From Sandford Road to Medicine in Cambridge. Here's Naylin's story.
Hello there! My name is Naylin, and I’m a 3rd year student studying Medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge. Born and raised in Rathfarnham, South County Dublin, I can’t say I ever considered going to university outside of my hometown until my family and I relocated to Cambridge in 2017, at the age of 15. Having just finished my junior certificate exams earlier that summer at Sandford Park, I was having to adapt to a new schooling system in the A-levels which focused, from the onset, upon the university you wished to attend in the future and the course you wished to study there – all a bit much to process as a 15-year-old.
Even after relocating here, the university was still this mysterious entity within the city – and I think this is a major issue with Oxford and Cambridge as a whole – not much is truly known about the universities and so many people’s ideas of them are very stereotyped – to me, this meant ‘the people were too smart, they had no work-life balance, and there was nothing else but academia going on in the city’ – luckily, after 3 years at the university, I can whole-heartedly say that my suspicions have not been realised.
How I Found Out More About the Course
At the time of me submitting my application in 2019, social media was flooded with vlogs by students at British universities, not least by Cambridge students. Of these, a number of medical students vlogging their daily lives at universities such as Kings College London, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge began to gain popularity, with a vlogger named Ali Abdaal coming to prominence amongst this ‘medical student’ community. At the time, Ali was a 5th year student at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. Watching his daily videos documenting his life at Cambridge demystified not only the university experience, but the course as well – and how it was unique compared to the medical courses offered up and down the country today. His videos gave real insight into the structure to his and his fellow students’ days – and how there was much more to the undergraduate medicine course than purely academics. Online videos by him and another 5th year vlogger Dr Shaene, of who I am good friends with now, allowed my interest to grow in potentially applying to Cambridge. There was still a lot to find out – to which I turned to a couple of websites:
1. The Student Room – this is a UK-based online forum for students in which you can find the answers to most questions you may have – this can range from topics such as university applications to specific trigonometry questions. The Student Room had decades-worth of information answering questions from students regarding Oxbridge applications, university life and general queries. Key to why The Student Room was such a valuable resource to me was that many of the questions were answered by Oxbridge students themselves, who tended to give honest and direct answers.
2. The university websites – looking at the university websites was the next stage. Having secured my interest in applying to Cambridge, I needed to know what exactly I was applying to and for. The university websites have ALL of the information you may need – and this is when I found out a few key things about Cambridge.
· Cambridge is a collegiate university consisting of 31 semi-autonomous colleges, with 29 open to undergraduate application, and the faculties.
· When you join, you will join a single college – through matriculating (fancy word for enrolling) at a college, you become affiliated with the University.
· You will usually apply to a single college – the colleges prefer this at Cambridge, as they will want to know why you chose them over the 30 other colleges.
· There are 2 main sites containing the faculties for humanities and sciences - and they’re quite a distance away from each other, lol.
· The colleges are dispersed throughout the city. Central ones include King’s College, Gonville and Caius and St John’s College. A bit further out, I mean a lot further out, are Girton College and Homerton College.
And information about the medical course – Cambridge and Oxford both use traditional, lecture-based teaching for their medical courses. They are 6-year courses, in which you learn the core biomedical sciences (medicine theory) for the first 2 years, intercalate (complete a 1-year degree) in 3rd year, and progress to clinical learning in hospitals/GPs for the final 3 years.
And finally, exam information. This was not a major reason why I chose Cambridge over Oxford, but potentially a ‘tipping point’. It was that Oxford employ a continuous assessment strategy with exams at the end of all 3 terms, unlike Cambridge who have end-of-year summer exams which essentially examine the content you had learned over the course of the year – which was a bit closer to what I was used to.
The Personal Statement
The personal statement is a 1,500 character (not word!) passage which is essentially a CV – explaining why you are the best candidate for the job, or in this case, spot on the medical course. This will be sent via the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to all prospective universities and not only Cambridge, so it should be course-based only. You should highlight what experiences you have had that brought you to the present moment of submitting the application to medicine – and most importantly, reflect on what those experiences taught you. I used a book called Guide to Medical Personal Statements by Olivier Picard which you can purchase on Amazon. It contains many example personal statements for medicine – which I would highly recommend. Key points I would recommend including in your personal statement are as follows:
· Your motivation to study medicine – was it a childhood experience, an increasing interest in science or purely your natural curiosity that led you to consider medicine?
