingly. It’s worth pointing out there’s no obligation to join the army afterwards, most people just go for the adventure and social side of it.

The last OTC weekend I went on, we did battlefield first-aid training. We went to an army training area in Norfolk where we slept indoors in barracks and got all our meals from a (free) canteen. The first day we had lots of practical classes in first-aid by serving soldiers and then went shooting on a rifle range in the afternoon. That evening it was someone’s birthday so we all went to the barracks bar, ate cake and played pool. Then on Sunday we were tested on our first aid skills to gain a certificate in it, then did some marching around, then just sat in the bar and watched rugby all afternoon!

The best things that the OTC offers are adventurous training trips. These run all year round and cover most adventurous sports you can think of. Some of my friends GOT PAID TO GO SKIING with the OTC over the Christmas break. This summer I’m going on a weeklong parachuting course!

3. King’s Rowing Club

I thought I’d try out the most stereotypical Cambridge club to start with, and found that it’s actually a good laugh. I’d never stepped foot in a rowing boat before I got to Cambridge but was surprised how quickly I picked it up and our novice crew improved over the first term.

You can roughly decide how much you’d like to row by which boat you become part of. I’m currently in the men’s 2nd boat where we row on the river 3 times a week and ‘do 3 rowing machine sessions’ but we often can’t be bothered with that! Most rowing outings are in the morning before lectures. In your first term rowing you’ll probably have to get up at 7:00 to get to the river by 7:30 and row for about an hour, to be done in time for anyone’s 9am lectures. This sound horribly early compared to most student lie-ins but I find it helps me concentrate better in lectures having had a bit of morning exercise.

The boat club social scene is undisputedly the biggest in college. Each term there are several meals out with other rowing clubs and university-wide rowing nights out and boatie bar crawls – which are great to meet people from other colleges. There is also an annual dinner which I attended last term and was certainly the best dinner I’ve ever been to. We all get drinks beforehand with the head of the college and then have a four-course meal in the hall where we sing our boat club song!

4. May Ball Committee

I’m due to be the joint head of entertainment for our May Ball next year. May Balls are basically huge all-night parties which are held by the colleges after exams, in June each year. The tickets are all quite expensive but you can get them for free if you’re on the committee or choose to work at them. The expensive tickets pay for all-inclusive food and drink for the night, quality entertainment and huge headline acts like Taylor Swift at Trinity May Ball this year!

Most May Balls require smart dress or black tie, but the King’s Affair (the name given to our May Ball) is unique in being fancy dress! The entertainment planned for this year’s event will include a giant bouncy slide, silent disco and indoor laser tag. I’m going to be shadowing the person organising all this entertainment this June but will have to do it myself next year. Most May Balls have a theme each year. King’s is always quite… abstract. This year the theme is ‘Psyche’, I have no idea what to do for my costume… any ideas don’t hesitate to email me!

Apart from all of this, I go out clubbing like a normal student, but only about twice a week because lectures aren’t very comfy to sleep in!

The clubbing in Cambridge is what you make of it. Most Londoners complain it's comparatively rubbish, but the majority of people still find something they enjoy. For a small city there is a pretty wide spectrum of nightlife events for whatever you’re into. King’s Bunker and Cambridge Junction will cater for all your trippy electro-techno-dubtronic needs. Whilst if you’re looking for a cheesier mix of S Club and The Lion King soundtrack, Cindies on a Wednesday will get you singing. For anything in between we’ve got Lola’s, Life, Fez and The Regal aka ‘Spoons!’ (the biggest Weatherspoon’s pub in Europe… with a huge dancefloor and cheap drinks).

Despite the cheesy soundtrack, I love Wednesday Cindies! It follows on elegantly from King’s after-formal (meal) entertainment (DJ/Band in the bar), which means that everyone at college can meet up beforehand. Every week it's guaranteed to be packed with students from each college, not really caring what they’re singing along to but mostly having a great time!

Of course, it’s also perfectly acceptable if you don’t want to go out. Everyone can appreciate that clubs are generally dark sweaty pits that sometimes are just worth avoiding! I have friends who were 17 on arriving at Cambridge so couldn’t go out at first, but they are still as much as of their college community as everyone else. Last term I went for about 3 weeks without going out because I had so much that was worth waking up for (rowing, lectures, work) and just didn’t feel like going out, and I wasn’t any less of a student for it.

What is the social life like in College?

