Student Perspective: Will
Will is from Lewisham in South-East London, and studied Economics here at King's from 2013 to 2016. Before coming to King's, Will took A-levels in Maths, Further Maths, Economics and History.
How did you come to choose to study Economics at university?
I am from Lewisham in south-east London; not many people go to university from my area, let alone Cambridge, but I was encouraged by the people around me to apply and I’m really glad that I did.
In terms of Economics, I have always been interested in the way the world is run and it was clear to me that Economics constitutes a significant aspect of this. Politicians are always claiming that they have been successful because inflation is this number, or they have created that number of new apprenticeships in manufacturing, but what does this all mean? Ha-Joon Chang, a professor here, once said to a group of us that Economics and Football are two subjects that everybody has an opinion on, whether or not they actually know what they are talking about - this is something that I think I can agree with! Economics is always central to the dialogue of politics and to each of our day-to-day lives, whether we realise it or not, and so I feel that the subject is important for all of us to actually understand the world around us. Growing up through the Great Moderation, and then beginning to study Economics during the Great Recession, has given me a unique perspective on a subject that is currently in quite a state of flux and has been shaken to its core. There’s not really been a more exciting time to study Economics!
I’ve had more than a few lively discussions with friends about which subject is more important, but I think that Economics has a pretty reasonable claim to the crown (perhaps I am a little bit biased!). It is such a fundamental part of our lives, and it is more than just counting coins. Stripping Economics down to its foundations, it is about resolving peoples’ infinite wants with finite resources, and this comes up in pretty much all social interaction. One thing that I’ve learnt during my time at Cambridge is how the techniques we use can be applied in so many different situations, and that’s something I find really exciting.
Which subjects did you take at school?
For my A-Levels I took Maths, Further Maths, Economics and History. I also did Physics to AS-level. One thing that is important to realise is that the Economics course basically starts everything from scratch. This means that if you didn’t happen to study Economics while at sixth form college, this is far from a deal breaker. Although it may be useful to have covered the basic concepts before University, everything you need will be taught from the beginning - in fact, with the pace of learning here, I remember thinking that we had basically managed to cover much of the Economics I had learnt at A-Level within the first couple of weeks of starting in the first year!
The same goes for Further Maths, which is recommended but also isn't necessarily an entry requirement. It is definitely very useful if you are comfortable with using mathematics, and I would say that the course becomes more rigorous as you go through the years, but this means you learn the important techniques in the first year and then build upon them. Much of the maths we do in Economics is the same basic concepts applied to different situations, so once you're comfortable with it, the rest should be pretty familiar. Something that was particularly useful, however, was the probability and statistics portion of the maths I did at school. It comes in handy to be happy with these topics as you start to advance with Econometrics, which is the analysis of economic data, for example a county’s inflation over time.
Personally, I found that History was very useful as well. I happened to cover similar subjects to what we studied in the first year here (such as post-war British political history in Paper 4), but I think that the point is more general. As I’ve already mentioned, everything is taught from scratch, so rather than knowing loads of content before you start the course it is probably more important that you understand your best ways of learning and how to be disciplined. I found A level History useful for this as it required a lot of reading around subjects to understand things more fully - something that you’ll do at lot of if you end up at Cambridge.
What attracted you to the Cambridge course?
Much of the core Economics content will be similar across most universities, but something that stands out at Cambridge for me, especially in the first year, is that the course does not immediately jump into lots of maths and then stay there. Although maths is an important part of Economics, it is also essential to be able to understand the concepts behind the maths and to write them down clearly. For this exact reason I found the Politics and History papers (what we call courses) in my first year particularly difficult but also extremely satisfying at the same time.
You don’t get a lot of choice when it comes to picking different options - there is one optional course in the second year and you get to chose two out of a selection in the third year. This was probably one of my main concerns when applying. For example, I would have liked to have studied more Development Economics this year in addition to the Mathematics paper that I eventually chose. However, this has turned out to only be a small issue - you cover so much useful stuff no matter which options you chose! And it is always possible to get your fix of other topics through your extra-curricular activities and discussions with other students and professors. You can even attend almost all lectures no matter what the course if you feel so inclined!
