April 11, 2014

The Road to Exam Season

Remember. Back in September when you told yourself, "ahh, those exams are ages away! I have time!", along with all the rhetoric about being able to handle the workload of 5 AS subjects. Remember all that naïvety? Well, look where we are now: in the throws of the Easter holidays and prime revision time for the AS exams, the first of which for me is in just under 5 weeks.

It very slowly dawns on you that perhaps you have let yourself in for more than you could handle, and then it suddenly hits you like a very heavy, very large boulder that, yes, you still have a lot of work to do to hit that 90% mark boundary to even be considered for Cambridge entry. Am I saying that those events have happened to me? Well, kind of.

A few weeks before the Easter holidays, I got a rather abysmal mark in my Chemistry (Atoms, bonds and Groups module) mock, followed shortly by a low A grade in C3 maths. That was my "oh crap" moment. That was the point at which I considered whether I had over-exerted myself over the year in extra-curricular activities and failed to focus on what actually mattered: the exam!

The conclusion I came to was that it was completely and utterly irrelevant! I had done what I had done and I had to deal with the exams now, but I must say, if I had another shot at the year, I would not have done anything different with regards to extracurriculars! This year especially, I have developed my non-academic skills immensely, not to mention developed as a person significantly.

But now we are, and here we will stay unless I significantly step up my exam game. The funny thing is, I understand the syllabus contents, it's just the mark schemes that I have to conquer! In Chemistry, for example, a 10 mark question has exactly 10 marking points, unlike at GCSE, meaning that you have to know exactly what the question wants you to write down. Fortunately, that's really only the one exam board: OCR. They are ridiculously specific in some areas and far too broad in others. For example, a marking point for the green chemistry question - a farcical topic in itself - "how do chemists help reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere?" Is "make decaffeinated coffee".

No, I am dead serious. It's absolute idiocy. There are many more such examples!

Physics papers are very pleasant. We do like to make fun of WJEC, the Welsh board, but they do write very good physics papers: unambiguous, straightforward and clear. You will always know exactly what they are asking you to write down. Further, there are no annoying quality of communication (ie, English) marks, as they are not subject to the English exam board rules! Those marks really do not belong in a science paper anyway! The practical exams - which do not require obtaining stupidly accurate results, like chemistry - are equally very good. I am genuinely glad that we moved away from OCR in Physics.

Maths is, I must say, not straightforward. The exams are possibly the first I have come across that actually require you to think a bit! Of course, we are not talking about the Core 1, Core 2 and Further Pure 1 modules, which are quite straightforward, but the mechanics 1, statistics 1 and Core 3 modules. It's taken me 5 past C3 papers to get up to the 90% that I want. I am still hovering around 93-95%, but by this stage, 100% is looking more and more possible, but I will undoubtedly slip up somewhere and drop a few marks, as always happens.

For the uninitiated, the further maths AS qualification requires 6 exams, each 1.5h long. Next year, one does another 6 for the full A-Level. It's been called the hardest A-Level by many, and I must agree! I have been given 12 of these papers to complete over the Easter holidays, but because I want to secure the chances of 90+%, I am doing about 16 - one per day! I was even doing one at the airport before a boarded a flight, where I am currently writing this.

Unfortunately, because the maths department is so large at my school changing exam boards is not going to happen anytime soon. And guess which board we do: lovely OCR! (I can't stand them now). The exams are much better that the Chemistry ones, but one can occasionally come across the stupid question, which is so ambiguous that you don't know how to answer it. Indeed, it's worse when these questions are 2 or 4 markers, because then the stakes are much higher!

German is also a lovely exam. Well done the Edexcel board! It's a nice relaxing 2h45min exam, which can be completed within 1.5h, and where you get your own MP3 player for the listening section, do you can stop and replay certain sections. It's truly fantastic! The exam next year is apparently equally good, with a good German literature section, which I am looking forward to!

So, what can you take away from this post other than learning about my unrelenting hatred of
OCR? Very little really! It might be worth mentioning that all my exams are now up-to-scratch, it's just a matter of fine tuning the exam technique and knowing what keeps Mr OCR happy. For those who are about to take their GCSEs (sophomore year for my US readers), enjoy them. It only gets worse from here! For those revising for their AS, A2 or equivalent exams, I wish you all the best and hope that you get the grade you have been working towards, if not better! Just remember, it's a game you are playing with the exam board, OCR especially. If you have more than two subjects with OCR exams, then I salute you and wish you all the best.

We currently find ourselves with the most horrible month ahead of us: the exam season, where tensions run high and breakdowns ensue. Preparing for that by running yourself into the ground now is potentially the worst thing you could do. Work hard, but, as the rhetoric of my teachers goes, remember to take a break. "But breaks are for the weak!", I hear you say. Maybe, but the apparently weak are those who know how to enjoy themselves, while still getting good grades, a skill I am still lacking somewhat: until recently, my take on "a break" was doing a quick Core 1 paper and seeing (for fun) how quickly I could complete it - 40mins is the current record, with the required criteria (90+% score). That's a bad idea, I now realise!

I will, as I said before, most likely be unable to write a blog post for a while now. So, if I don't, again, the best of luck to you all, and we will see each other, war-torn and exhausted, on the other side!

Until then, goodbye.

March 22, 2014

CanSat, Extracurriculars and Impending AS-Levels

Our CanSat following descent and impact.

It has been a long time, and I do apologise for that. About three months have passed since my last post, and I must say, I feel about three years older since the Arkwright awards ceremony. This post will not necessarily be very long: I just want to write something quick to update the readers - if they still exist - and to provide a log for future Nick. Hello there Future Nick! If you are interested, today is the day that Russia signed the agreement to annex Crimea from Ukraine and accept it into the Russian Federation.

