Medicine @ Cambridge | Q&A

These questions have been answered by Natasha Reid, “bookofbones_ ” and Hilary Patankar, medical students at the University of Cambridge.

Natasha’s questions + answers:

1st year medical student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Is the stress too much? How do you deal with it?

There’s no denying that Cambridge can be very busy, especially as the terms are only 8 weeks long, but from my experience it’s fairly rare that the stress becomes too much for anyone, as most people honestly enjoy their time here! Everybody’s different but I personally manage my stress levels by exercising to let off steam (Caius college taught me how to row 9 months ago!) and by having a fabulous support network of friends to laugh with and who are also in the same position as me. The college system really helps with that, as every student has a sort of ‘pre-made’ circle of people to become friends with when they arrive in October.

Of course, if anyone is badly struggling with managing stress, there are official University Counselling services and every student has a pastoral tutor who they can receive guidance from.

How much time do you actually spend studying/revising?

During a medical student’s first 2 terms, they would have about 2 lectures (1 hour each) and one practical activity (2 hours each) a day. On top of that we have on average 5 supervisions with our college a week (1 hour long each). 

The amount of independent work massively depends on the person. I personally tend to work throughout the whole day so I can enjoy time with friends or take part in extracurricular’s during the evening.

What’s your best tip for standing out at interview?

I think the best thing someone can do at interview is show they have a passion for medicine, and want to come to Cambridge because they have a strong interest in the science underlying medicine, as realistically that’s what you’ll spend 99% of your time focusing on in the first 3 years. In my opinion, the best way to demonstrate this is by picking an area that especially interests you and doing your own independent research/essay about this topic that you can discuss and explore at interview.

How can I evidence a strong academic interest in my application?

There are many ways of doing this, depending on what resources you have available, but whilst social distancing I’d recommend reading some ‘popular science’ books (eg The Brain by David Eagleman or The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee) and if anything jumps out at you, do your own independent research on the topic and find out as much as you can about what interests you. Essay prizes, run by Oxbridge colleges, can also demonstrate a strong academic interest as they show you are willing to read outside your A level courses, and produce high quality written work.

Are there particular things a Cambridge personal statement needs to focus on compared to other medical schools?

I would be very careful about making your personal statement too stereotypically ‘Cambridge’ focused as you have to remember that it is also sent to your 3 other choices. But Cambridge makes it no secret that their admission tutors are more interested in super-curricular endeavors (eg researching beyond your course) than extra-curricular activities (eg sports). If there is anything you specifically want Cambridge to know, but not your other choices, remember there is an SAQ you can fill in once you’ve submitted your application.

How are you examined and how are grades determined from these?

In your first 2 years at Cambridge you will be examined through essays and multiple choice questions (MCQs). The 2nd MB is the pass/fail qualification you will receive by taking the MCQ exams. First/2:1/2:2 grades are awarded through the Cambridge-specific Tripos exams. Essays are only used to determine Tripos grades, whereas MCQs are used for both Tripos and 2nd MB. Don’t worry if this is confusing, it took me quite a while to get my head around it as well!

How often do you take assessments? How seriously are they taken by students and teachers?

The ‘official’ assessments take place at the end of Easter term, although there are a couple of small 2nd MB exams taken at the end of Lent term. These exams are taken pretty seriously as you need to pass them to progress to Year 2. To help us prepare for these, most colleges hold mock exams after the Christmas holidays, and we have an individual meeting with our supervisors after these to discuss our progress. Throughout the year we have informal anatomy tests after each topic, so we can see how well we personally know the material, but these are only as serious as you want them to be and only you know your results.

What happens if you fail an assessment?

If you fail a 2MB assessment, you will always be able to retake it the next term (I think there may be a limit on how many times you are able to, so assume you are only able to retake once!). You have the whole year to work up to these though, and your supervisors will hopefully recognise it if you are struggling, and give you the support that you need to succeed.

What’s the pastoral system like?

