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Welcome to the Varsity Education Student Journal!

Find out what students experience each day on a Varsity programme.

The second night of debates – a winning team is announced

Students were back to their normal routine of morning classes and afternoon workshops today, after yesterday’s day off at Warwick Castle. In first period, English Literature students were treated to a guest lecture on Shakespeare with Dr David Tolley, a Lecturer from the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. Meanwhile, Dr Sam Vinko, a Lecturer and Research Fellow from the Department of Physics at Oxford came to speak to the Maths & Engineering students about the latest research into Machine Learning and its implications for artificial intelligence.

In the afternoon, mock Oxbridge-style interviews were held for students who wanted to experience a realistic interview situation for their preferred course at Cambridge (or in some cases, Oxford). Subject tutors held interviews for students wishing to apply for Medicine, Law, History, Mathematics, Computer Science and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Oxbridge. Students will get individual feedback in a dedicated 1-on-1 feedback session later this week. Other students who did not want to undertake a mock interview had time for private study, to work on their Week 2 assignments.

House parents also offered all students the chance to sign up for a college visit tomorrow afternoon – students chose which of Cambridge’s historic college they’d prefer to look around on a pre-booked visit, from a list including Downing College, Emmanuel College, Queens College and Trinity Hall.

It was then time for Part II of Debate Night this evening, with six further teams arguing their case in front of the whole summer school – tonight’s motions were:

  • This House believes that Cambridge University should have quotas for disadvantaged students
  • This House believes that nobody has the right not to be offended
  • This House believes that video games are a valuable use of time

The winning team was the proposition for the first motion, who all won vouchers for Jack’s Gelato in central Cambridge.

1000 years of history at Warwick Castle

After a few consecutive days of focused academic study in Clare College, today our students enjoyed a well-deserved break. The whole group piled on to the bus in the early morning and headed to one of England’s most famous medieval buildings – Warwick Castle. The site dates back to 1068, when William the Conqueror – the first Norman King of England – built the first fortifications.

On arrival, students enjoyed some free time to explore the castle and its grounds at their leisure. Attractions include an outdoor adventure maze, a gallery of historic weaponry and armour, a giant (functioning!) trebuchet and of course, the towers and ramparts of the castle itself. For many of our students, however, the highlight was the immersive “Dungeons” attraction, in which gruesome stories about the castle’s former inhabitants were told with the help of live actors and thrilling special effects. Abdul and Shane both became part of the story when they were tried in a mock trial for a heinous crime, but both thankfully managed to escape the dungeons at the end of the 50 minute tour!

Next on the schedule was the ever-popular Flight of the Eagles live show, in which students were treated to a display of beautiful birds of prey flying from the castle ramparts – including a Bald Eagle, an Andean Condor and a sextet of Black Kites circling and snatching food from the air.

Most students also took the opportunity to explore the nearby Warwick town centre, before boarding the bus back to Cambridge. Dinner this evening was at an Italian restaurant in central Cambridge, after which there was a little bit of free time to prepare for the next day of classes.

The first of our live debates

The usual morning seminars today – one for each of the students’ chosen subjects. Philosophy students discussed the question of knowledge, and learned how traditional approaches following Plato were completely overturned in the 1960s. The Medics, on the other hand, were introduced to negative and positive feedback systems – illustrated with the example of glucose homeostasis and its dysregulation in diabetes mellitus. Many of our Medics also take the Biological Sciences course, which today covered cell signalling and how recreational or ‘lifestyle’ drugs affect this, particularly focusing on how steroids make their users more muscular.

In the afternoon, students had some time set aside for private study, either to work on their weekly seminar assignment or redraft their Personal Statement. Throughout the week, a number of students have been asking their subject tutor to read through the first or second draft of their Personal Statement and have received both written and verbal constructive feedback.

The whole group also took part in a collaborative workshop on Public Speaking, led by Joanna Laugharne, an expert in helping young people improve their communication skills and build confidence when speaking to an audience. Every single student got involved with the games and activities, and the energy in the room was fantastic to see.

Armed with their newly-improved public speaking skills, students then gathered in the Latimer Room after dinner for the first of the Varsity Education Debate Nights. Tonight, three motions were debated in three fast-paced rounds of arguments and rebuttals, culminating in an audience vote. The judges’ overall prize for the most convincing and skilful debating went to the Proposition team for “This House believes that security is more valuable than privacy”. Each member of this team was awarded a voucher for Cambridge’s most popular ice-cream parlour, Jack’s Gelato.

Week two is well underway!