When you were in sixth form, did you know anyone else applying to Oxford or Cambridge?
There were a few friends I knew applying to Oxbridge at the same time as me, and I definitely don’t think this was a bad thing. Like in most situations, it is nice to know that there is someone else facing the same challenges as you, and I think that friends are a great resource in addition to teachers, family and anyone else to talk things over with as you fill in your personal statement, SAQ, etc. [Admissions Office edit: if you do not feel well supported in your application please see this page.]
Perhaps more difficult for some is choosing a College to apply to. If you have friends who are also applying, you may want to end up at the same College (or maybe you want to apply to different ones to try and make it easier for both of you). However, I think the best advice I could give would be that when it comes down to the ‘big’ decisions, you should disregard what other people are doing and focus on what is best for you. In terms of picking a College, this hasn’t caused any problems at all. I have made many great new friends at King’s, but it has still been easy to stay in contact with old friends and make new ones at all the other Colleges.
How did you find the application process for Economics?
Although obviously it was quite a nerve-wracking experience, the application process turned out to be relatively painless. Applying for Economics is much like applying for any other subject, with perhaps the only slight difference being that (at the time), King’s also asked us to complete a short multiple choice exam on the day of the interview. [Admissions Office edit: Applicants for Economics now sit a pre-interview assessment. See applying for Economics.]
Was coming to King’s for the interview like you had imagined?
I had no idea what to expect coming to King’s for an interview. I had only been to Cambridge one time before and I was obviously quite nervous. One thing that I remember clearly was that it was in the middle of winter and a very, very cold day! The frost around the grounds only made the Front Court of King’s more beautiful though. After some tense time waiting to be called, I was finally asked into a room with a large table and two fellows (academics) sitting at the other end. I later found out that this was the very room John Maynard Keynes lived in!
People often tell you that the interview is just a conversion between you and the professors, and I think that is a pretty accurate description. I had three or four maths questions and then a discussion about an article I was given to read before the interview. All in all it was much less scary than the huge table had made it seem. The interviewers were really approachable and they helped me along to reach the (hopefully!) correct conclusions when I got stuck. I thought my interview was surprisingly short actually - or perhaps time just flies when you are having fun…
What was the first week like?
One of the things I most like about King’s is just how approachable everyone is. When I first arrived, the laid back atmosphere was immediately apparent. Even how the Porters were joking amongst themselves and with the students as I came to collect my room keys and sign in for the first time helped to make me feel more comfortable about the big step into College life. It is incredibly easy to settle in when everyone around you is willing to help you out and engage with you.
Something I found really useful is the College Family system. As soon as I entered King’s for the first time, I was greeted by my ‘parents’. This is a great way to get to know the older years in the College, and also sets you up with ready-made friends in your brothers, sisters and extended family - although I found working out the complicated web of family relations quite confusing at first!
Freshers’ Week is always a nervous and exciting time, and mine was no different. Far from my (probably not so uncommon) worries of never being able to find friends, by the end of my first day in King’s I had met a bunch of people. The Student Union, KCSU, also put on a variety of events at the beginning of the year to help everyone bond - there were lots of different things, for example an eventful bar crawl. I also remember being invited to a Port and Cheese-tasting session (!) with the rest of the freshers - I think that was the moment I truly felt like a Cambridge student! However, I probably enjoyed the Freshers’ Fairs the most in the first week. There’s a huge university wide one that showcases all the possible societies to get involved with, but also one specific just to King’s. I remember signing up to a bunch of societies that looked interesting with my new friends, particularly the sports teams in my case. I still get a variety of regular emails from a lot - some I’ve continued to pay close attention to, others perhaps a little less so!
What struck you about the transition from studying for A levels to studying Economics at Cambridge?
