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.

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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.

The train station on the morning I left.

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.

Oxford Cambridge Conference at Aintree Racecourse

As part of the Inspire programme, I went on a trip with seven other students to Aintree racecourse near Liverpool, where a conference was underway for prospective students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The journey to this was long and arduous. Setting off from Hull at 07:00, the minibus did not arrive until 10:50, nearly an hour after the first lecture had started. Upon arrival we split up to pursue our own interests in terms of subject areas. I began with a lecture on Chemistry and Earth Sciences at Oxford, given in the Corbière Suite.A long white room with a sloped ceiling and blue carpet. There are rows of empty red chairs.

In the afternoon I went to the Golden Miller Suite for two lectures: firstly on Making a Competitive Application, secondly on Student Finance and Careers. Finally I returned to Corbière for Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

The speakers throughout were keen to dispel the commonly circulated myths about elite universities – they insisted that dress standards would not factor into interviews and that student loan debt would not be a life-crushing burden.

While the lectures themselves were certainly informative, the venue left something to be desired. There were an estimated three thousand students crammed into a venue which could not hold them. This was especially notable at lunchtime when the two food outlets still open (the rest being closed off or used for lectures) were crammed to bursting point and dozens of students could be seen awkwardly sitting on the floor. The transition between sessions was also a tight squeeze as masses of confused wanderers ambled up and down a series of outdoor staircases.A wide shot of metal stairs outside a building.

While I must sadly report that I recall fairly little of anything said in the lectures given, I can at least be appreciative of the fact that such an event was offered. This was by no means the first such excursion on which I have been dispatched, and I certainly hope it is not the last.