The start of another busy week for Cambridge Summer College students! International Relations students, for example, were recapping three of the major theories they learned last week – Liberalism, Realism and Constructionism – and applying them to a real-world context (in this case, the Russian annexation of Crimea). Psychology students, meanwhile, began a topic on the cognitive processes involved in memory.

After lunch, the afternoon began with group tutorials for each subject – another chance for students to discuss topics of interest in more depth with the tutors, in groups of up to three. It was then time for the first of the Debating workshops, with an introduction from the Senior Tutor. Students were divided into groups of four or five, and assigned a motion such as “Slytherin is the best Hogwarts house” or “Security is more important that privacy”. The groups scattered to different parts of the college to conduct research, discuss a strategy in terms of who would speak, and plan their arguments and rebuttals. The live debates will take place on Tuesday and Thursday evening, with prizes for the team with the most convincing argumentation.

Students then had the choice in the evening to take a formal, timed mock examination in preparation for Oxbridge admissions tests, such as the BMAT (Medicine), LNAT (Law) or TSA (Social Sciences). These will be marked by the Varsity academic faculty and students will be provided with full feedback at the end of the week.

Critical Thinking and more vital skills

Students were glad to have a lie-in this morning, with morning sign-in pushed back to 10am to allow students a couple of extra hours in bed. The time before lunch was officially designated as a “morning off”, in which students were advised not to study, and instead make use of the time to get an ice-cream with friends, relax in the college grounds or even just catch up on laundry!

The first of the afternoon sessions today was Part II of the Personal Statement workshop. Since the last session on Personal Statements, any student who wished to draft a full Personal Statement (or an outline plan) would get comprehensive feedback from the expert tutors in this session. Some of the students who will be applying to Oxbridge in October 2018 had already brought a first draft of a Statement with them to the programme, and so the session functioned as a kind of ‘surgery’ in which students received honest feedback from experts in their field.

The next scheduled session was on Critical Thinking, led by the Senior Tutor – a chance for all students to work on a skill which all Oxbridge students are expected to possess. Students from the Philosophy class acted as assistants in teaching the rest of the group about utilising inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning to formulate an argument.

On the schedule for the evening was a Film Night – but due to the beautiful warm weather, the students voted to instead stay outside after dinner and play sports – football, Frisbee and croquet.

1-on-1 tutorials and college selection guidance

Today saw students really delve deeper into their chosen subjects, by firstly attending the group seminars, then 1-on-1 tutorials in the afternoon. In the morning seminars, for example, our Economics tutor taught an introduction to Macroeconomics, which included a discussion of how we should measure the development of a country. The class discussed the disadvantages of using GDP to measure development and the use of alternatives such as the happiness index.

Then, after lunch in the sunny and busy centre of Cambridge, students met with their tutors again for the 1-on-1 sessions. In Biology tutorials, for example, our Biology tutor gave verbal feedback on the students’ essays about keystone species. He discussed with each student how science essays are written in Oxbridge, in order to improve their essay technique. In fact, we saw some excellent essays on a range of topics, including analysis of a primary source in History and a close study of specific human rights cases in Law.

After tutorials, the whole group gathered for a workshop on Interview Skills, to help students prepare for mock Oxbridge interviews later in the programme.

Students thought about how best to prepare for the interview process – and while there is no quick and easy way to guarantee success in an Oxbridge interview, students came up with some fantastic ideas to increase their confidence. Top tips included keeping yourself up-to-date with current developments in your subject, remaining curious about all aspects of your subject, and avoiding clichés about how “passionate” you are about your subject. Students were reminded that they should instead demonstrate their passion by talking knowledgeably about topics you enjoy, and participating in relevant supra-curricular activities.

It was then time for a short break (which some students used to go for a jog along the river!) and dinner in college, after which students attended a workshop on choosing a course and a college. In small groups, students rated the importance of certain factors in choosing a course and an Oxbridge college. For example, some groups rated the fame of the college low down on their list, whilst a college being all-female or mixed gender turned out to be very important to some groups.

The students then had some well-earned “time out” before bedtime.

Laboratory sessions and a quiz

Friday was another busy day for students! After breakfast, students started heading to their small group seminars. The Psychology class each gave a presentation about a psychological disorder of their choice, while the Physical Sciences class learned about the linear combination of atomic orbitals, i.e. how atoms come together to form molecules. They also watched a video about magnetism, showing how liquid oxygen can act as a magnet.

After lunch, all of the Science students took part in experiments at the Biochemistry lab. They performed a protein analysis practical session, using the process of electrophoresis to analyse different proteins. It was a great chance to participate in a session led by a university lab supervisor, using undergraduate level equipment.

