Course Representative Training

It’s that time of year again!

As the academic year 2018-19 got into swing (which, at university, can take a rather long time), in came the emails about recruiting course representatives. Naturally I went forward. There has been a slight reform of the role – or at least the nomenclature – this year, as School Representatives are given the more accurate designation of Subject Representatives.

There were also a few changes to the training experience: The session, held on the ground floor of the library, was led by education coordinator Benedict Greenwood and president of education Isobell Hall. We were taken through a slideshow about our responsibilities and told to contribute suggestions through Mentimeter. Also included were two videos: one tailor-made for the union, the other a generic motivational sketch which I am sure has been played at thousands of corporate training sessions before.

Later on we were divided into smaller groups and asked to discuss what we thought our main challenges would be, along with ways to overcome them. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flurry of complaints about inconvenient timetables.

Today’s training was markedly different to that which I had a year ago. On the one hand I was disappointing by the lack of a refreshment table this time, for I had not brought any lunch. One the upside, I now have a badge to advertise my representative status, which somehow never came to me in my first year.

Revision Conference at Hull University

Does anybody have the key?

Just one month after my Applicant Experience Day, I found myself again visiting the University of Hull. Announced just six days ago, this visit took was supposed to give all of Wilberforce’s advanced level students a crash course in revision and examination technique. The day had a less than auspicious start as it emerged that a rather high proportion of students had opted to boycott the event. Whereas the college and the university had been expecting hundreds of students, only a few dozen actually turned up.

Following a brisk ride in an unexpectedly spacious bus, we were ushered into a new conference hall to be presented with gift bags (including the 2018 prospectus, a branded paper pad and a non-functioning pen) and given an inspirational speech. Our first workshop focused on time management, with each of us making a tally of how many hours per week we spent on work, sleep, revision etc. In the second workshop we were taught about the different techniques for improving factual recall. This naturally involved being shown a long list of terms and challenged to remember all of them after a few minutes.  The third session took us to a computer suite at which we made revision timetables to follow. As we had no student accounts on the university’s servers, each of us received a free memory stick on which to store the files.

We returned to our original meeting point for the buffet lunch, which had been advertised to us in the automated email (perhaps in the desperate hope of enticing a few more visitors). There were no flapjacks this time, but the triangular sandwiches were as numerous as ever. When that had concluded we were, for reasons not entirely clear, taken on a tour of the Brynmor Jones Library, after which we were gathered for a few minutes in a small classroom and asked to fill out satisfaction surveys for future such visits.

Had this excursion been undertaken months earlier we might have seen the merit of it, but by launching it at such short notice and after the Easter holiday the university probably stripped the event of most of its usefulness because at this stage most people had already devised all the revision routine they were going to follow and many, if anything, resented the trip taking some hours out of their actual revision time.

Campus Tour of Bristol

Dear Elliot

Today I completed my fourth and final university inspection. Whereas the visit to the University of Hull ten days prior had been a trivial pursuit, Bristol would prove a far greater struggle.

Though the university had offered several applicant experience days during the previous two terms, their timing would most likely have required another three day trek reminiscent of that for Cambridge – with the difference that Bristol would not be providing any accommodation. Rather than expend the necessary school time and parental money for such an excursion, I settled for a student-led campus tour which, though not allowing me access to the academic facilities, would at least give me first-hand experience of what it might be like to live there for three years.

It was a very long day – though the tour itself lasted only two hours, the journey from Holderness to Bristol took four hours each way. Should I end up studying at Bristol I would likely take the same journey six to twelve times per year by train – each trip being closer to six hours long. We were initially assembled at Beacon House, where two students were waiting in red jackets. Applicants were divided into two groups depending on their subject combinations and taken for a lengthy walk around the city campus.

We were shown the student union building, and around an example of the accommodation at Clifton Hill House. Though the interior was fairly Spartan compared to its external grandeur it at least seemed liveable (and the bedroom was bigger than my own at home). We were then shown inside the Wills Memorial Building, and told that the university had been set up to provide a fall-back for Wills’ son who had been rejected from Oxford (a legacy no doubt continued by many Bristol students).

A white room with a helical staircae

Inside the student union

The tour continued through the science departments (I could only look through the windows of the School of Chemistry but another applicant assures me that it left little to be desired.) and into the student gym. Along the way we also saw the reception area of the School of Engineering and a lecture theatre shared by multiple faculties, then wandered through the Literature block.

After an uneventful return journey through some of the leafier roads, we arrived back at Beacon House and promptly dispersed.

I would have liked to see the university in more detail, and in particular to see the laboratories in which I would be working, but my assurances from other students and Bristol’s reputation give me no great cause for concern.

Soon I will have to make a decision. With Cambridge and Durham out of the game, it becomes a binary choice between Leeds and Bristol for my first preference (Hull will be the backup in either case). Both are highly-regarded and both appear welcoming, I just have to make up my mind on which ultimately trumps the other.