Probably the biggest difference between studying Economics at Cambridge compared to at A-level is that there is a lot more independent learning. Although all the most important stuff is covered in our lecture courses, I find that I only truly understand the concepts once I have sat down and gone through them in my own time. As this is broadly expected of us, it also means that the pace of learning is much more accelerated here - when I look back at a term, it can be pretty amazing to realise how much content we managed to fit in (and actually learn)!
What are supervisions like?
Having supervisions is one of the most useful parts of the the teaching here, and something that is relatively unique to the Oxbridge system. To be able to discuss an aspect of Economics with three or so others and an expert in that field is a great experience, and it can often feel a lot more satisfying than just going to lectures. Typically this year, I have had around two or three supervisions a week. Last year there were also essays to be completed, but this time round a supervision has usually required the completion of a problem set covering the most recent lecture notes (sometimes with an essay included). The questions set often take the material learnt and apply it to a new setting, or introduce a slight complication to help you to truly understand the concepts taught. I probably complete a problem set over the course of two to three days, so much of the work during term time is focussed on completing work for supervisions.
The actual supervision is then mainly used to go through the answers to a problem set and to cement knowledge about the underlying lecture notes. However, the benefit of having a whole hour or two with our teachers regularly means that supervisions are also a time to ask any questions about the course and its content, and so they are also a great general resource.
Where do you go for lectures?
Many of the lectures for Economics are based at the Sidgwick Site, where our Faculty and several lecture halls are situated. However, I have had lectures in various places throughout Cambridge (all only a short distance from King’s) and so we’re not always trapped in the same place. In total, I can have to up to around twelve hours of lectures a week, but some weeks it is much quieter. I find that the best way to absorb all the material is to write as many notes as possible during the lectures - I’ve often found that the thing that seems too obvious to need writing down is the exact thing that will be forgotten!
How have you found the workload?
I always expected studying at Cambridge to be a lot of work, but the workload is definitely manageable if you treat it sensibly. I like to complete my work as early as possible, which gives you plenty of free time once you're waiting for the next assignment to come along. I’ve found that sometimes work tends to come in waves, so there may be periods that are pretty intense, but then these are balanced out with times where the work is very light for a few days. As long as you keep up with what is due, the workload is fine I think. There’s definitely enough to time to have fun and do lots of extra curricular activities.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
There are so many things to do in Cambridge apart from work! I am involved in the King’s Football teams as well as the rowing club. Although at first it seemed a bit crazy to wake up at 5am to go on a rowing outing, rowing with a bunch of other people is a really fun and often surprisingly relaxing experience. It's also a great way to explore some of Cambridge from a different angle near the water!
Something else I got involved in quite quickly was the King’s Bunker. This is part of the student run entertainment in the College - the Bunker puts on regular parties during term and is also responsible for the big end of term celebrations called Mingles. At the end of each term everyone at King’s (and elsewhere) have the opportunity to go crazy with fancy dress and have a good time. Its something that I really enjoy organising but the actual night is a lot of fun too! In the same spirit, this year I helped out with the King’s Affair - this is the Kings’ version of a May Ball but it is like no other as there is fancy dress and amazing decorations and artwork (its like a giant Mingle).
What advice would you give to sixth formers thinking of applying for Economics?
To prepare for my application the main thing I did was to stay as up-to-date as possible with current events in politics and economics - for example watching the news, reading newspapers and reading articles in The Economist as much as I could. When I was applying to King’s it was quite a turbulent time in terms of the Greek debt crisis and the future of the Eurozone still hung in the balance, so there was definitely lots to be aware of. In the end, I wasn’t actually asked about any of that stuff (or any current events at all actually) during the interview, but if I could do it again, I would still prepare in the same way. Although it didn't come up directly in my case, feeling like I knew what I would have been talking about gave me lots of confidence that I would not have had otherwise. I was also asked to talk about an article from The Economist during my interview, so it was something I was more comfortable with, having read and discussed articles with my friends many times before.