Students taking non-Science subjects had a chance to catch up on their reading or prepare for the 1-on-1 tutorials coming up tomorrow. When the lab students returned, it was time for some outdoor Sports. Half of the group played the “more fun version of baseball”, a traditional British game called rounders, while the other half played the more sedentary British game of croquet, followed by a lively game of British Bulldog!

After dinner, students gathered for our Quiz Night. In teams of seven, everyone did their best to answer questions in the categories of Oxbridge knowledge, Sports, Arts & Culture, Science and General Knowledge. Team “The Bubonic Plague” came out victorious, with “In It to Win It” close behind in second place.

A day in Oxford

After a few days’ settling into life in Cambridge, today’s excursion gave students the chance to compare Cambridge University to its fiercest rival, Oxford University, just a couple of hours’ drive away by coach. Many of the students and staff also took the coach journey as an opportunity to catch up on some well-earned rest!

We were dropped off in the city centre near St Giles by mid-morning and students were granted two hours’ free time to explore the historic city centre on foot in their groups and pairs.

Oxford University is indeed the older of the two ancient UK universities, and though there are many similarities between the two institutions – including the college system, 1-on-1 teaching, and reputation for world-class teaching and research – there are also some subtle differences. Oxford is the larger of the two cities, with more shopping opportunities and more of a busy ‘urban’ feel than its younger sister. When the whole group assembled again at 1:30pm, it quickly became apparent that many of the students had made the most of the variety of shops, particularly those that sold the famous ‘Oxford University’ branded hoodies!

Next on the schedule were some pre-arranged visits to a couple of Oxford’s most beautiful colleges – around half the group headed to Merton College, famous as being the college where J. R. R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of Rings trilogy) taught between 1945 and 1959. One of Merton’s other claims to fame is its library, dating from 1373, which is recognised as oldest continuously functioning library for university academics and students in the world!

The other half of the group were taken to Brasenose College, where the former Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, was educated. Students got to see the medieval kitchens, and were treated to a performance by a pianist in the College Chapel.

It was now time to try out Oxford’s most beloved pastime – punting on the river. After piling onto the punts near Magdalen Bridge, our punt chauffeurs took us on a beautiful one hour trip down river.

Sadly, it was soon time to get back on the coach, so we could get back to Cambridge in time for group dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge. On the journey back, students discussed the merits of Cambridge and Oxford, with most pupils maintaining that Cambridge was their preferred destination ultimately.

A busy day of workshops and World Cup fever

The morning was dedicated to group seminars in both chosen subjects, as usual. Since each class is made up of seven students or fewer, everybody has been contributing their ideas and questions to each topic, and a strong bond has formed between classmates in only a matter of days.

At 2pm, directly after the lunchbreak, students gathered for the first key workshop of the day – ‘Current Affairs’. For any student intending to apply to any competitive degree course around the world, a nuanced understanding of current world events is absolutely essential. In small groups of five or six, the students were asked to grapple with a number of propositions such as:

  • ‘Global warming can only be solved by a global government’
  • ‘Brexit is an example of why referenda are a bad idea’
  • ‘Corruption has made football the success that it is’

Students researched and then debated their approach to these questions, referencing statistical studies and specific news stories to counter opposing arguments.

After a five-minute break, the 3pm workshop began, this time focusing on Examination Skills and in particular, the aptitude tests required to study Medicine, Law or any Social Science at Oxford or Cambridge University. With aptitude tests now required by a number of top UK universities, it is vital that students learn how to prepare and practice effectively. The session brought up some interesting anecdotes and advice from our in-house BMAT, LNAT and TSA experts.

For most students, it was now time to enjoy some afternoon sunshine with a scheduled Sports session out on the grass in Clare College gardens. Teams were assembled for a massive game of ‘Ultimate Frisbee’. All the boys and girls involved demonstrated some brilliant teamwork, with one team particularly strong – Oscar quickly showed himself to have a great knowledge of the game and led the team to victory. Luca, on the other hand, also put in a very strong performance for the weaker team, earning himself the title of MVP!

However, students from our Politics & Economics and/or Business & Management faculties had a different challenge in store – a hard-nosed negotiation game designed by the Harvard Business School. One group (Julia, Aurora, and Carmen) so far outmanoeuvred another group that they sealed the deal at $280k when the guide price was only $100k and the target price $165k.

Various activities were organised in the evening after dinner. For many, the main draw was the England vs. Croatia World Cup semi-final match, being shown on a big screen in the Latimer room for any Varsity Education football fans. One student, Loren, was particularly delighted with the end result! Meanwhile, the English Literature, Philosophy and History students went to see an open-air performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the lawns of King’s College next door. Other students chose to read class notes or rest in their dorms, at the end of a long and busy day!