Every student has a pastoral tutor, who we see at least twice a term, and you can email or meet them if you have any pastoral worries throughout term. Most colleges (and MedSoc) have welfare officers who hold wellbeing events throughout the year (from movie night to snacks in the library!). As mentioned earlier, there are official counseling services provided by the university at your disposal should you need them.

Is there a chance to socialise with other students from the same/other colleges that do different courses?

Yes! Some of my closest friends from first year are from other colleges and courses. You’ll be living in a corridor with people in your college who do all different subjects from Philosophy to Economics and most people are very keen to make friends with people outside their subject. Also, if you get involved with college sports/societies you’ll meet and socialise with people from other subjects, and university societies bring together people from different year groups, different colleges and different subjects!

bookofbones_’s” questions + answers:

2nd year medical student at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

What’s the workload like?

In first year you will get set around 3 essays a week, this of course depends of your supervisors and how kind they are. Evey college has supervisors for each of the modules and it’s up to them to set, or not set you work. You are set essays as practise for the exams at the end of the year, which are all handwritten and have essay components. Essays are generally 4 to 6 sides of handwritten A4 including diagrams, and should be written in roughly 40-60 minutes. The time taken for research and learning enough material to cover the contents of the essay can take much longer, anywhere upwards of an hour or two.

In addition to supervision work, there is of course learning content and you can put as much or as little effort into this as you wish, but whatever you don’t manage to learn during the intense short terms is usually caught up on in the much longer holidays. This can still means quite a large amount of content that needs to be covered due to the fast pace of teaching during the term. 

In first year you also need to submit practical reports and histology questions. These take up less time but ultimately are something that has a strict deadline for being handed in, and you get set one around every week or two.

So overall, it can be at first quite overwhelming trying to learn all the content and write the essays, but after a few weeks you get used to it and get into the flow. It’s just important to have some organisational technique to keep you on track.

Will we have time to work during our studies?

It is highly discouraged by the university to take up any work during your degree. However I, and a few of my peers do online tutoring when we have the time to. If you are interested in helping others learn and passing on your expertise, it’s a great way to earn a bit of money on the side. However any employed part time work is against regulations, and generally you won’t have time for it between the degree and other commitments you may take up. If you want to take advantage of the rich student life on offer by joining a society or too many, then you won’t have much time left after the fact.

Is the environment tense and are there high academic expectations?

t’s not so much tense as fast paced. The rate of information being taught at you can feel quite hard to keep up with at times and there are many absurd small details to learn, but there are always the holidays to catch up and teaching is complete at least two to three weeks before exams begin in the summer, leaving you plenty of revision time with no scheduled lectures. The academic environment will differ from college to college, but I have felt that there is relatively little competition despite my college, Pembroke, being known for being ‘academically strong’. It really depends on the people that you are surrounded with and your own mindset. The biggest downfall is often imposter syndrome, and you just need to remember that you are a bright capable individual who can get through this and learn the content and that everyone will have similar struggles.

That is one thing that might make it seem a bit tense, is that no one likes to speak about their struggles and it always seems as if they are doing okay on the surface. It really can add to the imposter syndrome feeling if it seems that everyone else is coping fine. Everyone, and I can’t stress this enough, everyone has struggles with the course at times even if they don’t show it. 

Supervisors are generally very accommodating and are there to help you learn rather than to grill you each week. Of course they want you to do the best that you can, but ultimately you just need to pass the 2nd MB component of the exams in order to progress to becoming a doctor. The only academic expectations are those of your own, and it can be easy to succumb to the pressure. But as such there is no one directly telling you what grades you should be getting, only the pressure you put on yourself to achieve.

Do you have any clinical placements in years 1-3?

We have a course called Preparing for Patients in years 1-3. These involve in first year going to a local GP and in second year doing placements in local hospitals then feeding back as a small group on the patients and their conditions. Then in third year you will be following a continuous care patient which historically was following the journey of a pregnant woman through periodical meetings, but has since expanded to include dialysis patients.

It’s true that there are not many clinical placements in the first three years, but that is in direct contrast the years 4-6 where you pretty much only have clinical placements. The Cambridge course is taught traditionally, with a three year science degree and a three year clinical degree. The first three years are there to teach you all the base science you need before going on to clinical school and delving much deeper into clinical practice.