The College system is brilliant as it gives you a really cosy little community. It’s quite fun and novel as well, as each College has its own colours, crests, architecture, traditions and friendly rivalries. If you’re into fairly mainstream sports like football or badminton the College system means that you can have league games and really big one-day competitions called Cuppers and compete for the glory of your College! As for the less popular sports: Cambridge surprises me weekly with what sports have a society! Quidditch anyone?

The social scene at King’s is really lively! Most weeks there is a ‘Formal Hall’ where students can get dressed up and go for some amazing food in our ‘Harry Potter style’ hall then head to the bar afterwards for a live band or DJ. Many of these acts are King’s or Cambridge students, so if you reckon you’ve got the tunes to get the bar moving, come show us! There are also more laid-back events like ‘pub quizzes’ in the bar.

Where in College do you live this year?

This year I live in Spalding Hostel, which is a few minutes' walk across the road, just outside of the main college grounds. I chose it as it’s right in the centre of town (100m from the nearest club and next to the main market) and has decent kitchen facilities and its own common room. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else as its relatively small size and kitchens mean that everyone congregates to a tight little community (the Spaldingos) which is great for a room party or if you run out of milk!

My room next year is in Garden Hostel which is over the river next to the University Library. It’s quite similar to Spalding in terms of the rooms and kitchens and I chose it because it’s where the majority of 2nd years tend to live. So I’m on a corridor with all the ‘Spaldingos’ and other friends that I chose to pick a room near to.

What about practical issues?

From King's, it takes ten minutes to walk to the Engineering department or three minutes to cycle. Most of my work gets done in my room, which has a big desk, comfy chair and a bit of a view. Sometimes I’ll go and work in the College library for a change of scenery (although I’ve never read a book from there), or if we need to work on questions together, I’ll work in my friend’s room or the engineers will congregate on a table in our College bar.

These engineers’ bar meet ups are really useful to exchange ideas and answers to question papers before supervisions. Living just outside of college I don’t make it to the bar as often as some people, but when I do it's usually helpful in finding new ways of thinking about problems in order to solve them. We often get around an hour's work in before it descends into a general social as people from other subjects come and join us. Without a college system you could still collaborate in the same way, but not as so closely. Having a college gave us an automatic support group of peers from day one of freshers' week.

What are the best and worst things about studying Engineering?

The best things about Engineering at Kings are the supervisors, who are all a good laugh and really helpful; and the design projects, where you get to design and build a Lego robot, an AM radio, an aluminium framework and then an actual automated robot from scratch in your second year!

The things I don’t enjoy so much are writing lab reports, which can take up to three hours; and getting questions wrong repeatedly, because some of them are really hard! When you do get stuff wrong the first place to get help is your peers. Our ‘Kingineers’ group chat is frequented daily with seemingly unsolvable questions… which are usually amended in a few minutes. After that you have supervisions where the lectures get re-explained and supervisors guide you through each problem you struggled with.

Personally, I really struggled with the vast majority of linear electronics. I didn’t really follow most of the lecture notes and found some of the questions unintelligible. Luckily I really get on with my electronics supervisor and he’s good at explaining concepts much more clearly and concisely than in the lectures.

Are there any things that you struggled with initially?

In my first term, I really struggled to find time to do my work as I was intent on doing so many other things that I’d signed up to at the fresher’s fair. I was also going out clubbing a lot more than I felt like doing because it seemed like everyone else was. Now I’ve had to prioritise just the societies I really want to do and curb the clubbing to a reasonable level, because if you’re sleep-deprived it’s hard to enjoy much at all!

When my fresher College children arrive next October (I’ll be a College dad - yay!) I’ll recommend that they make the most of going out in freshers week while they’ve got no work to do! Also they should definitely sign up to everything they want to do at the freshers fair. This is basically a big event in a park where all the university clubs and societies have stands to tell you about what they do and get you to join! You should go try all of it out, but make sure that when the work starts rolling in you don’t get stressed by tiring yourself out doing too much.

What do you do during the vacations?

I’m only in my third term so have only had one Christmas and Easter break so far, but I've got most of my summer planned out.

At Christmas, I went on the Varsity Ski Trip which was to the French alps and one of the best holidays of my life! This is a joint ski trip between all the Cambridge and Oxford colleges and the biggest uni ski trip in the world with around 4000 participants.

After the trip I spent a few days in Cambridge then got the train home for Christmas. It was great to see all my extended family and meet up with friends from home. That first time coming back from uni must be the best one there is: as all your school friends reconverge in your home town brimming with stories from their unis, gap years and jobs. There was a bit of work to do over Christmas, but the break is so long (5/6 weeks) that I got most of it done by the 2nd week then could forget about it for the rest!

