Applying for Natural Sciences (NST) at Cambridge University

For a full list of science subjects offered within Natural Sciences (NST), please visit:

Natural Sciences (NST) is the framework within which most science subjects are taught at Cambridge. The course offers a wide range of physical and biological science subjects from 16 departments in a unique and demanding framework. A broad first year is combined with increasing specialisation in the second year and the possibility of total specialisation in the third year.

The breadth of the course reflects the blurring of boundaries between the different sciences and before committing to one department, students study a variety of subjects, some of which may be new. This allows students to change their mind about which subject to specialise in.

Academic Requirements
- A-levels: A*A*A
- IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

How did you decide between Oxford and Cambridge?

The NatSci course was perfect for me - they don't do it at Oxford. I visited both and they are equally stunning places, but the course decided it for me. (Profile 327)

More flexible course. Oxford´s bio course did not seem too different from other unis, plus i had lived in oxford for some time and not everything people going to or teaching at oxford told me was positive. (Profile 328)

The Nat Sci course is very flexible and broadly based and that appealed to me over Oxford's more specialised courses. Preferred the Cambridge town environment - architecture, the Backs too. (Profile 589)

Prefered the Natural Science course at Cambridge, I can continue both physics and chemistry, along with maths and biology. (Profile 3)

Did you have to take any exams as part of your interview(s)?

Yes, a one hour test before the interview - those with interviews in the morning took it afterwards. I simply reread my revision notes for AS biology (I chose the biology paper, they ask you which one you want to do there and then). (Profile 327)

I had to take an exam during interviews.A 60-min written test after 3 interviews. Got some VERY weird questions in it, at least that is what I thought, and my performance was awful. Estimate the time taken to travel from London to Sydney by direct flight,Estimate the no. of main courses that a chef in a busy 100-seat restaurant would have to prepare at one night. If you had the same feelings as I do perhaps apply to another college(assuming their tests from each year are similar). Others include, plotting a graph in y and x axis from one which is given in y and x^2 axis. Integrate tanx with respect to x. (Profile 918)

How was the interview process?

Both interviews were in the afternoon, after the test (so some of my nerves had gone!). 1st interview: there was a chair outside the room so I took the hint and sat down. The time of my interview came and went and I nearly got up to knock (don't do that!) when he came out with the previous interviewee and asked me to wait a few more minutes. Then he came out, gave me a bone-crushing handshake and an enormous smile and ushered me in. I sat on a comfy green sofa, he sat on a swivel armchair and the interrogation began. He started off by telling me that this was my general interview and so we would talk a bit about my outside interests aswell, and that my second interview was subject-specific and would be shorter. This was news to me as I had not heard any details about my interviews. His first question was a blessing - "what aspects of biology do you enjoy most and why do you want to study here?" but one at which I unfortunately blanked. I remember mentioning biochemistry, which I do love, but nothing else. Disaster averted, I concentrated like mad for the rest of the interview. If you feel yourself slipping under a wave of "oooh, I'm in Cambridge...", give yourself a mental slap and remind yourself why you're there. It was technical, but never daunting. He asked me to describe protein synthesis and half way through I blanked again and realised I was describing DNA replication instead. I made several other stupid mistakes during the interview, but he didn't mind, they appreciate that you are nervous. I came out of the interview buzzing, it had gone so well. I was able to reassure the next (very nervous) person that he was really friendly. In total, it lasted 40 minutes (should have been 30) and I only had 20 minutes before my next interview. By this time it was dark and I couldn't find the room! I was late but then so was the interviewer. He greeted me and we worked through a problem involving DNA separation and the time taken for them to rejoin. I didn't reach the actual answer (he said no one so far that day had managed it) but I think I got quite close. Another discussion then followed over the shape of a graph for incidence of cancer in the population, and why the lines for male and female were different. Then a rather bemusing question of "if you were powered by batteries for a whole day, how many would you need and how much would they weigh (at 100g a cell)?" Quite. I had zilch nerves for this one and it only lasted 15 minutes or so. (Profile 327)

I had 2 interviews which consisted of both general and subject questions. My interviewers were very friendly but I was too nervous during the first one to really appreciate that. The worst thing was that we had to wait in a freezing cold staircase which made you even more tense and made me more aware of my frozen feet than of the questions. (Profile 328)

Both interviews took place in tutors' rooms. They were fairly informal and I was put at my ease. Generally it was more like a discussion of different things than a straightforward question and answer session. The two interviews I had were both subject interviews - each lasting approximately 30 minutes. (Profile 432)

1) Chemistry 20mins with 2 tutors. I was nervous about this, as it was my first interview. The room was really tiny with sloped ceilings. I got a bit befuddled with polarisation in C-Br bonds, got the electronegativity values wrong. Then I missed the optical activity in reaction products. I did get plenty of stuff right, though I can only remember describing bonding in C-Li. There was a good cop/bad cop routine from the tutors which in hindsight was quite funny. 

