Beth Doherty explains her journey from Dublin to Cambridge, where she is currently in her second year at King's College, Cambridge.
Hi! I’m Beth Doherty, from Dublin. I did my Leaving Cert in 2021 and I’m currently in my second year of law at King’s College, Cambridge. I only finalised my decision to apply to Cambridge towards the end of 5th year, as it wasn’t something I necessarily thought would be possible and the thought of approaching UCAS made me nervous.
I decided to apply because I was really drawn to the teaching approach of the University, especially the supervision system and I liked the idea of studying abroad – and it didn’t hurt that Cambridge is a beautiful city! I had never actually been to Cambridge, so I learned most of this online. I’d really recommend researching all the colleges, the University, and the city thoroughly as it’s where you might be living for 3 years or more!
2. Researching my subject
Reading about law
For law, I was lucky that there are a lot of resources out there. However, it’s important to stress that you are not expected to be an expert on the subject when you apply, and just focus on quality over quantity.
That being said, it’s useful to do some reading around your subject to a) understand what studying it will involve b) decide if this is something you want to do and c) help you to demonstrate a commitment to the subject throughout the application process. These are some resources I found useful throughout the process!
“The Secret Barrister”: this gives a really accessible and engaging overview of the English criminal law system, and some of the key issues present in it at the moment. I found this helped me to identify differences with the Irish system and start to engage with it critically in terms of developing an opinion.
“Letters to a Law Student”, Nick McBride: you will probably find this on most resources for aspiring law students, it gives a great idea of what studying law is like as well as some practical tips for how to approach the course.
“What about law: studying law at university”, Catherine Barnard, Janet O'Sullivan and Graham Virgo (eds): this book looks at some leading cases in an accessible manner, and gives a good introduction of the study of law from an academic perspective. This can be good to help you explore legal thinking especially ahead of interview!
Reading about the subject and university
The biggest thing I can recommend for researching your subject is researching the course itself at Oxford/Cambridge. For me, this was law at Cambridge so I spent a lot of time on the faculty website. Look at things like:
What papers/modules are available to study? Are there any mandatory papers?
How are they taught?
What level of choice will I have?
How are the exams structured? – this was an important point for me, as at Cambridge we sit final exams every year only on the content we have done that year. First year doesn’t count for law, and then 2nd and 3rd year exams are worth 50% each of our final degree. However, at Oxford, (to the best of my knowledge) students sit final exams at the end of 3rd year covering all content from 1st-3rd year, which didn’t appeal to me.
What do students say about the course?
Does this course feel right for me?
Having an idea of the structure of the course is imperative, as it will help you explain why you want to study that specific course at Oxford/Cambridge rather than a more general answer of the subject in general. It will also help you decide between Oxford and Cambridge. For example, as mentioned I preferred Cambridge because of the exam structure and also because the course appeared quite practical rather than purely theoretical (but it has a great balance!).
Read around the subject, but you will not be expected to be an expert.
Instead, use reading about the subject to demonstrate an interest and help you decide for yourself why you want to study this subject.
Research the specific course at the specific university and decide why it appeals to you.
3. Personal statement
The number one piece of advice I can give for your personal statement is to write in neon letters: 1. Why you want to do this course 2. Why you’re the right person for this course. Make the link as clear and explicit to the admissions officers as possible!
I started my personal statement by doing a brainstorm of everything I’d done that had helped me gain interest and experience in law – from reading to extracurriculars and anything else. Then, I grouped these together by things that were similar or had happened at similar points in my life and asked myself:
Why did this activity/experience make me interested in law and how does it demonstrate that interest?
What skills did I gain and how might they be relevant?
Why does this show that I would be a good law student?
I made sure to include things I had done that I really cared about, as this is what will really make your interest and passion shine through. The most important thing is that your voice is visible in your statement. There’s a reason you’re applying so communicate that and show the admissions officer why you’d be the right fit!