Over Easter break I went on the King’s Access Bus – which is where we spend 5 days driving around the North East of England giving workshops at schools about applying to universities in general. This was part of my job as Access Officer but we need extra people to come along so anyone can join us! Apart from this I slept in most days, ate loads, had a great time with my family, met up with friends… then started revising for exam term.

Then in the summer I’ve sorted out 7 weeks of industrial work placement with a small engineering company in my village. This is for the work experience part of the engineering course. Everyone is required to do 8 weeks work experience by the end of their second year. Finding a place to do this seems daunting at first but the engineering department has a really great work placement team that will always get you somewhere!

How did you find the application process?

Once I’d put King’s as first choice on my UCAS form and sent it off, the next thing to do was the SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire). I was really worried beforehand about the best way to answer the questions on it as my teachers had never seen one before so couldn’t advise me like they did with UCAS. But when I did start on it I found it wasn't that complicated - it was easy enough to give honest answers to reasonable questions. The one thing that I’d recommend is that you make sure your photo on it (required so they can recognise you at interview) is as nice as possible because it goes on your student card!!!

When I got invited to interview I initially got really excited… and then tried to frantically prepare for the interview. I found the much under-used Cambridge Engineering Department webpages for prospective students, that helped me out with this.

I’d heard all sorts of nightmare stories beforehand about people being bought to tears at Cambridge interviews… but having asked people now I’m here, I found that most people found their interview had difficult questions, but their interviewers were pleasant enough and conducted it in a friendly manner. I personally found mine almost enjoyable, my two interviewers are now my supervisors and I had a bit of a chat with them about Engineeringy stuff at interview and then answered two physics/maths questions.

In my year the interview was followed by a maths and physics test (do bear in mind that things change from year to year). The test I sat had questions ranging widely in difficulty so that everyone could manage some. Then uniquely King’s did a 30-minute seminar on an unseen topic, you are then given a 30-minute exercise on the lecture content. It was this part of the process that attracted me to King’s as I knew other applicants couldn’t prepare for it more than me and it tested ability to learn rather than prior knowledge.

I got my offer in January of A*A*A, which I was overjoyed with and accepted! I then kept in email correspondence with the admissions office for the rest of the year, who were really helpful with any queries I had about subsequent bits of paperwork before I made the offer then arrived in freshers week!

Is it useful to do some interview preparation?

Looking back, I think it is important to do a bit of preparation for interview. Just make sure you revise the stuff you’ve already covered at school because that’s all you can be expected to know beforehand. That said, the most important thing to do to prepare is not put pressure on yourself! The people that get the most apprehensive of interviews tend to be the ones who expect or think they are expected to get an offer. It’s better just to see it as possible opportunity, if you don’t get in there’s no loss: there are loads of other great places to study Engineering!

The application process for Cambridge involves significantly more than the application process for most universities. This isn’t to make it harder to get in or so that only people from certain backgrounds can come. The only purpose of all the extra written assessments and questions is to make sure that people on the course have the right academic aptitude to be successful.

What advice would you give to a sixth former who is thinking of applying to study Engineering?

You really need to consider what you’d like to get out of your time at university and how much work you’re willing to put in to get it. There are other engineering courses which are more hands-on, have an industrial placement year, let you specialise earlier and which possibly require less work. But if you want to get the UK’s most renowned engineering degree, meet some amazing people and have a great time while you’re at it, then Cambridge is for you!

It is still worth applying even if you don’t think you’ll get in. I thought applying to Cambridge was a ridiculously long shot when I tried it. My sixth form college had no history of sending students to Oxbridge but I thought it would be an opportunity I might not get the chance at again… so I gave it my best hopeful shot and it paid off.

What advice would you give about College choice?

Similarly to university choice, you need to first of all decide what you want from your college. Don’t bother looking at the application statistics! If you’re a good enough applicant you’ll get into one college or another (there's moderation between the Colleges so that the best applicants are selected and it depends on your academic potential, not how many people happen to have applied to the same College).

I’d recommend that unless you REALLY like cycling, go for somewhere close to the centre of town and the engineering department. If you can, make it to Cambridge for an open day, or otherwise go and have a look around some Colleges. Tell the porters (staff at the entrance) that you’re thinking of applying and they’ll be more than happy to tell you about the college.

If you can’t make up your mind… just go for that one with the beautiful lawn and huge chapel!

April 2016

What's it really like to study at King's? We asked students to discuss their course, life in the College and what they do outside their studies.
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