With university application season on the horizon, this week we sat down with Save My Exams’ very own Head of Biology, Amelia, to discuss her experiences studying for an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at Oxford University.
In this blog post, we’re sharing Amelia’s key insights and expert tips: from how she secured top A Level grades and navigated the Oxbridge application system successfully to what it was REALLY like once she arrived at Oxford.
If you’re considering applying to a top-tier British university, if you think that a science degree might be for you, or if you just want to get to know our Head of Biology a little better, this blog post is exactly where you need to be.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about your experience of science classes at school?
I always loved science classes at school, but it wasn’t until Sixth Form that I began to feel more confident in putting my hand up in class to ask questions and contribute to the lesson.
In hindsight, this was a very useful habit to get into, as when I got to university my opinion was often asked in small group settings and speaking about the subject, and questioning it, in front of others became more and more expected.
When did you know you wanted to study Biochemistry at university?
Well I actually thought I wanted to study Medicine right up until the last minute!
I wanted to learn about how the human body works in its tiniest intricacies and I thought medicine was the only way to do this.
However, I’ve always been pretty squeamish, and one day when my sister came back from the hospital with some stitches it suddenly dawned on me I’d probably have to give someone stitches if I was a doctor… not something I felt happy about doing!
The next day I began writing my Biochemistry personal statement, and I have no regrets: the course taught me everything I wanted to know about the human body without the need to undergo 5+ years of medical training.
Which A Levels did you take, and how did your other subjects prepare you for studying Biochemistry at university?
I took Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Psychology.
Chemistry is essential, as to study Biochemistry as you need a solid understanding of electron orbitals, organic chemistry and kinetics.
It’s also useful to take Biology, as the A Level course helps you to understand how everything fits together within an organism as well as the techniques used to study molecules and cells.
If you enjoy Maths, I would always encourage a student to study it at A Level. The subject offers a unique opportunity to build problem-solving skills as well as being required at some level in all university science courses.
Did you participate in any extracurricular activities, work experience or projects to strengthen your university applications?
I did Duke of Edinburgh, played in a few sports teams and did Air Cadets throughout my school years – both because I enjoyed them and because they made me a more rounded person, which is what both admissions officers and employers look for.
Related to Biochemistry, I did a project with a local doctor to design an interactive questionnaire for relatives of Bowel Cancer patients in order for them to understand their genetic risks and when to seek medical attention.
I also went to a science fair run by the Medical Research Council and wrote about what I found interesting from my discussions with the scientists in my personal statement.
How did you choose your university and your course?
I decided to apply to Oxford instead of Cambridge because I preferred their application system. In Cambridge, you apply to just one college, but in Oxford, all the applicants get graded on each stage of their application and the best 100 get offered a place and allocated a college.
If you want to study molecular and cellular level biology there are two courses that cover the majority of content: Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences.
Biochemistry is more chemistry-based, you look at the chemical details of reactions that occur within the body such as electron orbitals, chemical bonding and activation energies.
Biomedical Sciences is more biology-based, focusing on the ‘larger picture’ in terms of systems within the body and related diseases.
Read more about choosing a university course.
Talk us through your admissions experience at Oxford
I didn’t have to sit any admissions tests, but I did have to write a personal statement and attend two interviews.
The interviews are designed to get prospective students to show their critical thinking, ability to use what they already know and apply it to new situations, and also whether they would suit tutorial-style (1 to 1 or 1 to 2) learning.
To prepare for the interview I read as much as I could relating to Biochemistry – I read ahead in my textbook so I covered the Genetic Techniques section of Biology and Rate of Reactions in Chemistry.
I made sure I was confident in drawing the structures found in biological molecules such as amino acids and glucose. I read New Scientist articles that I found interesting and The Chemistry of Life – quite an old book that has many of the basics of Biochemistry written as a good intermediate between A Level and university.
Read more about preparing for Oxbridge Interviews
How did you find your time as a student?
I remember feeling like I really came into my own during my first year at university.
Of course, it was difficult living away from home for the first time, the course was challenging, the workload was heavy and there were a lot of deadlines. However, I also enjoyed all the positive, unique experiences of being an Oxford student – from balls, to formal dinners, rowing for my college, punting and laying on the grass in the summer term. I loved that my fellow students came from all walks of life but had one thing in common – they really enjoyed learning and were naturally inquisitive.
Did you do a research project as part of your course?
At Oxford, Biochemistry is a 4 Year Integrated Masters course. This means that you sit finals in 3rd year which count toward part of your final grade, then do an extended research project in the 4th year (as would be expected in any Masters course).
For my project, I studied male infertility and specifically looked at how a protein called phospholipase C zeta was responsible for activating the egg in fertilisation.
I did this by studying the amount of the protein that was present using fluorescence microscopy, this showed me which samples might have something wrong with the protein or its production. I then sequenced the genetic code to find mutations in the gene. Finally, I used recombinant gene technology to artificially produce the protein to be used in therapy for couples struggling to conceive.
It was an immensely rewarding experience to be part of something that could really make a difference not only to scientific understanding but also to real people!
What advice would you give to a student thinking about pursuing Biochemistry at university?
When choosing a course, really look at the different course structures and exactly what you will be learning. The more choice you have over the subjects you study the better – Biochemistry is a huge subject and some universities are better than others in allowing students to pursue the areas that interest them.
And finally, what are your top study tips for Save My Exams students?
- Get your hands on the specification and use it as a checklist for what you need to learn
- Practice using the Save My Exams Topic Questions and Model Answers- this is the only way to learn the patterns within the mark schemes and how to use the keywords for each topic. Especially at A Level, examiners are looking for students to use very specific terminology and you need to get into the habit of adding these words into your answers.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself! Every small bit of effort you put in will make a difference in the long run.