Student Perspective: Adam
Adam is from Ferndown in Dorset and studied Geography from 2015-18. He did his A-levels in Geography, History and Religious Studies.
What do you study in the first year?
In part 1A (first year) Geography you cover the breath of Geography, stretching across both human and physical topics. Because of the breadth of material that Geography covers, you have a single supervision for each topic. Often the supervision is taken by an academic who is specialised in that area of Geography. For example, we had our biogeography supervision with Dr Cutler, a prominent expert on ecosystems.
My favourite topic from first year is historical geography. I had a strong history background, and it was great seeing how different sections of history across time and space could, in various ways, be linked by Geography. Historical Geography highlighted concepts like globalisation throughout history, with connections and networks of people, ideas and technology going back in time. I also enjoyed some of the Geopolitical essays I wrote in Easter term, in which I was able to apply the writing skills I have developed over the year alongside my knowledge; geopolitics focuses on how Geography is used for political discourse and concepts like sovereignty, conflict and ‘threats’.
Is the Geography course at Cambridge as you expected?
I didn’t really know what to expect in some respects. I understood the general concept of how university teaching worked: supervisions, lectures and a lot of reading. But there is a unique nature of Cambridge teaching. Cambridge challenges narratives you have become used to in Geography, for example, binaries between rich and poor countries. It is this emphasis on critical analysis in the teaching that is vital to the course and how Geography as a subject should be conducted: challenging what we know about the Earth.
How do supervisions work in Geography?
In Geography supervisions we discuss the broad outline of the particular topic the essay covers. This involves going over the main narratives and 'arch' that we have come across in our reading. For example, when we looked at Cryosphere, we discussed the importance of particular regions of ice, such as the mountain glaciers and the Ice sheets of Antarctica to sea-level rise.
In the first year of the Geography course, you generally have one or maybe two supervisions a week. This is less teaching than in some other subjects, but that is because of the different nature of how the Geography course is taught. Geography involves a lot of reading before the supervision, and the knowledge and ideas you pick up are then brought to the supervision to be debated. Also, you have to prepare an essay for each supervision beforehand, which brings together your thoughts from your reading and lectures. Preparing for supervisions therefore mostly means reading and thinking for an essay. Geography does require extensive reading to cover the broad scope of the course. Also, it is really useful to keep up-to-date on the news, as Geography is a very contemporary course and current events provide a crucial element to geographical thought.
I find supervisions very useful, because they help you to consolidate your understanding and knowledge from reading and lectures, “putting you on the right track” as it were. Supervisors discuss and critique your ideas and, especially, your essays. But they are there to help you rather than to assess you and give you grades, and you do begin to improve your arguments and essay construction as a result.
What are the facilities like for geographers?
The main facility you will need as a Geographer are the libraries. Luckily, Cambridge has a lot of them! King’s has one of the largest collections of any college library. Furthermore, the college features an extensive collection of books on climate change that only King’s students can access. If what you're looking for is not to be found in King’s Library, the Geography library has a diverse array of books for the topics.
Day to day, I work in different places. Normally, I work in my room, but I frequently work in the college Library and the department library too.
And what about your exams?
As for my first year exam papers, they were not fun, hahaha. Part 1A Geography has two exams and five pieces of examined coursework. For the exams themselves, you have to write three essays in three hours, and you get to pick the questions that appeal to your strengths. To be honest, I felt there was pressure towards the exams, however this was mostly of my own accord because they were my first university exams. The good news is that first year exam grades do not count towards your final grade so you do have space to improve over time.
What do you like to do when you're not working?
The workload here is a step up from anything I experienced before Cambridge. Yet, it is manageable if you prepare and plan out your work accordingly, which then allows plenty of time for societies and other activities.
I am involved with many parts of college life in King's. For example, for our student union - King’s College Student Union (KCSU) - I am the Treasurer. It is a position I have never done before and I am learning on the job. Yet, it is a great experience and has improved my organisational skills. Also I 'cox' for the boat club (KCBC), which has been great at improving my assertiveness and confidence. Finally, outside college, I am part of the Divestment Campaign, to get the University to divest from fossil fuels.
Where in college do you live this year?
The main advantage of living in Keynes is that you are based in the middle of college. This is useful because it makes it easy to access the hall and the bar, which are the two main social areas of the college.
