By the end of this academic year it looks like I’ll have visited Cambridge (the university in England that is; not the MIT/Harvard area) 5 times: twice last year, and thrice this year; and that’s assuming plans don’t change to include extra school trips, Headstart courses, open days etc. which may well boost this number to 7. Contrastingly, the number of times I’ve ever been to Oxford is currently zero and it seems (unfortunately for me) like it’s going to stay that way for the rest of the foreseeable future. The thing I find strange is that pretty much all of these visits were/are to attend events, rather than for the sake of visiting the university, which seems to indicate to me that stuff related to areas I’m interested in seems to prefer to take place in Cambridge rather than Oxford, which if true would have obvious ramifications for my future university choices.
A quick run-through of Cambridge trips, past and future, just to make sure I’m not deluding myself: Last year I visited the city for my first time with my parents. the point of the trip was actually cycling in the countryside but we couldn’t resist having a look round the place and absorbing the scholarly atmosphere of the top[citation needed :P] university in the UK. Much later on in the year I learnt of a CareersMCS conference thing on NatSci. At the time I was fairly ambivalent about what to study at university, apart from the (rather strong) feeling that I wanted to do something scientific. But I turned up, at Churchill College I think, and was *almost* persuaded to do Biology at AS to study some of the intriguing-sounding courses they talked about … until someone explained the tripos system and informed us that Biology AS/A2 isn’t necessary for any of the courses (including ‘Biology’) so apparently as a means to getting into a course it isn’t a very good choice.
This year Cambridge infiltrated my life almost as soon as I settled into the first term. Dr Zetie decided that the four Physics Challenge gold-medallists from last year (who coincidentally all received the same mark, were all in his set, and had their papers all marked by him) were to go to Cambridge to attend the annual ‘Senior Physics Challenge’ which turned out to be a series of lectures on circular motion and special relativity which spanned two days and included a night in a Corpus Christi apartment. I enthused about the whole experience and thought that would be the last I’d see of Cambridge before I apply next year. Then at the end of last term I sat the British Informatics Olympiad, a fairly hardcore three hour programming olympiad exam, and was overjoyed to discover that I had by some fluke managed to come top 15 in the country and was invited to the finals. To my further delight, I learned that these finals were to take place at Trinity College – Cambridge; this time I’m to stay two nights. Finally, by some fantastical spot of luck, I managed to get work experience at Microsoft®©™ which I’m told only happens to PhD students. They have five research centres / labs around the world, and the one in the UK closest to me … isn’t in Oxford. Possibly three weeks. Maybe the trend will continue and I’ll be living in Cambridge in two years’ time. I sure hope so…
So what is it about Cambridge that makes me virtually frequent it? I suspect this trend is simply a confirmation of a suspicion I’ve had since some time ago. There was a time when I thought Oxford was simply better in every way – more famous, better education, better courses. I was actually disappointed to discover that Stephen Hawking wasn’t at Oxford. That time was quite a while ago – back in the year when I still rowed and Oxford (I think) won the boat race. Ever since, I’ve been exposed to a general consensus of bias against Oxford amongst the Sciencey and Mathsey cliques at St Paul’s which I attempted to ignore until my interview for the Arkwright Scholarship when the interviewer, an engineer, was extremely insistent about ‘correcting’ my hopes to apply to ‘Oxbridge’ to ones to apply to ‘Cambridge’. So is Cambridge the better university for my interests, as I suspect? The three main areas I’m currently considering for university are Maths, Physics and Computing/Computer Science/Informatics (rumour has it that there’s a distinction between the three apparent synonyms). The first thing anyone thinks of when someone says to him/her ‘Maths at University’ is ‘Trinity’, and Mark Warner at Corpus Christi (Physics) is one of the most inspiring lecturers I’ve seen in action. I’ve also heard of a legendary Anson Cheung at Trinity of whom my Physics teachers speak very highly. When I was talking with my university advisor about the possibility of doing Computer Science and Maths, a search on the UCAS website for a joint Maths/Computer Science course yielded results for Cambridge, Imperial, Bristol and Oxford amongst others, yet he only remarked about the first three of those universities.
So Cambridge it is? I think I will almost definitely apply there. It has a beautiful campus, fantastic lecturers, inspired students, a wonderful atmosphere and (apparently) good wifi. Clearly I’m in no position to pass judgement on which university out of Oxford and Cambridge is ‘better’, merely which one I’m more sure will suit me. And from what I’ve seen of Cambridge, as Farhan put it, it’s like I’ve found where I really belong (provided I stand a chance of getting in of course – STEP – yikes).
On the other hand I’m currently half way through a series of SAT exams for American universities and have my sights trained on Stanford, MIT, Princeton… I’ve also been watching a series of MIT lectures on matrices and linear algebra (Prof. Gilbert Strang) which is simply awesome stuff (the way apparently unrelated concepts seem to come together, like the link between dimensions of nullspaces and number of solutions to simultaneous equations, matrices and Kirchoff’s Laws, nullspace and solutions to SHM second order differential equations). So if I end up with a choice between Stanford and Cambridge that would be just indescribably good. So to answer my question, for the UK, Cambridge it definitely is. But the US simply offers so much good stuff in terms of universities (sometimes with unbelievably generous financial aid) that it would be criminally foolish for me not to apply.
Right. Now, back to doing work that might actually vaguely contribute towards that daydream…