To all of you currently contemplating where to apply this autumn, and indeed what to study, I thought I would use this blog to shed some light on the different courses available at Oxford and Cambridge. I would like to focus on my alma mater, Cambridge, as it has the more unusual course design of the two in that all “science” students will apply to join the Natural Sciences tripos, which is the Cambridge course framework for nearly all of the taught sciences. It is a course design that Oxford does not share (only Durham University has a similar course structure) and it is an unusual course design when compared to nearly all other universities, which simply offer straightforward science courses (Biochemistry, Physics, etc.) to apply for. The Natural Sciences tripos (NatSci for short) framework is designed to give all sciences students a broader, and more robust grounding and education in science. While one science might be your favourite, in your first year in the Natural Sciences tripos, you will be expected to take four modules of which one will be a Mathematics course and one is from Chemistry. Of course, if you only want to study Biology, then this course design may seem unappealing to you, but it is Cambridge’s belief (of which I am firm supporter!) that the best scientists have a robust baseline knowledge across all the sciences.
When applying to Cambridge for Natural Sciences, applicants are split into the two camps; the Bio-NatScis and the Phys-NatScis (chemistry-focused students can fall into either camp). Generally, colleagues are looking to recruit a roughly equal number of Bio and Phys NatScis to help balance student numbers, but otherwise there is no advantage to applying as one type of student versus another. In the interview process in December however, you are competing against all other NatSci applicants, even the physics-focused ones when you are applying with a biology-focus. The reason this comparison is possible is that nearly all science students take Chemistry A-level and the interviews will delve into chemistry questions, regardless of your desired specialty!
So why apply for NatSci? To start, the breadth of studied courses in the first year allows for students to take their science education in a different direction to what they were expecting. When you graduate Cambridge, you hear endless stories of students who came to Cambridge expecting to study ecology, but ended up specializing in astro-physics! This is part of the beauty of the tripos that can help students re-discover sciences that they had set aside owing to poor teaching or lack of real exposure. Of course, the counter-argument to this is that a Cambridge NatSci student who graduates specializing in genetics will not gain the depth of knowledge that a student studying genetics at another top university, as their three year of studies would not have been focused on this one topic. While there may be some truth to this, Cambridge ensures that their students do complete their studies to as robust a level as the competition through a hefty workload that includes Saturday lectures! In any case, it will be up to you to determine what course style will best fit your needs and interests – are you dead-set on only studying chemistry, or could you be swayed into biochemistry or even something further afield? This summer, do make sure to visit the different universities and their departmental open days to learn more about the most recent changes to course structures and design as well as have the opportunity to talk to current students, who can answer any questions or concerns you may have!