Oh, and then I have to pass all my A-Levels, of course.

Yours, Robin.

Applicant Experience Day in Hull

Dear Elliot

With just one month to go before the UCAS deadline for university choices, I find myself hurriedly scrambling around for chances to visit all of the places to which I have applied. Having visited Leeds in November, then interviewed (unsuccessfully) for Cambridge in December, I still needed to look around Bristol and Hull, both of which were happy to give me offers before Christmas without any further demands. Durham, in case you had wondered, rejected me in February, so there will be no visit to log here.

A far cry from the rampant road rage through Leeds and the tumultuous train journey to Cambridge, this university sits just five miles from Wilberforce, so today’s events could be booked at just a few days notice and accessed with a fairly short commute. It was also the least novel of the lot, given that I had already visited the campus for a UCAS fair last June, as well as attending the Top of the Bench competition twice and doing five days work experience at the Department of Chemistry in July 2013.

At the end of the winding concrete path from the car park I found myself at a brightly coloured tent where organisers in red hoodies scanned my ticket and gave me a transparent plastic folder containing a several leaflets and a branded pen. I was then essentially left to my own devices for the rest of the day – there were multiple activities on offer but I was never actively ushered from one to another. This meant I could find time to reacquaint myself with the environment.

My first visit was, naturally, to the Brynmor Jones library. When last looked it was undergoing a major refurbishment, with the result that scaffolding and dust sheets were visible on several floors while others were closed off entirely (the lift doors would open to reveal just a blank white wall barring one’s disembarkation. Four years on the work had been concluded and the library resembled the lovechild of a business-class departure lounge and a luxury hotel. There were even moulded metal water fountains just beyond each set of lifts.

Having finished browsing the collection I went back outside to join a guided walking tour of the campus. Our guide avoided covering many specific details, preferring instead to point out generic landmarks and walking routes that could apply to the majority of students. I then went to the Middleton Hall for a lecture about the student experience. In the tall chamber of curved wood and distant spotlights (perhaps resembling a cinema more than a lecture hall), we were shown a film about the weekly routine of an average student, narrated by a recent graduate. He was keen to emphasise the wide range of sporting activities and social venues available, as well as highlighting Hull’s City of Culture status this year.

The lecture finished just before midday, so I headed to the Chemistry block for the start of the course-specific afternoon events. Whereas four years ago one could simply press a contact button on the exterior door to alert the receptionists and have it opened, I now find that it is accessible only by card. The students conducting the afternoon events (themselves stranded on the doorstep) explained that the reception had been relocated to another building, and indeed I saw that the reception office had seemingly disappeared altogether.

After an extensive buffet lunch (featuring the triangular sandwiches, loose crisps, large jugs of juice and trays of flapjacks which only ever seem to appear in this specific situation) we were given a tour of the complex – our guide (Dr Mike Hird) explaining that the really dangerous experiments were kept on the top floor – and shown the £300,000 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance scanner. At a smaller lecture hall downstairs another faculty member (Dr John R Williams) talked us through the timetabling and content of the course, as well as his techniques for retaining information.

Our last activity was molecular modelling, guided by one of the PhD. I have dealt with model kits before, but these were different, coming out of small plastic bags and being generally more fiddly. We were asked to make the most complicated hydrocarbon we could manage (I ended up with 2,3-dimethylbutane.), then to model glucose and fructose (I ran out of oxygen atoms, and had to cannibalise the alkanes for hydrogen.), then to react them together as if for a dehydration.

When all this had finished we returned to the entrance hall for a formal goodbye from the faculty. Dr Williams wished me well in my studies – a somewhat paradoxical encouragement given that he knew Hull would most likely be my insurance choice – and I made my departure.

Four down, one to go.

Yours, Robin.

Interview at Selwyn College

A bush-lined path with a black sign bearing the words "Selwyn College Beware Cyclists"

For Elliot.

Applying to the University of Cambridge was never going to be an easy undertaking. Already I had to submit my UCAS application several months before everyone else, then send of a long series of forms, then sit an entrance examination. Finally (for this year at least) I had to travel to Cambridge in person to attend three interviews with the faculty.

It would not have been feasible to make the journey there and back in a single day, so I left home on Tuesday 13th December and headed for Hull Paragon. I took the 11:23 to Doncaster where, according to my ticket receipt, I was supposed to catch a connection to Stevenage. The timetable, however, was thrown off by a failure some way down the line so I was ushered onto a different service (actually a much earlier train which had already been stuck at Doncaster for about an hour) and told to get off at Peterborough instead. Naturally all of my other connections were lost and so wound up taking the scenic route through Ely before finally arriving in Cambridge at 16:30. My hopes of arriving in daylight had been dashed.

Undeterred I left the station and headed for Selwyn College. This did not go to plan so some time later I returned to the station and got a taxi instead. That journey was much faster (owing to the driver’s unconventional interpretation of both speed limits and the road-pavement divide) and I was able to receive my room key from the porter’s lodge. My accommodation did not have an en suite bathroom – this was shared with the neighbouring room – but it did have a piano, which is not found in most hotel rooms. I was also given six meal vouchers to be used in the dining hall.


