Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): University of Cambridge

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By Kang Yi Xi (15S03N)

Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities. Read our previous interview with MIT undergraduate Liu Aofei here.

The University of Cambridge has more than a few distinctions to its name. For one, it is the third-oldest surviving university in the world, being nearly 800 years old. Moreover, it is consistently ranked amongst the top few universities globally, and as of 2012, a staggering 90 of its affiliates have been awarded the illustrious Nobel Prize. It goes without saying that the chance to enter the hallowed halls of this renowned institution is one coveted by students from all corners of the globe. In this interview, Samantha Chan, an alumna of RGS (Year 2011) and a second-year Medical student at Cambridge, recounts her personal experiences at the university and offers an enlightening account of the nature of its campus life.

Press: Why did you choose to study at Cambridge?
Samantha: What really stood out to me about Cambridge’s medical course was that it is highly theoretical, so there’s a clear pre-clinical to clinical split. You spend 3 years doing theory with very little patient contact, and the last 3 years will be spent mostly in the wards. In contrast, a lot of early patient contact is present in many other UK universities. I have considered doing medical research before instead of going straight into a hospital, so this aligns with my own interests.

Press: Tell us more about life at Cambridge in general, and any unique things about it.
Samantha: A unique point about Cambridge is that it has a collegiate system, so you are not only part of the university, but you are also a member of a college. I’m from Churchill College. Within the university, that is basically the community you hang out with, because it’s where you live and where you have your supervisions. Different colleges have their own unique traits about them, such as their architecture and the feel of the college community. Churchill is more of a modern college; it’s less stuffy, I find. It’s known for its sciences – 70% of the students are science students – and that’s one of the big reasons why I applied there. There’s also a laid-back atmosphere to how the college functions.

The majestic interior of the Trinity College Chapel. [Source: Trinity College Chapel]
The majestic interior of the Trinity College Chapel. [Source: Trinity College Chapel]

Another very different thing about Cambridge life is that terms are very short and intense. There are 3 terms with 8 weeks in each term, and it is like a long and hectic sprint during which everyone tries to do everything. Most people don’t only focus on academics; students try to fit as many fun activities as their schedules allow, such as playing sports or socialising with friends. During the holidays, most of us do a bit more revision of what was going on. This is because the rate of teaching is very, very fast – they chuck a lot of information at you and you can’t really absorb it during term, so the 5-week breaks between the terms are when people absorb this information. Cambridge terms are super short, which gives you a lot of time outside of term to do whatever you want, like getting a job. The bankers, the economists and the computer scientists get internships at top firms and get paid quite well – I’d say about 600 pounds a week – but obviously the internship holds more value than that. Firms will quite readily accept Cambridge undergraduates for internships because of the university’s reputation.

Even though I’m studying Medicine, I get about 20-30 contact hours a week. Arts students get about half the number of contact hours. As such, there’s still plenty of time for having fun and doing independent study on the topics covered in lectures and supervisions. I think the best thing about university life is that there’s much more freedom in your daily schedule – it’s up to you to decide what you want to do, and how you (eventually!) get your work done.

Press: Tell us more about the extracurricular activities available at Cambridge.
Samantha: There are many extracurricular activities. I’ve picked up all kinds of sports at many different levels. You can do things recreationally, at the college level, or even at the university level. I picked up powerlifting last year, and I currently play for the university Women’s Rugby team. I’m also captain of the Churchill College women’s football team.

The Cambridge University Womens’ Rugby Football Club (of which Samantha is a member) in action. [Source: Samantha Chan]
The Cambridge University Womens’ Rugby Football Club (of which Samantha is a member) in action. [Source: Samantha Chan]

There’s also the Cambridge Union. It’s sort of a university debating society; they bring in all kinds of really talented speakers – famous people – to speak about certain topics. Students also sit in and listen to debates that are of a really high level. There are also music and drama societies, and other kinds of societies as well. You can sign up for all these societies during the Freshers’ Fair, where there are multiple booths and you can join whatever you fancy.

