Durham is a big student town, and this interview with Emma who studied Natural Sciences will shed some light on what it's like to attend Durham University.
SnapRevise: What did you study at A-level?
Emma: I studied Biology, Chemistry and Maths.
SR: What do you learn on a Natural Sciences degree?
E: With Natural Sciences, there's a massive range of subjects that you can study. It's kind of different depending on which university you go to. At Durham, it included Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics - even subjects like Geography, so it can include some humanities as well. You choose modules that you're interested in from those subjects. At Durham they recommend that you don't choose modules from more than three subjects, because otherwise you can end up spreading yourself a bit thin. You go to university to get in-depth knowledge in a subject, so you don't want to be stuck doing say six different subjects as you wont be able to go into proper detail about things.
SR: What drew you to the particular course at Durham?
E: Yeah, I knew I really wanted to study Natural Sciences as opposed to Biochem. That was the big decision I had to make at Sixth Form - do I study these subjects separately or together? But as an A-level student, I really enjoyed straight Biology and straight Chemistry. I do enjoy Biochem, and I did do some modules on it at Durham, but I didn't want that to make up the whole core of my degree, otherwise, I would have missed out on things that I wanted to do. I got a really good vibe from my open day at Durham. Everyone seemed so lovely and it was such a nice city where I felt really safe and I could really imagine myself studying there.
SR: Did you do a lot of open days?
E: Yeah I did so many! There are so many universities to choose from, so I started off looking at league tables - which some people will advise you not to do - but I just needed a starting point. So I looked at the league tables and chose some places that were good for Chemistry and Biology and then I looked at the websites, mainly looking at differences in course structure because I liked the idea of small group teaching over lectures. I knew Durham was well known for tutorials, especially in Chemistry. I had a shortlist of about seven universities and then my parents and I drove up and down England visiting them all!
SR: What was your application process like?
E: There wasn't actually an interview, which was nice, so it was pretty much just filling in a personal statement like a standard university application.
SR: What was different about studying at university compared to A-level?
E: From a teaching point of view, everything was a lot more independent at university. There was a massive focus on independent learning in Biology, and in our lectures, they give you an overview of the topic and tell you the main science behind, say a cell signal pathway. It would then be up to you to go away and read the research papers and really explore that field. In your essays, you would incorporate the additional information that you had researched to get the 2:1 or 1st. In Chemistry, the lectures would cover the whole topic, but it was at a very fast pace, so after every lecture, it's up to you to go home and understand it yourself. At school, teachers tend to move on to the next concept when the class understands it, but when you're in a lecture hall of 200 people, the lecturers have no idea if the students are coping!
In terms of the content, Chemistry gets a whole lot bigger. At school, you have a set amount to learn in the specification, whereas at university you can't just memorise things, what you're doing is really learning how things work and why that is. So you might sit in an exam and come across molecules that you've never seen before and you have to work out how they react from your overall knowledge of learning how reactions work.
SR: How are you assessed? Is it primarily essays or exams?
E: For Biology, everything was graded by essays. Throughout the year we had coursework, maybe two essays per module. The exams at the end of the year were essay based as well. For Chemistry it's slightly different, we had exam papers that were pretty similar to the format of A-level Chemistry, but because there's so much content at university you get to choose the questions that you're going to answer. You also get assessed in your lab work. In Chemistry, there are separate lab modules and you get marked on how good you perform in the lab, so percentage yield of the product.
SR: What was Durham like outside of studying?
E: It was so lovely, yeah. It's very small as a place and it has cobbled stone streets. the fact that it's so small means that you really don't have to walk far anywhere. I spoke a lot to my friends at other universities and they had to get buses to their lectures, whereas the furthest I ever lived from y lecture theatre was about a five-minute walk, which was lovely! Durham the university itself has the collegiate system, so instead of being in a year of thousands of students, you're separated into colleges where there are several hundred, and that feels like a nice little family. The colleges put on events, so you get to know everyone through those as well.
SR: What was your typical day like as a student?
E: I got into a bad habit of waking up right before my 9 am lectures because I lived so close! But I'd start the day with those, I'd head home for lunch. I know most universities have lectures in the morning, but at Durham, they were all throughout the day. So if I had a gap between lectures or tutorials I would go to the library. A really nice library - the Bill Bryson library - which was my favourite place to work, sometimes Id book out a study room to focus. I'd normally stop work at about 5 pm and meet up with friends.
SR: What advice would you give to current GCSE or A-level students?
E: I'd say definitely get on top of your learning early. I found that if you've revised something once, it's a lot easier to retain that in your brain if you do it a second or third time. If you go into your exam and over the Easter holidays you're only looking at that content for the first time, it's going to be much more difficult to stick than if you've learnt it all before. Stick to your specification, because for your exams you know exactly what they can be on from the specification document. Print it out, look at it regularly. My school encouraged us to do a traffic light system, so if you don't understand a topic mark it with a red dot. If you kind of understand a topic put an amber dot. If you know a topic really well mark it green. Then keep revisiting your document until everything is green!
You can watch the full interview here: https://youtu.be/eGvXXu3LLCA