Selwyn’s campus has a split identity: I was housed in Old Court (which you see on most publicity shots), filled with nineteenth-century Gothic revivalism. Behind this, though, you will find a series of strikingly modern buildings for the actual teaching. There is also Ann’s Court, which seems mostly to be of Palladian design.

My first interview was with Doctor Rosie Bolton and Professor Bill Clegg. Bolton showed me a photograph of a walking lawn sprinkler and had me calculate the rate of water flow, the pressure and various other quantities. Clegg then showed me a molecular diagram of a large solid and asked me about the science of driving a wedge through it.

My second interview was with M Smith and Doctor James Keeler. Smith asked me to differentiate and integrate the graphs of trigonometric functions, then Keeler quizzed me on electrophilic addition.

The last session was the general interview. Doctor Daniel Beauregard pondered my career interests beyond university and wanted to know about my extra-curricular interests (such as the internet company and the tower). He also asked for copies of my modular examination certificates. The formal business of my visit was thus concluded. In an excursion spread over three days, the interviews themselves had comprised little more than an hour.

After the second night I departed Selwyn and walked back to the railway station. The return journey was far easier as the station was regularly signposted whereas the university was not, though while walking through a large leafy park I did wonder if I had gone astray, and at least one street sign appeared to have been rotated from its proper orientation. The trains back to Hull were all on schedule so I did not need to deviate from my planned route (coincidentally the planned route for the return was the same as the makeshift one for the original journey).

The application process is now out of my hands. I await the post on 11 January for the college’s decision.

UCAS Day in Leeds

A laboratory, with polished wooden furnishings a scattering of computers and machinery.As my secondary education undergoes its final phase, the planning for the tertiary is well underway. Some weeks ago I submitted my application with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). As I had applied to study Chemistry at the University of Leeds, I received a letter on 18th October inviting me to their School of Chemistry to be interviewed by one of their staff.

I had visited the same university eleven months prior as part of the Inspire programme, but on this occasion I attended in a personal capacity using private transport. Despite leaving home at 7 am, it was not until past 10 that we finally managed to find the arranged parking space, having lapped Leeds city centre at least once.

A large stone spire against a blue sky.

The funeral venue of Professor Charles Read.

My father drove me as he had his own business in the city: Last year he had become acquainted with Charles Read, with whom he shared an interest in sailing, and who had spent several hours of the early summer going through my Decision Mathematics papers – the mutual benefit being that I needed to pass my AS-Level examinations and he needed to practise the topics his future students would be using. Fifteen months ago Charles suddenly dropped dead while on a research visit in Winnipeg. Today my father needed to go to Leeds in order to collect some boat components from the late professor’s cousin. His most recent prior experience with the city had been to attend Charles’s funeral at the Emmanuel Centre across the road.

Arriving at last at the School of Chemistry, I and the other candidates were assembled in the uncharacteristically glamorous Chaston Chapman Lounge where Dr Warriner formally greeted us and then took us to a student-led presentation on the content of the degree and the opportunities it afforded. Particular attention was given to the industrial advantages of such a qualification, as well as to the potential for trips abroad (all for research purposes, of course).

A large white room with wooden chairs and green leather tubes across one wall.

The Chaston Chapman Lounge did not much resemble the rest of the School of Chemistry.

The next stage of proceedings was to take the applicants on a tour around the campus and the undergraduate accommodation. Much of the scenery felt oddly familiar from my visit last December – right down to the Christmas decorations. We were provided with a free lunch with the students before a second tour, this time of the School of Chemistry in particular. This section of the excursion was perhaps the most important, as though I have been sent on many university visits before it is relatively rare that I have actually seen inside the working areas. Here I was greeted with vast halls of laboratories, with pairs of undergraduates hunched over wooden desks in each alcove. Fume cupboards lined practically every wall. We also saw inside a more generic space – the lecture theatre.

The penultimate experience was that of a practical demonstration by Dr Bruce Turnbull. He explained how machines are used to arrange vast arrays of small chemical samples, allowing hundreds of experiments to be carried out simultaneously. To prove his point he had the device produce a map of the British Isles in the form of coloured solutions.

Dr Turnbull's automated laboratory assistant.

Doctor Turnbull’s automated laboratory assistant.

The final part of the event was the one on one interview with a member of the faculty. In my case that was Dmitry Shalashilin, Professor of Computational Chemistry. He had, in his own words, been destined for academia his whole life, having emigrated from the Soviet Union where his father had been active in the space race. After the boilerplate questions of what made me choose the course or study the sciences generally, he gave me some mathematical puzzles and then we hurried back to the lounge for the wrap-up.

I was assured by the current undergraduates that anyone who turned up to the interview was more-or-less guaranteed an offer. Three down, two to go.