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With the spring holidays over and the summer term soon to be in full swing, it’s time to take a step back from the bustle of schoolwork to assess other aspects of your university application preparation. A core part of this preparation (as I am sure you all have heard many times now!) is extra-curricular reading or “reading around the subject”. The idea is that the best students will not only have a rock-solid knowledge and understanding of the core curriculum, but will be aware of and educated on topics not covered in their school studies, or have advanced their learning of core topics to a beyond A-level standard. This idea holds significant weight with Oxbridge, and they actively seek students who have sought to engage with their subject beyond what they learn at school. The easiest way to do this is just by reading and it is on this topic that I will focus today. However, in future blogs I will discuss other ways to engage with your subject that demonstrate your commitment and passion – such as through internships, volunteering and competitions.

While “doing some extra reading” is simple, what requires some thinking is what to read! There are endless resources out there, and only a limited amount of time that you can spare. My first recommendation is to develop a summer reading list that is realistic; some people are slow readers, some are fast but what is universally true is that all readers will get through non-fiction science books slower than crime capers and Harry Potter! Students come to me with a list of 14 books they intend to read by the end of the summer and they never ever succeed in reaching the end of their list. When designing you list, only select 5 books for it that cover a breadth of topics. Of those 5, intend to read 3 – the spare ones are there in case one of your target three books turns out to be a poor-read or not interest you, which will slow your reading progress down to a crawl. In these latter situations, you should quit that book and move onto the next.

Once you have selected the books for your list, I’d then recommend making a small amount of time on your weekly schedule to read the science news. Many of you have subscriptions to New Scientist through school, but why read the same material as everyone else in the country? By going online, you have so many excellent science resources to explore! For a simple and quick fix (I recommend 5 mins daily, on your phone while on the bus going to school) check out the BBC news science, health and technology pages. These short articles can bring you up to speed on the most current science news which is important, as your Oxbridge interviewers will expect you to be aware of the year’s big science news stories! In addition to news sites, there are a host of great online blogs and YouTube science channels that are entertaining and educational to watch. Subscribe to the more active channels and make it a habit to get caught up on a regular basis. 

As a final, more relaxing recommendation I have two words: David Attenborough. His nature documentaries are probably one of the key reasons why I got into Cambridge! These excellent documentaries are jam packed full of excellent examples that can be used in interview situations. To illustrate this point with my own Cambridge interview, I was asked to give an example of a symbiotic relationship. Based on A-level studies, most students talk about leguminous plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria (or at least back when I did A-levels!), which is not a terribly exciting example. However, from watching a David Attenborough documentary, I shared the example of the Indonesian Boxer Crab, which finds and attaches stinging sea anemones to its claws like gloves; the crab gains additional defense again predators while the anemone benefits from all the scraps of food left over from the crab’s scavenging activities. Once I started at Cambridge, my interviewer (now my tutor) noted what a great example the crab was and how that left a very positive impression on him once the interview concluded. So you can tell your parents that TV can be good for revision…

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