I’ve heard about some medical schools being very competitive with students not supporting each other. Would you say Cambridge has that attitude?

There is definitely an element of that even if it isn’t consciously thought about. The whole year is given a ranking after Tripos, which is what our honors degree component is called, but there isn’t really much discussion about your ranking after the fact. I haven’t personally felt much competition as everyone is in the same boat with all this information they have to learn and generally I’ve found the opposite that in fact students are quite supportive of each other, especially in dissection sessions where there is mostly self directed learning with a few demonstrators going around, if someone knows about a topic they generally explain it to those on the table that don’t. There are always the students that want to seem like they ‘know it all’ and don’t help others, but honestly they are quite rare. In first year, I met up with the medics at my college every week for a study session where we would help each other with the week’s content as well as get to know each other better. I have found that the college system has really helped make me feel more at home, as there are generally around 10 medics per college who usually end up quite close knit. This also helps to reduce the competitive aspect, as you feel much less like you are trying to compete with a whole year and you have a close support group almost.

Is 6 A* at GCSE and 4 A predictions for A-levels good enough for Cambridge?

The standard offer is for Medicine at Cambridge is A*A*A at A Level and 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level for IB.

Unfortunately due to the competitive nature of the Medicine course, 4As may not be enough even with other outstanding parts of your application. At the end of the day Cambridge is looking for high academic achievement amongst all the other things, and the final grade offer always contains an A*.

GCSEs are only a small part of the application and are not too heavily weighted. At Cambridge they look at pretty much everything across the board when trying to make a decision on who to accept. So to have the best chances for applying to Cambridge you must have a good well rounded application with of course high academic achievement.

What are your best tips for revising for the BMAT?

Practise, practise and more practise. All the past papers are available for free on the BMAT website so what I did was to complete one a day two weeks before the exam until I could do it within the time limit and get a reasonable score.

The only knowledge you will required is that of GCSE level sciences and maths, and I would recommend picking up you GCSE revision guides and reading through them to make sure you know the information required, even if you are taking sciences at A-Level. Personally I didn’t take Physics at A Level so I found that I had to refresh my memory a lot on that part of the paper, especially the calculations component.

To help with the essay, I would suggest learning to plan in 15 minutes and having a specific structure in mind before going into it. They are looking for a well structured argument written in good english. Take a look at past papers and spend 15 minutes planning an essay, you don’t necessarily need to write out each one unless you have trouble writing one side of A4 in 15 minutes. The hardest part is thinking of valid and convincing arguments and conclusions, and that is the skill that you need to practise.

BMAT past papers can be found here

What’s an ideal BMAT score to apply to Cambridge?

I got 6.7, 5.1 and 3.5A. I have asked my peers about this and their replies varied around 5, 5 and 3-4A. Really anything that’s above a 5 will get you in with a chance and anything higher is a bonus, but don’t be discouraged if your scores are just below 5, as you still have a chance with a good overall appliation. For the essay, You definitely need 3A and above.

You can search for freedom of information requests on previous year’s applicant’s at the college you want to apply to to find out what their BMAt scores were and compare to what you’ve got.

Why did you pick Cambridge over Oxford? How did you decide between them?

I had always heard that Cambridge was the more scientific of the two universities, and since I wanted to study medicine, I looked at the league tables and cambridge was at the top when I was applying. Services like Unifrog helped me to decide by presenting all the information that I needed to me. I had looked through the course outlines and what really piqued my interest was the fact there are self directed dissections at Cambridge and also the opportunity to follow a pregnant woman’s journey, which unfortunately I missed out on due to covid-19.

Of course it wasn’t purely academic, I prefer how cambridge feels as the central parts are still quite old and hogwarts looking even with modern shops whereas I had visited oxford previously with school and the fact there are highstreets and much more modernisation slightly turned me away. I really liked the hogwarts feel of cambridge, although you could argue that I’m a bit biased after the fact and looking back at this through rose tinted glasses. There wasn’t really any specific concrete reason though, Cambridge just felt right for me (and I think I may have just preferred the name).