Group tutorials and guest speakers

The air has cooled overnight and provided a welcome change from yesterday’s hot weather. After the usual English breakfast, students headed to their group seminars in either Old Court or Memorial Court. The Maths & Engineering students, for example, were working on differentiation problems, whilst over in the Philosophy classroom, students were introduced to some of the fundaments of analytic philosophy – such as the contrast between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, or deductive and inductive reasoning. In between seminars, students had some free time to read over their notes or hang out near the dorms.

It was soon time for lunch, with students required as usual to sign out with the House Parents at the office, before heading off in their groups into the town centre. Today’s afternoon activities back in Clare College had a real academic focus, so it was important that the students took some time to get some fresh air and replenish their mental energy!

Between 2pm and 4:30pm each student was timetabled for two half-hour ‘group tutorials’, one for each of their chosen subjects. These group tutorials give students the opportunity to work on a specific task or discuss and debate one particular topic with their tutor, alongside no more than two fellow students. The case studies and questions posed in tutorials very often follow on from more general themes and topics covered in the morning group seminars.

The first workshop of the afternoon then began at 4:30pm in Old Court – this was collaborative and interactive session in which students worked in breakaway groups of 5-6 students to share ideas and advice on writing essays and academic reports. Each group were asked to tackle one aspect of essay writing – for example, the Introduction, or the Referencing – and then presented their conclusions to the rest of the room, helped by the Senior Tutor and English Literature tutor.

It was then time for the second and final workshop of the day with our Senior Tutor – an Introduction to writing the UCAS Personal Statement. This will be followed later in the week by a more specific Personal Statement surgery, in which students will receive personalised guidance.

Dinner was served at around 7pm, after which the students gathered back in the Latimer Room for an evening Guest Lecture. Today’s engaging talk was led by a top barrister and a top neuroscientist, and focused on how their Cambridge degrees shaped their career pathways, and what it is like to work in their particular fields.

First Tutorials

Students woke up this morning to their first full day in the beautiful grounds of Clare College, Cambridge. Breakfast was served for all in the underground buttery in Old Court, before most students went their separate ways for the first of their subject-specific small group seminars. However, for the students taking the Politics and Economics course, the day instead began with a guest lecture on Democracy from the Academic Head of the course, Dr Harald Wydra.

Once students had completed their introductory group seminars in both chosen subjects, it was time for an extended lunch break – for many students this was their first real chance to explore Cambridge on foot. In small groups the students went out to get sandwiches and snacks to eat in the glorious July sunshine, whether sitting on the grass in Memorial Court or outside in a pavement café on King’s Parade.

It was back to Old Court in Clare College at 3pm for an introductory lecture on UCAS and the Oxbridge universities. The sessions were each headed by one Cambridge graduate and one Oxford graduate, who were able to clarify some of the more subtle differences in history and traditions between these two world-class universities. Questions such as ‘What makes Oxbridge different to other UK universities?’ and ‘How does the college system work?’ were covered, with more detail on UCAS requirements and the admissions process to come in workshops later this week.

By 4pm it was time to get back outside again for a tour of the main Cambridge sights, led by a team of professional tour guides. In small groups the students learned about the history of King’s College and its founder Henry VI, the sprawling and grand Trinity College, and a host of other places of interest along the main Cambridge tourist route.

Before dinner, the students had a little free time to relax in the gardens, read over their class notes or chat with new friends. By the time dinner was finished, students were re-energised and ready for our Games Night, run by Marina, one of the house parents. Students enjoyed a variety of games in the Latimer Room, including Taboo, Jenga, Chess, Connect 4 and HeadBandz!


Students from 20 different countries arrived safely in the UK on Sunday and were taken to sunny Cambridge. The summer weather was warm and welcoming for our new guests (28 Celsius/83 Fahrenheit). After settling into their new accommodation we held a welcome gathering in the afternoon where students met the faculty and got familiar with their surroundings.

At around 8pm dinner was held and everyone enjoyed their first English meal in college at Cambridge University. After dinner we held an activity to allow all students the chance to get to know each other better on their first day.

After a good sleep and an English breakfast, all students are today met by their enthusiastic tutors ready to begin their Cambridge Summer College journey.

Check back here on July 23rd to find out about the students’ first day at Cambridge Summer College 2018 Session 2.

Check back here on August 8th to find out about the students’ first day at Oxford Summer College 2018.