Imperial vs imperious

December 24, 1999

I have been applying to study electrical/information systems engineering. I have offers from Imperial College (AAA) and York (ABB), my second and third choices, as well as from other universities I am no longer interested in. Cambridge was obviously my first choice, but an interview at Imperial has convinced me it is the best for me.

I went to Cambridge hoping for an offer. I was quite confident, having done plenty of preparation and research.

On arrival, I was told to go upstairs to the admissions tutor and report in. Afterwards, I was led to a TV room to await the interview. The first surprise was that there was no tour, no information leaflet and no talk about college life. All other universities had given a tour by students who told you all about the university and praised it. But at Cambridge there was just coffee and waiting.

I had my specialist interview first, which was challenging and good fun. I felt I had performed well, but I was looking forward to the general interview for which I had done the most preparation.

On entering I was greeted and told to sit down. The seating was in classic aggressive style, with the interviewer one side of a large desk and me on the other. The interviewer simply said: "Good trip up?" I replied: "yes", and then he started the questioning.

He asked why I did not do additional maths. I gave a lengthy explanation saying that I did not feel I could handle it and nowhere does it say it is a requirement. He then moved on, asking me when I decided I wanted to go to Cambridge before coming back to asking why I had not done additional maths. I explained again.

Next he asked about chemistry. I told him my school, which achieves above-average A-level results, was predicting an A grade for me. He asked me how many in my class were being predicted to get that grade. I told him five out of 12. He then put it to me that this was higher than average and that my school was overpredicting just to allow students a chance to get into Cambridge.

Next I was asked my class ranking - fourth. "So, basically, you are telling me you are at the tail-end of A grades," he said. Once again, unnecessarily aggressive.

When he moved on to sports, I thought the interview was going to get a bit more lighthearted. He asked what my two favourite sports were. I told him tennis and cricket, to which he replied: "You only have time for one sport here at Cambridge: we expect you to work."

The interviewer asked why I used a laptop at school. I explained that I had only one hand and found it hard to write neatly and quickly. Then he said:

"Surely your handwriting is of a certain standard that is legible?" I replied that it was good enough for notes and so on. He then asked again why I needed a laptop.

Then I was asked why I was not deferring entry. I was, and I told him about the letter I had written to him. He fumbled through his notes, saying, "Oh yes" before abandoning the question.

Needless to say I am not going to Cambridge, although I have not yet received an offer or rejection. Despite its status, Cambridge still has to try to sell itself to you: it is good, but not head and shoulders above the rest. It has become arrogant. Imperial is also oversubscribed yet still tries hard to sell itself. Cambridge seemed to be encouraging me to hate it - and it succeeded.

Every other university went out of its way to make me feel comfortable. Not Cambridge.

Maybe this is Cambridge's way of refusing applicants, but I am appalled that such a good university can put in so little effort and still be oversubscribed.

Although I can only talk about my college choice (Churchill, a large engineering school, although I met no engineers), I would not recommend Cambridge to anyone. If you want to be an engineer, Imperial is miles better and tries hard to get you to want to go there.

Nick Huismans

Brockenhurst, Hampshire

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