Do you have any advice for interviews?

Think out loud. They aren’t necessarily testing your base knowledge, but rather they are trying to see how you think. The interviews will be very heavily science based, but they may start with a simple question such as ‘Why did you choose Pembroke?’ as a conversation starter to get you talking, don’t let this throw you off because it’s unexpected, have a few prepared answers for simple questions such as these.

They generally won’t ask much about what on your personal statement and instead already have a set of questions that they will be asking participants. These will test your logic and deductive abilities. The main thing that they are testing is problem solving and to do well you need to keep calm and methodically go through the question they give you explaining your reasoning and how you logically got to the conclusion. These interviews are meant to mimic the supervision environment and they are seeing if you are suited to one of the main the methods of teaching at the university.

Remember that you don’t have to be speaking the entire time, you are allowed to think in silence. It will be very intimidating and feel like forever, but you don’t have to break the silence until you have an answer. The biggest mistake can often be talking yourself into a hole and then not being able to justify your conclusions. The interviewers will specifically sit in silence for a while after you finish to try and get you to fall into this trap, don’t get caught by it. Stop speaking when you’ve said what you’ve wanted to say.

It is also okay to admit when you don’t know something, like I said before they are trying to test your problem solving abilities and aren’t trying to test your base knowledge as much. They would much rather you say you don’t know something rather than make baseless guesses, part of learning is to acknowledge the things that you don’t know.

Hilary’s questions + answers:

1st year medical student at Robinson College, Cambridge.

How often are you expected to write essays?

At my college we’re usually given three essays a week, one for each of our core subjects – biochemistry (MIMS), anatomy (FAB) and physiology (HOM). However, this can vary depending on the week of term and which college you’re at. Once a term, we’re set a presentation instead of an essay for biochemistry and around twice a term we’re set a problem sheet instead of an essay for physiology. These alterations to essays rarely overlap so we always have at least two essays to do in any given week. Around once or twice or term we can be set up to five essays if we are also due to have a supervision for a smaller module such as embryology (part of FAB) or medical ethics (SECHI). For embryology and medical ethics, we have around two or three weeks until the essays are due, as the supervisions are less frequent than for our main subjects, so it’s actually quite manageable. Most colleges have a baseline of three essays a week too, however, I know that at some colleges the baseline is one or two essays and at other colleges it can also be up to nine essays every fortnight! Honestly, it’s not too bad – you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll get good at speed-writing a high quality essay.

How many lectures do you have in a week?

We have around 9 or 10 lectures a week. We have three lectures for HOM and MIMS and two lectures for FAB. For most of the year we also have one SECHI lecture every week, which adds up to 9 lectures. Every other week we have a lecture on biostatistics and epidemiology (ISBM) which is delivered on a fortnightly basis, making a total of 10 lectures. The lectures were, of course, in addition to practicals, dissections, supervisions, seminars and occasional clinical visits.

Do you ever feel as though the level of scientific depth you’re expected to go into is too much?

Cambridge is known for its strong emphasis on science as a foundation for our clinical studies and is often the reason why many students choose to study Medicine here, myself included. We do tend to cover the content in depth but personally, it doesn’t feel like “too much”. I thoroughly enjoy learning about the minutiae of the science behind the clinical applications that we see in medical practice. It helps me understand and apply the knowledge better and feeds my curiosity regarding what we’re learning about.

What will make your personal statement stand out?

Whilst there is no clear formula for what an ideal personal statement is like, personally I think that in order to make it stand out, there are a couple of things you can do. First, make sure to emphasise when you have gone out and found stuff for yourself e.g. make sure to mention that you started your school’s science magazine, or that you started your school’s Medical Society/were the President, or that you arranged your volunteering/work experience placement etc. Secondly, don’t just write about what you have done, but also write about your reflections on the things you have done and make sure to link it to the qualities of a doctor or medicine itself. This will help show actions that you have taken as a result of your interest in science and medicine and tends to be less common so will help in making your personal statement stand out. Here is a link to some personal statements I used for inspiration when I was writing my own.