There might be selection trials if you’re planning to take up university sports, but if you want to do anything, there should be something of your level to do it at. For example, if you want to take up rowing – which is apparently a really prestigious sport in Cambridge – you can join the university team, which is very high-level: they train 14 times a week. You can also go in at the college level and be guaranteed to row for your college. So it’s not exactly like CCA trials in RGS or in JC, where you have to be good at something to pick it up. I think that a good thing about university is that it gives you a lot of leeway to try something new, and to try something you haven’t explored before. There isn’t really an expectation to be good at something that you do; you do it because you genuinely find it fun.

The Freshers’ Fair at Cambridge, where students can visit booths set up by the myriad of clubs and societies present on campus. [Source: Samantha Chan]
The Freshers’ Fair at Cambridge, where students can visit booths set up by the myriad of clubs and societies present on campus. [Source: Samantha Chan]

Press: What are some interesting events held by students in Cambridge?
Samantha: Each college has their own Formal, for which you dress up nicely (guys in suits, girls in dinner dresses) and have a 3-course meal. It costs about 10 pounds, and is a nice setting to sit down and have a meal with your friends. Usually you would bring a bottle of wine and, depending on the occasion, Formals (e.g. Christmas Formals) can get very lively. There are also unique social events known as Swaps. During a Swap, 2 different groups, such as sports clubs, meet together in a restaurant and get to know each other. Swaps are also a way through which people from different colleges meet each other: Churchill College’s medical students could hold a Swap with Jesus College’s medical students, for example. Swaps can be great fun and have a reputation of being a bit rowdy, but that’s more applicable to the sports Swaps.

May Week is the week when exams are over and everyone’s just really happy and enjoying life in general. Being perpetually tipsy or hungover can be the norm then. Exams end in June, so May Week is actually in June. There are May Balls, which are themed night carnivals for which people dress up in black tie attire; there’s free flow of food and alcohol, as well as many events to participate in. I haven’t gone for any May Balls myself because tickets are quite expensive – they are about 120 pounds (approximately 250 SGD) for one night. However, during May Week, I went for a couple of Swaps, as well as garden parties. It’s a good way of ending the year, I suppose, after all the stress of exam term.

A team of Cambridge students from Sidney Sussex College created this canal for their May Ball, which was Venetian-themed. [Source: The Daily Mail,]
A team of Cambridge students from Sidney Sussex College created this canal for their May Ball, which was Venetian-themed. [Source: The Daily Mail]

Each college has its own May Balls and garden parties, so Churchill has the Churchill Spring Ball and that’s held in February. It’s 70 pounds for the night, and most people in Churchill participate to experience a night of having fun with friends and taking photos.

Press: What is Cambridge city like, and what activities do students do there?
Samantha: Cambridge is very unique; it doesn’t feel like a typical UK town – at least the city center does not. I cannot really place what exactly makes it different; it’s really old and very crowded because it wasn’t built for this number of people to live in. I think it’s quite quaint in a sense; there are interesting alleys with independent shops along them, and college campuses scattered all over the small town. There are still a couple of shopping malls within the city center itself and the colleges look completely different from what you would find anywhere else in the UK. Perhaps Oxford would look similar, though it’s slightly bigger than Cambridge.

A view of the city of Cambridge. [Source: The Cambridge Student]

Quite a number of students go out and club. The clubbing scene isn’t as good as that at a lot of other UK universities. It’s expensive and the clubs are not great. However, people go to clubs to meet friends and have a good time with them – under the influence of alcohol, which makes for plenty of interesting stories for sharing after! As a town, there isn’t really that much to do. London is 45 minutes away by train, so a trip to London to watch a gig or a football match would be great fun during term.

