• Question: How close are we to skynet? Just joking my real question is how hard was it for you to get into university and what did you do if anything to help yourself stand out

    Asked by AlexH to Kim on 16 Jun 2020.
    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 16 Jun 2020: last edited 16 Jun 2020 10:03 pm


      Hahaha thanks for this question ^_^ I’m going to assume you’re talking about natural science subjects by the way, because the story is quite different for medicine, arts subjects etc.

      So the question of getting into university is a tough one, because I can only really speak with my own experiences and that of my friends/colleagues. For myself, I think getting into at least one university was not too difficult – I think that the majority of science courses around the country really want to see that you are quite capable (i.e. good enough grades) and very interested in your subject. Judging from your great questions on this forum, I would say you definitely satisfy the latter requirement at a very high level ~ The best universities (esp. Oxbridge and London) are harder and expect you also perform well in interviews. This is a another huge issue, which I won’t talk about unless you ask me to, not least because I only know a lot about how Cambridge (and maybe Oxford) work.

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      Nonetheless, it does not do to be complacent, and standing out from the crowd is a good way to be maximise your chances. I’ll give two main pieces of advice which I adopted myself – 1) read books in science and learn things outside your school syllabus. By all means ask your teachers for advice in this, or ask them to give you extra lessons on university subjects, but learn something that you were not forced to learn for an exam, that you find interesting. I am certain that many of the amazing scientists here would be able to suggest things for you, and if you strike up a dialogue, teach you a whole variety of cool stuff 🙂 I myself read Lewis Wolport’s “How We Live and Why We Die: the secret lives of cells” – it’s a nice introduction to fundamental aspects of biochemistry and molecular biology. I can make more personal recommendations for chemistry and physics also, if you are interested (comment below).

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      2) Spend a good amount of time writing a personal statement you yourself are proud of. For many scientists, this is not something that comes naturally haha; writing about oneself is a challenging and somewhat uncomfortable process for everyone. The easiest way to do this is to get as many people as possible to read it for you and provide comments as possible, read it out loud to yourself and think carefully about the structure. I was terrible at this when I started, it took me such a long time and loads of people to make me content with what I wrote haha. Specifically – write about which topics you find interesting in science. Ideally – write about things outside your school syllabus, which is why reading books is good! And write in such a way that provides evidence for your interest. Saying “I am very interested in DNA, so I want to study biology because I want to see how it works.” is much less good than “I am very interested in DNA, so I went on I’m a Scientist and asked questions about it. I learnt that DNA can form all sorts of shapes other than the double helix I learnt at school. I then read a book (see above), and learnt that RNA is like DNA except it forms even more shapes and can even catalyse reactions.” In the latter case, the writer specifically provides evidence that they went and investigated their curiosity. The best evidence tends to be books, work experience, extended projects etc.
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      I’ll mention extra-curricular activities briefly – universities don’t actually tend to care about what extra-curricular activities you do, they only deeply care that you do something that’s not just science. So, make sure you make a list about your hobbies and interests, with the levels you achieve. It’s easy to assume that if you are good at a bunch of different hobbies, it’s likely you are good at time management and your subject as well.
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      I could write lots more about this, as you might have guessed, so do leave comments if you want me to clarify further, or ask more about the process. The advice I’m giving is applicable to all universities and courses, but there are further details pertaining the exact subject (esp. medicine), and exact university (esp. Oxbridge). I hope other scientists will weigh in with things I haven’t covered!
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      I’m going to answer the skynet question coz it’s fun to think about (and actually important!) I think we’re far, far away from skynet at the moment because most artificial intelligence that exists these days can’t develop beyond the scope of its own programming. In some ways, it’ll be necessary for an artificial intelligence to write new programs for itself, but it’s hard to guess how we could ever tell the program to need those new programs! When we solve this problem (maybe >100 years?), it’ll make a bigger step to skynet haha.

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