Engineering at Kings: An Alternative Perspective

My aim here is to give my perspective on what studying engineering at King's is like from an academic point of view. This is best read in conjunction with the detailed information about the course available on the department website (

The most obvious part of the course is your lectures. During the first 2 years these will typically be 3 hours a day Monday to Friday mornings. Although no one will force you to go you would be well advised to attend all the lectures relating to the exams. There are also a few 'extra' lectures, i.e. 'Engineer in Society' and 'Engineering Applications' that are pretty much optional and are not examinable. The standard of the lectures is highly variable. Some are outstanding, but some succeed only as a cure for insomnia. Most of the lecturers make some attempt to be funny, again with varying degrees of success. One of the definite plus points though is that all the lecturers provide useful 'fill in the blanks' type handouts, which saves you trying to listen to a lecture whilst frantically scribbling at the same time.

The core component of the work you will do is 'examples papers', which are directly based on the lectures and are issued as the term goes along. These typically consist of between 8-12 questions and take somewhere between 3-8 hours each to complete (depending on how hard-working/clever you are). In an average week you will probably have 3 of these to complete, so obviously you need to allocate time outside of lectures to complete these.

The main thing distinguishing Cambridge form other universities is the supervision system. In engineering these stick pretty rigidly to the examples papers - usually one paper per supervision. This is in contrast to, say, English, where supervisions consist of deep discussions over tea and crumpets (or something like that). These supervisions are typically in pairs or threes with other King's engineers (note that supervisions are organised by colleges for the first 2 years, and by the department for the third year; there are no supervisions in the fourth year). One consequence of this system is that there is nowhere to hide - if you haven't done the work it will be blatantly obvious. Supervisions with King's fellows are generally very good (usually Cam Middleton for structures, John Young for thermo and Tim Flack for various electrical stuff that I've never understood). However the remaining supervisions are usually given by PhD students and here there is a lot of variation in quality. Some are very good; however some supervisors either have no idea how to teach or are only doing it for the (considerable) financial rewards and can't really be bothered. Having said this, Tim and Cam are usually very good about changing supervisors if you do end up with a really bad one (as happened to me in second year). Generally supervisions are the best chance you will get to receive individual help tailored to your needs (something not often available outside Oxbridge). In addition to supervisions there are also more conventional classes on each examples paper organised by the department. These are optional but some people find them useful (and they are a good way to impress your supervisor if the class happens to be timetabled before your supervision).

King's Engineers' BBQ

As well as lectures there are a variety of other courses to keep you busy. One afternoon a week there is a drawing class (the bane of my life in 1st year!). This starts off using drawing boards and moves onto the CAD package PRO/Engineer, which gives the opportunity to produce some rather nifty animated mechanisms. There is also a computing class using C++ (MATLAB in 2nd year), which assumes no prior knowledge and teaches basic programming skills through a number of exercises. Besides this you will undertake a variety of lab experiments throughout the year. These (allegedly) improve your knowledge of the material in lectures. However the timetable means you will often have these sessions before the relevant lectures. In this case you can usually muddle your way through the lab anyway. There is also an 'exposition' course designed to develop your communication and presentation skills (good fun), and a few other essay-type assignments. One nice thing is that, for the first 2 years at least, there is a 'standard credit' system in operation for coursework; this basically means that, provided you turn up and put in a reasonable effort, you get full marks for that item of coursework (the idea being to avoid people spending huge amounts of time doing coursework when, quite frankly, they should be out drinking!). Sadly this system no longer applies in the third and subsequent years.

Which subjects to take?

First off, A-level or equivalent Maths and Physics are prerequisites to the course and are pretty much essential. Within Maths A-level it's best to take pure and mechanics modules as opposed to statistics (there is more on this at Other than this Further Maths is useful if your school offers it. It won't make much difference to whether you get in (and you certainly won't be at a disadvantage if you're not doing it), however you will find your first term a lot easier as you will already have done most of the maths course! As far as admissions goes they are only really interested in Maths and Physics at King's, so I would say choose whatever interests you most if you are doing another A-level. Chemistry and Biology are common choices (and can be useful for some 3rd/4th year modules) however there is nothing against doing a third arts-based A-level. One common myth is that 'more is better' when it comes to A-levels; here at King's they are more interested in quality than quantity so doing 5 or 6 A-levels is unlikely to increase your chances of getting in (although it may at some other colleges). If you do get an offer it will almost certainly be AAA in three A-levels (if you are taking further maths as a 4th A-level it will probably not be included in your offer). King's does not use STEP tests for Engineering.

Other Qualifications (e.g. overseas)

If you are taking qualifications other than these (e.g. you are an overseas applicant) then it is best to contact the Cambridge Admissions Office for general information or one of the Directors of Studies at King's for information specific to the college.

The Interview

At King's you will have one interview with two fellows lasting around 45 minutes. Do try to arrive on time; also feel free to wear whatever you feel comfortable in as you are not being judged on your appearance (I wore a suit but plenty of people don't). The interview itself is almost entirely based on technical questions (you will probably have two or three of these). You will not get lots of waffly 'Why did you apply to Cambridge?' type questions. The material in the questions is all taken from the A-level Maths and Physics syllabi; subjects that have come up in the past include calculus, moments and electrical circuits. The questions themselves are highly structured; they normally start off easy and get progressively more difficult, taking you beyond the basic A-level material. However, the interviewers will lead you through each stage in the question so it's not as bad as it sounds. The interview is really aiming to see if you can cope with absorbing new material, so there's not that much you can do to prepare for it. Also, if you find the questions getting a lot harder, this is a good sign as it normally means they're seeing if you can cope with more advanced material. The interview is also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have. This is the best way to find out first-hand about the course from the people who will be teaching you.