Press: Tell us more about the university’s teaching style.
Samantha: Lectures are optional, and depending on how students study, some people can get away with not going for the lectures and just reading the lecture notes. Some lecturers can be difficult to follow, and lectures may start at 9 am, so some people find that there’s no point attending them. I find it very hard to catch up if I skip a lecture; however, going for lectures doesn’t necessarily make you perform better!

There are also supervisions, which are sessions during which you and a few other course mates have an academic discussion with your supervisor. The supervisor is someone who knows quite a bit about that field of study. For the medical course in my college, there are about 4 students to a supervisor.

Medical students also have to do dissections. We spend about 4 hours with a cadaver, and there are 6 people to one cadaver. Hence, you really get a lot of time practising your surgical skills and exploring the human body. Most of the anatomy’s learnt via dissection, so I find it extremely helpful.

Samantha on the Cambridge campus. ‘GDBO’ is an acronym that Oxford students would likely feel slighted by. [Source: Samantha Chan]
Samantha on the Cambridge campus. ‘GDBO’ is an acronym that Oxford students would likely feel slighted by. [Source: Samantha Chan]

Press: What is the nature of your accommodation?
Samantha: The college provides you with accommodation. Churchill College is quite lucky to have all undergraduates living on the main college campus, so I get to mix around with people from all the different years. You get quite a nice social aspect to that. Most other colleges have accommodation sites around the city, which could lose a part of the feeling of living in a college community. All rooms are single, and – it differs from college to college – but for my college, the rooms are of a really decent size.

The modern-looking Churchill College, which was named after Winston Churchill. [Source:]
The modern-looking Churchill College, which was named after Winston Churchill. [Source: Link]

As undergraduate accommodation is provided by all colleges, Cambridge University is set apart from other universities. For example, London universities would provide university accommodation in your first year. However, in your second year, you have to go out and find a bunch of friends to live with and rent a house. You don’t really get the social aspect of university this way, and that’s why I find that such a college experience is really valuable – you get to mix around with a diverse bunch of people and make close friends from living with them throughout your undergraduate years.

Press: What about the cost of living – is it very expensive?
Samantha: Well, it’s generally cheaper than London. Cambridge is more expensive than the rest of the UK; when comparing the UK to Singapore, the UK is more expensive. A normal dinner would probably cost about 10 pounds, which is about 20 SGD; a regular meal at college, like one from Subway, would be 3 or 4 pounds, so that’s about 6 to 8 SGD.

Rent for me next year is going to be 1200 pounds for 10 weeks. It ranges from 800-1600 pounds, but it’s still much cheaper than that in London. Rent in London starts at about 150 pounds a week, and the terms are longer (48 weeks), whereas Cambridge has 30 week terms.

However, one good thing is that in Cambridge, people commute from place to place via bicycle, so it’s free. In contrast, if you’re studying in London, you have to take the Tube, which is rather pricey. Public transport in Singapore is much, much cheaper than the London Tube.

Press: Did you have any trouble acclimating to the university environment (e.g. cultural shocks or homesickness)? If so, how did you overcome this?
Samantha: Since there’s a really strong Singaporean community there (it’s called CUMSA, which stands for Cambridge University Malaysia and Singapore Association), it is actually possible to hang out with Singaporeans if you feel like doing so. Being part of CUMSA gives you a “family”: you have parents, siblings and so on. Thankfully, my CUMSA family was pretty close and we met up occasionally to eat and have several cookouts, especially for Chinese New Year. Joining CUMSA activities (or events organised by Singaporean friends) is a great way of keeping in touch with home and feeling Singaporean.

Regarding British culture, drinking and finding relationships are pretty much the norm amongst the local students. Social activities often involve alcohol, but there (mostly) isn’t a pressure to drink if you do not want to. It might be a culture shock to some at first, but the different cultural norms have grown on me. People in the UK are also much more open to issues about sexuality; for example, each college has an LGBT+ Welfare Officer to cater to the needs of those who identify as LGBT+ by being a listening ear to their problems and organising socials/Swaps.

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