To apply to top-notch universities, your examination grades must be stellar.

MY last article gave a glimpse of my transition from a secondary schoolgirl at Sekolah Seri Puteri in Cyberjaya to a first-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

I was a Yayasan Khazanah Global Scholarship recipient and enrolled in Kolej Yayasan UEM (KYUEM) for a two-year A levels programme. My years at KYUEM were filled with fantastic friends and unforgettable experiences. My third semester there was the busiest of all as I had applied to Cambridge and four other universities in the United Kingdom, namely Imperial College London, University College London, University of Edinburgh and University of Manchester. The Cambridge application process differs quite significantly from the other universities.

To apply to UK universities, you usually submit applications to five universities through University and Colleges Admission Services (UCAS), which is similar to Unit Pusat Universiti in Malaysia. It was a scary prospect to apply to Cambridge at the time but I was motivated by my parents and took up the challenge after weighing my options.

So how do you apply to Cambridge?

Study hard and score high marks in the examinations

A levels consists of two equally weighted parts; AS (Advanced Subsidiary), assessed in the first year of study, and A2 (Advanced Level), assessed in the second year of study. To apply to top-notch universities (particularly Oxford and Cambridge), your AS grades must be stellar (90 per cent above for each subject).

Through UCAS, the universities will only know your forecast A level grades (determined by your teacher) and which usually coincide with your AS grade. However, as Cambridge will request for your Uniform Mark Scale through the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA), it is crucial that you perform well in the AS examinations. Generally, successful candidates obtain an average of 92 per cent in the subjects tested. Even if you do not intend to apply to Cambridge, excellent AS results will prevent you from having to re-sit AS papers in your second year, which is a bonus.

Start drafting your personal statement early. As soon as you decide to apply to Cambridge, start drafting your personal statement during the holidays.

I was lackadaisical at first but my friend (who was also accepted into Cambridge) drafted his quite early. In the spirit of competitiveness, I started writing mine as well. As the deadline for applications to Cambridge is earlier than other universities, it is an advantage if you finish your first draft early as you will have more time to fine-tune it with your teachers or tutors. In addition, you must complete the COPA as well, so start drafting the COPA essay early as well.

Write from the heart

Your personal statement must not only reflect your knowledge about the field that you want to pursue, but also who you are, your passion and where it stemmed from, and its importance to you. Never sound as if you are copying from Wikipedia, anyone can do that. Sit down, reflect on your life and write!

Prepare for the written test

I had to sit a two-hour Thinking Skills Assessment, which comprises 50 objective questions and an essay. The objective questions were quite tough, even though I did a few practice questions, which I obtained online, beforehand.

Do the questions with your friends who are applying to Cambridge as well, you can discuss with them on how best to answer. Most of the questions test logical thinking. However, starting last year, aspiring engineers applying to Cambridge have to sit the Engineering Admissions Assessment, which consists of Mathematics/Physics questions (80 minutes) and structured sets of multiple-choice questions on the same subjects (40 minutes).

Prepare for the interview

Based on previous interviews by seniors and a mock interview organised by KYUEM, the 20-minute Cambridge interview is highly technical, requiring candidates to answer questions on Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics (for those applying for Chemical Engineering).

For the interview, do research. It is extremely crucial that you know what you are talking about and avoid babbling about nonsensical things. Read up on everything related to your personal statement, get facts and statistics to show you are well-versed in the subject you want to pursue.

At the same time, do not be cocky. The questions are going to be hard, but it will not be challenging if it is easy, right?

Ask your seniors about their experience and the interview questions. Cambridge wants to see your thought processes, not so much if you get the answers right or wrong. Hence, let the interviewer follow your train of thought.

After that, just wait for your results in January. Some of you will be accepted, some of you will not. The point is to never stop doing your best and keep on trying. Good luck!

NUR FARAHANI IRFAN NOR AZMI is a first-year chemical

engineering student at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, UK. A Yayasan Khazanah scholar, she was a former student of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Sekolah Seri Puteri, Cyberjaya.

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