2) Physics 30mins 2 Tutors. I was confident for this one, I knew I knew the stuff. I felt I could answer anything they asked me. The drag question was fairly trivial, I'd done a project about drag in the previous year so I was familiar. In the electricity questions I did well, because I used the I=navQ equation judiciously. Then I was asked about the thermodynamics chapter from "A Brief History of Time", I did quite well, but they did prompt me a little, then I was asked about entropy, although I could describe it I couldn't give a good reason as to why it happens. Then, I was asked about my music, so I said what I'd done, and that I'd like to continue it at university. (Profile 3)

What questions were you asked during your interview(s)?

The questions mentioned above, also questions relating to bioluminescence (mentioned in personal statement). How many amino acids are there? How many triplets are there? How many, exactly?

Discussion on Darwin's theory as to why a population relying on sexual reproduction is most successful when there are equal numbers of males and females although reproductively you only need one male for lots of females. Debate on the meaning of birth to encompass chickens etc. One measly question on outside interests. For second interview, see above. (Profile 327)

1st interview: properties of phospholipids, cell membranes and ion channels (and drawing them). Did not seem to go beyond AS syllabus. Then i was asked question like why cambridge? What other courses have you applied to? Did you do any practical work during your course? And some general questions about my hobbies. We talked a bit about one of my lab internships. I was surprised no topical issues were discussed and my interviewer didn’t really seem to push the questions too far, so maybe the first one is just to warm up. 

Subject one focused quite strongly on chemistry. The general one was more wide ranging - some academic questions but also stuff on hobbies, college societies. (Profile 589)

2nd interview:was great fun, they asked questions about some points in my personal statement (what did you do in that quantum physics course you mentioned, why did you start to learn chinese?) and then quickly dipped into a series of little questions about DNA (what is it made of, draw a picture of it), hydrogen bonding, why is the difference in hydrogen bonding between base pairs important for PCRs, enzyme energetics, disulphide bonds and how you break them, protein denaturation, why are disulphide bonds weaker than C-C bonds? It all seemed to relate to thee first module of the AS and i had the feeling that some questions were either you know it or you don´t ones and did not really make you think. The question were not about topics i had never heard of or you couldn´t have prepared for, it seemed to test whether you had really understood important concepts or how fast you can relate topics you already know. (Profile 328)

I was not asked any of the usual questions like why I was applying to Cambridge or what I thought I could bring to the university. Rather, every question I was asked was about the subject - organic chemistry for the first and inorganic chemistry for the second. The questions asked were fairly challenging, but the tutors seemed to be guiding me towards the right answer. I was slightly worried when I drew a reaction of ethene and was met with: "That's interesting. I haven't seen that one before."! (Profile 432)

1 Skeletal formula, Draw 2-Lithiobutane, reactions with halogenoalkane why and how. Optical isomerism in products and bonding in products. Acid-base Equilibria, buffer solutions. 2 Consider forces on 2 spheres of differing densities falling through air, and related drag. Varying PD across a piece of "conducting plastic" pulled them up on that. Dynamics of electrons in currents. (Profile 3)

What advice do you have for potential applicants based on your experiences?

Find out about your interviewers and their subjects from the uni website. It helps you to place what kind of questions they will ask you and you can more often than not get a picture of them too, which always helps. (Profile 327)

Be honest, be enthusiastic about your subject, remember no one cares about your handwriting.

Know your personal statement and your AS syllabus really well. Make sure you really understand basic concepts. Read around your subject, with hindsight I didn´t need that but it made me feel more confident. Think about why your subject is important to you and try to bring that up in the interview even if they do not directly ask you about it. (Profile 328)

Think about the subject - not just the syllabus. Be honest if you don't know the answer. Read the prospectus and website. Have a couple of sensible questions prepared. (Profile 589)

The Forms: Think about what you write. Plan carefully and don't fill in the form until you're sure that's what you should be putting!

The interview(s): My advice would be to know your subject thoroughly - don't assume they won't ask any subject-based questions. But on the other hand, don't overlearn the subject - they're looking for initiative and if you can recognise reasons for things rather than what you can parrot back at them. (Profile 432)