Rachel is a first year female engineering student at Jesus College, Cambridge. Before applying to Cambridge, she studied ALevels in maths, further maths, physics, and chemistry at a state-comprehensive in Nottingham. She is especially interested in aerospace engineering, which has landed her the roles of recovery and aero engineer and publicity officer at Cambridge University Spaceflight.
1. How did your experiences shape your application to Cambridge?
At sixth form, I was the only girl studying physics, though this never seemed to bother me and I rarely thought about it. I have wanted to be an engineer for a number of years, and taking a male dominated degree didn’t particularly concern me, because I accepted that that is how STEM degrees are.
Although this didn't phase me, once I started applying for university, I found that my imposter syndrome (although common in a lot of students) was pronounced hugely by being a woman in STEM, and it really hindered my Cambridge application. Every time I achieved something, or progressed to the next stage, I would convince myself that it was just because I was a girl and the University needed diversity representation. I found it really hard to recognise my own success and placed it down to luck. It was really important to continue to remind myself that the Cambridge application process cannot be bypassed by luck, and they do not have a quota to fill. My gender should not (and did not) affect my application, I was chosen for my ability.
2. How has life been at university? Is it what you expected?
Due to the COVID pandemic, our college housed us in subject groups to aid with socially distanced learning, so as a result I lived with seven other engineers, and two chemical engineers. This meant I was one of two girls in my staircase (2/12 engineers are female in our cohort at Jesus, a slightly lower ratio than previous years). When I first moved in, I was worried, I was intimidated by their intelligence and didn't want to seem less capable by asking for help. However the boys were so brilliant, they were always willing to give me a hand with work, congratulated me on my successes and stood up for me if I needed it. Although I have had the occasional bad experience, for the most part the staff and my fellow students haven't acknowledged my gender or treated me any differently.
Cambridge has a better gender ratio for engineering than the national average (24% compared to 21.8%), and also has a women in engineering society, so there is lots of representation and solidarity in the university, and as mentioned previously, most of the other students on the course are hugely supportive. I am a member of Cambridge Spaceflight, and although I only know one other girl in the society, I have taken on executive committee roles and worked alongside the other members without trouble. I truly love studying engineering here, my favourite part being the practicals (labs and coursework) and the extracurriculars like access to facilities in the dyson centre and societies like CUSF, which are such fantastic ways to develop what you learn in lectures.
3. What would you say to someone like yourself applying for entry this year?
The workload of STEM subjects at Oxbridge can feel impossible at times, and when the content is hard to grasp, it can make imposter syndrome overwhelming. Remember that you're at a world leading university, working alongside the top 1%, so comparing yourself to coursemates is not representative of your intelligence or competency.
Always remember that your gender does not make your accomplishments any less valid! You are not filling a quota, you worked for what you have just as everyone else did.
Be confident! Speak to everyone, get involved with everything, speak out when you need to. Oxbridge / university in general is SO much more than just the grade you receive at the end. Grasp every unique opportunity that comes your way by the throat.