Make sure that you’re as concise as possible, the word count is tight and admissions officers may skim the statement as they have so many to read. I found it useful to clearly state the point of each paragraph at its beginning and then to briefly summarise each paragraph at its end to ensure my key points were communicated even on a skim-read.
I’d also really recommend looking at the UCAS resources on personal statement writing, speaking to your school’s guidance counsellor as well as your teachers for feedback and help!
4. Course now that I’m at Cambridge
The biggest question I had when applying was what the workload would be like. I’ll be honest, it’s a heavy workload. In first year, I was doing two supervision sheets (question sheets with reading lists) a week, each with a significant amount of reading and questions to answer on top of lectures, social time, extracurriculars, hobbies and time to look after yourself by eating and sleeping etc! You are also expected to revise over the vacation, especially in second and third year. However, I say this not to scare anyone off but to be honest about the workload and emphasise that it is manageable. I’ve found myself able to balance my degree with several extracurriculars and can spend a lot of time with friends and doing the things I love!
I really enjoy the choices you get in second year, I wasn’t a huge fan of having no choice in first year but looking back the subjects were still enjoyable and have supported me in understanding law this year. For context, the mandatory papers in first year are Law of Tort, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law and Civil (Ancient Roman) Law. In second year, we still have two mandatory subjects but can choose three optional ones – I went for Human Rights Law, International Law, and Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System!
I also really enjoy the supervision system. Very few other universities offer the opportunity to learn in such small groups and it gives you a space where you can ask any questions and can get really dedicated one-to-one feedback. I found this especially useful for law, as I found there was quite a jump in the standard expected for essay-writing etc. This dedicated academic support is so valuable and will really help you not just get to grips with the content but to engage with it and improve your overall academic skillset.
If I could change one thing about the course, I would like there to be a more practical element in our assessments. However, there are so many opportunities outside of the degree to get involved with mooting, mock trial, and negotiations competitions to apply what you’re learning, meet new people and gain really valuable experience!
For law, I had two interviews, both were online due to COVID. The first interview was more scenario-based, then I had time to read over some assigned reading given to me after that interview before the second interview which focused on this reading.
The biggest pieces of advice I can give for the interview are:
Don’t be afraid to breathe and take a moment to gather your thoughts before answering the questions
The interviewers might challenge you; this is to see how you respond under pressure and how you can adapt to new pieces of information – don’t be afraid of it!
Show your thinking process – show how you think through things and why you arrived at the answer you did, you’re not expected to be a lawyer or even get the right answers, what matters is how you apply information and show that you’re willing to learn.
Be honest – show who you are and who you would be as a student – this is what’s important! Also, don’t mention any reading in your personal statement that you haven’t read.
If you don’t understand something – ask for clarification!
Remember: this is essentially a conversation about the subject you want to study, try your best to enjoy it, to learn something, and to show how you think!
6. Admissions Test
The Admissions Test for entry in 2021 was the Cambridge Law Test. As far as I’m aware, this has been substituted for the LNAT, which I did not sit. In this regard I can’t be of huge assistance, but the LNAT is used by universities around the country and so there is plenty of helpful material online that I’d recommend tapping into!
7. Tips in hindsight
Have a plan and timeline in mind for your application e.g. when will you start planning/writing your personal statement, this will help you plan around Christmas exams/mocks etc and ensure nothing is left to the last minute!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – let your school know you’re applying as soon as possible, chat to teachers, friends, and anyone else you trust to help!
It’s completely normal to be nervous but remember that by having a clear passion for the subject and interest in learning, you’re already a significant chunk of the way there!
Tailor EVERYTHING to your specific subject, whenever you state something show how that links to your subject and why you’re the right person to study the course.
Try to enjoy and learn from the process as much as possible!
Law at Cambridge has been a wonderful experience so far, the application process was nerve-wracking and challenging but 100% worth it. If you’re thinking of applying, I would really encourage you to do so – you’ve nothing to lose! Make sure to apply for the course you truly want to do, and your interest for it will shine through in the application. Remember – you’re the right person for the course, all you have to do is prove it! Best of luck