I think the main piece of advice if you are thinking of applying is to make sure that you are passionate about the subject. Especially when subject knowledge is not necessarily required for application, a real interest in the subject is something that they are looking for. One way I tried to show this was through extensive reading. Books such as the ‘Freakonomics’ series are a great way to see how Economics can be applied to a wide range of situations; for Development Economics, I particularly enjoyed ‘The Bottom Billion’ by Paul Collier (this is also used a bit during the second year Development course). However, if I had to recommend just one book, it would perhaps be ‘Prosperity without Growth’ by Tim Jackson, which gives quite an interesting take on the future path of sustainability. The most important thing though is to just read around the topics that you find interesting even if this means you are not reading the most ‘academic’ pieces - that way it is not like work but something you will enjoy doing.
What have you enjoyed most this year?
I have really enjoyed my second year, but it has gone so much quicker compared to the first - perhaps because you settle back into the rhythm of things a lot faster when you are used to it all. I think in general things seem a lot less complicated the second time round (although I wouldn’t say the work has gotten any easier!), and you already have an established set of friends and are confident in what is initially quite a strange Cambridge environment.
Something I have really enjoyed this year has been moving up slightly in terms of seniority in the College. I have been able to help this year’s freshers (and not just my own College children) settle in. Through my work with the King’s Affair and the Bunker, I have also been able to have more contact with all the other people involved in College life apart from the students, such as the Porters, officials and more of the Fellows. Everyone at King’s is really nice whether they are students, academics or simply help at lunchtime - and getting to know them more has been a great experience.
Do you know which papers you’ll be taking next year?
In the third year, you get to pick two options from a selection of seven Economic papers, as well as a few further related papers from Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS). One paper that I have chosen to take is the Econometrics course. This is because I really enjoyed what we covered this year and am looking forward to learning more. I think being literate in statistics and being able to interpret Economic data is an important part of being a good Economist. For the second choice, I think I will probably take the Public Economics course. This covers a lot but is broadly about being able to use microeconomic theory and empirical data to tackle policy questions, such as the best tax structure or how to deal with environmental problems.
What are you doing over the summer?
Over the summer I will be interning at the Department of Transport as part of the Government Economic Service. I will be looking at the environmental impact of the UK transport sectors, for example looking at ways to improve air quality and achieve carbon emission targets. Although there has been no specific reading asked of us over the summer, this is something that I am considering for my dissertation, and so I will continue to read around this subject.
Later in the summer, I will also be spending some weeks travelling around China with a couple of friends also from King’s. We have been able to do this due to an incredibly generous Travel Grant from the College, which enables students to explore almost anywhere, and the academic purpose of the trip is “interpreted broadly”. I feel pretty privileged to be able to take advantage of such a great opportunity - without the grant I never would have been able to afford such an amazing trip and it is just one of the ways King’s supports all its students in achieving what they wish.
Where in College will you live next year?
Next year I will be in the same accommodation as I have been living this year, in Bene’t Street Hostel, although in a different (better!) room. All the accommodation provided by King’s is really impressive, but I like Bene’t Street in particular. It is almost brand new and has excellent en-suite as well as communal kitchens that allow you to cook, whereas some other accommodation blocks do not allow as much self-catering. However, again, all the accommodation is really good and I would be happy to stay in any of them.
Last year, I lived in Keynes Building, which was a great experience. The majority of freshers lived here so it had a really good community feel with everybody around and looking to hang out.
Do you have any plans for when you graduate at this stage?
Not really! I think I would like to complete some further study such as a Masters but also spend some time working and traveling. Eventually I might like to find myself working in the Civil Service as I think this would be something I would enjoy and find gratifying.
In general it can often feel as if there is quite a strict path for those studying Economics. Many people are interested in entering the financial sector, and if that is something you are interested in there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in trading societies for example, and spring weeks or summer internships and banks and hedge funds. However, there are still many other routes that it is possible to take without entering the ‘City’ directly. For example the public sector or consultancy are also popular avenues that can be taken.