Also, the Keynes rooms themselves are good quality. Each room has a simple bed and bed-side table, a desk and chair, a small fridge and an en-suite bathroom, which makes it suitable for student accommodation.
What about the social life?
I think that it is great to have friends who are doing different subjects in college. There aren’t many geographers in King’s, four in fact, so we socialise a lot with people from a broad range of subjects, from Natural Sciences to History. The college system means that you integrate well with people doing different subjects. This is really useful for Geographers because you get a wide range of views and opinions about geographical issues from people doing different subjects.
I do also spend some time with my friends from other Colleges. I have made friends with Geographers who I met at the Geography department. Having friends in the department as well as people from different subjects in college has helped with my learning. For example, I was part of a study group with two of my friends from St. John’s College. Also, Prof Matthew Gandy from King's is the Director of Studies here now, but before he arrived, the Director of Studies covered other colleges as well, which meant that we met Geographers from Trinity and Churchill frequently.
When you were applying, how did you decide on King's?
I decided on King’s for a number of reasons. First, I came from a state school not fitted to the Cambridge process and King’s is well-known for supporting state school applications.
Secondly, I really liked the 'feel’ of the place. When you go through the front gate, the view of front court with the Gibbs building and the Chapel is awe-inspiring, and to think that this is where you study is amazing. Finally, King's is a central college and everything is close by such as the shops, lecture halls and most of the other colleges. Was it a good choice? Yes!
How did you find the application process?
The philosophy I had with the application process for Cambridge was just give it a go. Honestly, you will be surprised how far you can go. Cambridge doesn’t look for those who think they are the best, but those who want to be best, and Cambridge wants to bring the best out of you. While working on my application, I explored different strands of Geography, from joining environmental campaign groups to keeping up-to-date with what is going on in current events. In the interview they can, and probably will, ask you everything under the sun about the subject you want to study at Cambridge or your school subjects. It is important to be prepared; and be ready to be challenged and be given a new perspective on Geographical issues.
I actually thought that my interview didn’t go that well. I was very nervous about it; I had never had such an important interview before. I think that this was the case for most people though and the interviewers are aware of your nerves: if you didn't admit to being nervous, you were probably either lying or you didn’t want it enough.
The interview highlighted to me just how much I don’t know about Geography and that I have much to learn. Yet, somehow, King’s saw something in me and gave me an offer, so you can never tell!
Did you find doing the EPQ useful? (The EPQ is an extended essay)
I found the EPQ (an Extended Project Qualification that A level students sometimes choose to take) very useful for both the application process and preparing for University-style work. For the application process, I think that the EPQ helps you to show your passion and interest in a particular topic, and more importantly, that you are willing to expand your knowledge outside the school or exam curriculum.
As for the university skills I mentioned, I think that the EPQ is a great way of adapting to the university style whilst at sixth form. This is because writing, a 5,000 word-essay (basically a mini-dissertation) prepares you for a university-scale workload. Secondly, it introduces you to things like reference lists and keeping track of a bibliography- involving more independent source-gathering (no spoon-feeding) and time management. Finally, the information that you begin to accumulate throughout the EPQ allows you to start questioning the presentation of information that you get in schools. We always believe that the standard textbook is always right and almost gospel truth when it comes to narratives that we are told; when in fact there are hundreds of different interpretations of knowledge that in the EPQ you must critically analyse: I have found that this kind of questioning and analysis is one of the key foundations of university-style writing, especially in Geography.
How did you find starting at King's?
It's a completely different world, so it did take a little time to adapt to the system. Yet, I didn’t find it difficult, exactly. I found that you easily get absorbed into the Cambridge lifestyle, and I immediately began to make friends in college, which helped me to settle in to being a King’s student.
As for the academic transition to studying here, I should explain that I went to a small 6th form, so it was like going from being a big fish in a small pond, to micro-plankton in the Pacific Ocean! This is hard. It's a big step up from anything I had experienced before. But you do rise up to the challenge and benefit from it. I feel that this year, I have improved my analysis, writing and essay structure to more of a university, even Cambridge, standard.
Do you have any plans for the summer?
My plans mostly involve resting and meeting up with friends who I’ve not seen in a while. But I did help out as a student tour-guide at the recent King’s Open Days. It was sobering knowing that I was one of the prospective students only two years ago! It really shows how far I have come in a year, and there's two more years still to come! After Cambridge? I haven’t thought that far yet, I've been focusing on surviving the first year!