Name: Aled Powell
I attended 2 different sixth forms & applied to cambridge twice - at my first 6th form, I was the first student to apply for oxbridge, and at my second, I was one of 30 applicants in that year. The contrast between the two was startling, and really highlighted for me the impact that funding and reputation can have on both education and the admissions process.
I originally applied based on reputation alone - Cambridge is consistently regarded as one of the best universities for maths. When I arrived, I found that the more personal student support was a more significant factor in how my degree progressed - the course content, while fantastic, isn’t miles ahead of most other Russell group universities.
I have a rare sensory condition, and wanted a less stressful & quieter environment that the smaller colleges could provide - when I visited Peterhouse for the first time, the cosy and welcoming environment finalised my choice on the spot.
Very stressful! As an LGBT+ student in a household intolerant of LGBT+ people, a small part of my university application was a means of escaping, which made the already stressful process of trying to get into such a competitive university more critical for me. Combined with with other factors - for example, at that point I wasn’t aware of a single person who’d scored higher than 3,3 on the STEP papers, making a 1,1 a terrifying prospect - I almost broke down with nerves at various points. I’m glad that I pushed myself - Cambridge is a wonderful place! - but I think I stressed far more than I needed to.
Of four interviews over 2 years, my experiences were massively varied. Every interview with Dr. Zsák, who was the director of studies for maths at the time, was fantastic. He was very reassuring and polite. In one of my other interviews, the interviewer only wrote “slow” in his notes, underlining it a few times, which was absolutely horrifying to me! Generally, I found that reading into the interviewers behaviours wasn’t very productive, as they were often also stressed by the whole process, but definitely didn’t let this bias their views. The content of the questions was varied and interesting, and the interviewers were very polite when I was unfamiliar with a topic, and asked for a different question.
I settled in fairly quickly, and all the freshers were in the same boat and very willing to make friends - inviting people for card games and attending lots of different events definitely helped this. I was worried that everybody would solidify into cliques during freshers week, but I’ve continued making friends since I arrived - almost everyone in cambridge is really nice!
I usually have lectures 9AM-1PM Monday to Saturday (ouch, I know), though I sometimes accidentally sleep through these. After that, I keep doing maths for the start of the afternoon until I decide to stop for the day (usually about 4PM), then check to see if there’s anything I need to do on various committees (e.g. if the JCR president has asked for suggestions about something and I don’t think there’s enough Opinionated Nonsense from the rest of the committee), before relaxing, often joining friends at a casual society meetup (usually to play card games). Sometimes, in the mid-afternoon, I’ll have supervisions to attend/hand work in for, but this is usually also fairly relaxed.
The most enjoyable part is probably learning and applying all the weird new ideas that get thrown at us - every time a lecturer gives us a new, interesting concept, it feels like an almost philosophical engagement, and finally solving a difficult problem on an example sheet is an incredibly joyful experience. The most challenging part is probably time management - there’s more than enough work hours to get everything done, but I find it’s really easy to get distracted and not allocate enough time for each piece of work.
I really enjoy supporting other students, so a lot of my time is spent helping to run various societies in peterhouse (e.g. the card games & board games societies), supporting student activism across the uni (e.g. on the disabled student’s campaign or the college JCR committee), and engaging with individual volunteering opportunities, but I do have a few hobbies as well - I really enjoy calligraphy, though I’m awful at it!
Don’t neglect your mental health! Whether you end up here or at another university, lots of students suffer from mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but decide to try powering through and ignoring it, which is a terrible idea! Almost everywhere will have support networks in place to help with that sort of thing, and nobody worth talking to would judge you for using one!