· Your work experience and what you have learned from it – key ideas of how clear communication and empathy are important for the softer side of medicine and how leadership and teamwork are important for the multidisciplinary team and overall patient welfare
· Translatable skills you may have that would be important for a doctor
Lastly, your curiosity for the subject will allow you to include points that will allow you to stand out from the rest. My curiosity naturally led to me to watching TedEds on YouTube and reading articles about medicine-related things. I would recommend you do the same.
The course now that I am at Cambridge
Having got through 2 years (and arguably the toughest), I can gladly say that I really enjoyed the course. The workload is demanding for medics – very, very demanding. On most days, I had 5-6 contact hours through the 2 years, which can get very intense. We also had 1-hour small group teachings (termed supervisions) about 5-6 times per week – even on Sundays. The benefit of this was that I was always busy – and the downside was that I had to catch up if I were to go on a heavy night out. I picked up quickly I had to learn to use my time efficiently and that allowed me to make time for the non-academic activities like sport and socialising. After the 2 years, you will be rewarded however with the fact you now technically know all of the medical theory (at the age of 20 for me) and you’ll get to pick a subject which interests you to do a 1-year intercalated degree in the next year. In total, in the first 2 years, you will cover
· In first year: Physiology, Anatomy (below the head and neck) and Biochemistry
· In second year: Neurobiology, Psychology, Reproduction, Pathology and Pathophysiology, Pharmacology and Head and neck anatomy
Interview day for me was a sub-zero December morning – to which I was scrambling to try to remember everything I knew about HIV as I had mentioned it briefly in my personal statement. I had 2 interviews; the first one asking about my motivation to study medicine and presenting me with a clinical study, while the second one was more science-based. This is not the same for all colleges however, as many colleges have 3 interviews and have a completely different interview structure for medicine – some more science-based, others more ethics-based. You can find this information on the websites listed above.
My morning cramming never came to good use, as I was never asked about HIV in the end. What did come in useful was my good A-level knowledge of biology and genetics, as well as the extra-reading I alluded to a bit earlier – they want curious people who are eager to learn more. This expressed to my interviewers how invested I was in studying medicine, and how much I enjoyed the prospect of learning about the concepts they would later teach me.
I would recommend you go online and find sample questions from websites like Blackstone tutors and ask friends or family to ‘mock’ interview you. This will allow you to see how well you answer questions under-pressure and without your notes – how well you can pull information that you already know and apply it to the situation. This ‘application’ of your previous knowledge is key to performing well in a Cambridge medical interview. It is not what you know, but how you use that information and apply it to the information that they give you.
Cambridge tends to interview 75% of candidates who apply and so it is important to stand out in the interview. The most important point I would say for the interview is if you are asked something you do not know the answer to directly, do not get flustered and be open to learn and they will nudge you along to the answer – they are testing how receptive you are to learning, as many of your interviewers will end up being your small-group teachers, or supervisors.
As stated on the university website, you need to take an extra admissions test for medicine and many, if not all subjects at Cambridge. For Cambridge, this is the BMAT (Biomedical Admissions Test). It is a closed-book exam that tests reading comprehension, GCSE-level science knowledge, and essay-writing. I prepared for this exam using the online questions found at Cambridge Assessment, as well as the paid service called Medify.co.uk which is an online question bank – I couldn’t recommend these enough. The BMAT will be taken in late August or October, and the scores will come out in late November. They will be used, in tandem with your predicted grades, to invite candidates to interview. Of note is the fact that different colleges have their own BMAT thresholds (and predicted grades) for an invite to interview – some look at all 3 sections, others only look at Section 2 (the science section), and most require a threshold score in Section 2, to assess a basic knowledge for the sciences.
I would finally like to encourage you to apply – you have nothing to lose. Cambridge is a competitive place to get into, but an extraordinary one at that. The degree here requires many hours of work, but that work makes it very rewarding. It is an inspiring and beautiful place to work, and especially at the end of the year at the May Balls following exams, an inspiring place to let loose.
You can find me on Instagram – username is @naylin_naidu and on LinkedIn – Naylin Naidu. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.