Did you demonstrate evidence of research interest in your application? If so, how?

In year 12, I took part in a national neuroscience competition called ‘The Brain Bee.’ I was able to do some networking at this event and through this I arranged a one-day lab tour placement. I used the experiences from this day to serve as evidence of my interest in research.

Is doing the EPQ beneficial for Cambridge?

Doing the EPQ gives you an opportunity to research your own scientific interest in more depth than is available in school, read and familiarise yourself with scientific papers and develop scientific writing skills. This is all useful for when you start writing essays in first year. The EPQ also gives you a chance to manage and direct a big project on your own which helps you develop techniques to efficiently manage your time which is a very necessary skill at medical school! Personally, these are the key things that I learnt from doing the EPQ and whilst it is not essential, it is beneficial to do it, as it sort of gives you a flavour of what you might be doing in your first year at Cambridge.

What’s the accommodation like? Do you get accommodation throughout your 6 years?

Once again, accommodation tends to vary between colleges but most Cambridge colleges provide guaranteed on-site accommodation for all three undergraduate years. Regarding the pre-clinical years, all colleges have pricing bands so you can pick a band depending on how much you’re willing to pay for a room/ which facilities you would like to have. All rooms have a comfy bed, desk and cupboard storage. The differences between the bands tend to be due to the variations in room sizes and bathroom facilities.

If you prefer having an en-suite bathroom then if you apply to Robinson, you’re pretty much guaranteed one for all three years as we have the highest bathroom to student ratio of all colleges! Even if you do have to share a bathroom, it will only be with one or two other people at Robinson. The prices for different bands can vary between colleges but Cambridge is known for having high-quality and low-priced accommodation. As for accommodation in clinical years, some colleges do offer it but most students tend to live close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as this is where we’re mostly taught. Honestly, I don’t really know much about clinical years because they seem so far away!

What makes Cambridge stand out as a medical school?

There are so many things about Cambridge that make it an incredible medical school. Here are a few that always stick out to me as reminders that I did indeed choose a medical school that was best suited to the type of teaching I wanted to receive.  

Our supervision system is one of the main ways in which teaching is delivered and I am so glad this is the case. Being able to go over things you don’t understand in a group of only two or three helps to fill pretty much any gap in your learning. Not only are our supervisors extremely intelligent and helpful, they are also very kind and will definitely be there to listen and actively help. This is great for when things sometimes get a bit too much to handle on your own (speaking from personal experience!) 

At Cambridge, we are encouraged to think from first principles, which is also the reason why there is such an emphasis on the depth in the scientific foundation. This helps us to think more laterally when approaching clinical problems and makes it more likely that we thoroughly understand the content that we are dealing with.

Our anatomy course is the best in the country and this is probably because of the hands-on dissection that we get to do in small groups. Every dissection table has only four people dissecting at one time, with dissection demonstrators always available to assist if there are any difficulties, or if we would like some more explaining about what we’re learning. 

 The college system offers a default set of medic friends from day one which is so comforting, especially as you are just beginning to learn how to navigate the challenge that is medical school! 

Cambridge also offers many opportunities to network with people who are at the very cutting-edge of their fields – some of our lecturers and supervisors are actually the people who have written the textbooks on the stuff that they’re teaching! 

Finally, the city itself is so beautiful and inspiring that the experience of being there and being surrounded by such incredible people will naturally influence you and the way that you approach your medical career. 

(I love Cambridge, can you tell lol)

How diverse is the medical school at Cambridge?

With regards to the medical students, Cambridge is quite diverse from what I know and have seen. All the students in my year group come from a range of backgrounds and from all walks of life. However, with regards to the medical teaching faculty, whilst there is some diversity, there isn’t nearly as much diversity as there is amongst the medical students.

Thank you to Natasha, “bookofbones” and Hilary for for answering these questions! You can find out more about them below:



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Posted by:Life of a Medic

2 replies on “What’s it Really Like To Study Medicine at Cambridge Medical School?

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