Although I am no historian, and have not done history since age thirteen (because the UK system is great like that) I am not ignorant about the past. World War 1 started due, simply put, due to growing international tensions and a very finely balanced network of treaties and agreements. The thought that the treaties and agreements that are currently in place having an uncanny similarity to those of pre-WW1 times has not eluded my thoughts, and especially with the EU and all their complicated membership rules, I do feel somewhat uneasy about the global political and social situation. As my father so simply puts it, it only takes one person to tug on one piece of a string for the entire web to unravel.

While we sit here and await doom - I am over-dramatising - lets update you!

Lets talk about my A-Levels. Remember when I said that I could handle it? I might have been a bit over ambitious there. With the exam season rapidly approaching, I am finding myself panicking over the modules, specifically Core 3 and Further Pure 1 maths. Why is this the case? Well, I just make stupid mistakes. It is not a matter of a lack of knowledge: it rarely happens that I am unable to complete a question, but rather I will loose marks due to a rouge negative or writing 2^2 = 2 or something equally as stupid. The fact of the matter is, I need more practice if I want to score an average of 90%, which will be taking place over the easter holidays.

My friend made a throwaway comment about me refusing to take a break from work. His maths teacher heard it on passing us. He stopped and proceeded to give me a lesson on how I should take at least one week off and not to any work. I said, “yeah, maybe only one paper a day then”, to which he scoffed and made me promise that I would take a week off and do no work. Whatsoever. Bear in mind that I have never met or spoken with this teacher before! So yeah, now I have a forced respite, enforced by three teachers now…

January 5, 2014

People, Work, and the Great Year Ahead.

London Arkwright Scholarships award ceremony

First, let me wish all of you still reading a happy new year! It has indeed been a long time. Over 6 weeks! It has been a busy half term, with every waking moment of mine being occupied by something, such as my recent school production of Julius Caesar, for which I was the assistant lighting director in preparation for my new appointment as chief of lighting; setting up the Greenpower Formula Student 24+ competition at my school! for which we need to build a race car; preparing a series of presentations for the 2014 Arkwright Scholarship applicants, and heading up product development in my Young Enterprise team, for which we design, market and sell a product.

It's been a busy term, yet my social life has surprisingly not gone completely down the drain. What little I had before still exists. It's neither growing, nor shrinking, but that's all alright with me! Who needs "frenemies" anyway? They are a complete waste of time and effort.

Funnily enough, I actually tell people I dislike them to their face in most cases. It's a useful skill to possess when you need to wade through the "lower third" quickly, but the key thing is, I am open to changing my opinion: one person, I never much liked, before I was placed into a German class with him and had to work with him. I later told him that although I never much liked him and thought he was a self-righteous twerp, I now thought he was a great guy.

Granted, I tend to hold a rather negative view of people in general. "People suck" is my life motto, and it has served me well this far; however, recently I have had to reevaluate this conclusion, following three events. The first is with regards to YE, and I would prefer not to go into that until after the competition has concluded.

Second was my introduction to the A-Level years. I am suddenly in classes with people, with whom I have had little to do with the past three years. This being the case, my evaluation of these people from three years ago was completely incorrect: many of them have grown up in terms of maturity, and are no longer classified in my "lower third".

Third was my recent holiday with my sister and her friend. I was astounded how much there is to talk about with regards to guys and parties and socialising and gossip and whatnot. They spoke about people "getting with" other people and how scandalous that was and "oh my god" and "no, she didn't". First, I cannot stand the phrase "get with": it sounds so crude and disrespectful. The problem is, all other phrases sound sappy and/or incongruous, so I am open to suggestions about what to call it and perhaps we can disseminate this new, innovative, phrase to the wider population.

In any case, I would have classified my sister and her friend as a "lower third", but seeing them not pouting on Facebook or taking selfies, and just being silly, I wouldn't. This raises an interesting dilemma. Potentially, it could be the case that my "thirds" system needs to be reevaluated for more granular relations with people. To get a general overview of a person, it still works perfectly well, but when I engage in a deeper conversation or a longer acquaintance with the person, I need to discard the system.

That's not to say that my sister and her friend are not twerps. There, the system does not fail, but the definition of the "lower third”, being people that I cannot, will not, and won't get along with, is incorrect for them.

Overall, I am changing my world view, with respect to people and how people interact with society in general. I am not making it a New Year's resolution, seeing as those go out the window by no later than the 5th of January (hence why I have not made any and posted this on the 5th), but a challenge to myself. I will still judge people in the typical Weninger fashion, but my conclusions will change. I have noticed myself doing this already ever since my exciting excursion to Stanford this past summer.

More immediate, perhaps, is my impending SAT exam for the US, A-Levels and applications to university over the course of this year. Reminiscing on 2013, I must say, it would probably rank in one of my top three years so far: I won the Toyota STEM Challenge, went to Belgium for BalloonSat, got accepted to Stanford EPGY for the summer, became the head of the Engineering Society at SPS, was awarded an Arkwright scholarship, but most importantly, I met many of new, fascinating, interesting, intelligent and kind people, with whom I would like to stay in contact with for a very, very long time to come.

2013 was a great year. 2014 is going to present lots of challenges, especially with regards to university choices and applications, but as I said in my post just after the start of the academic year, a challenge is always welcome, and faced with full vigour.

2013 was a monumental year, but here is to an even more monumental 2014. Give me your worst.

Celebrating the New Year in the Alps with family and friends

October 22, 2013

The University Dilemma

Stanford: a view from Hoover Tower

I have mentioned again and again that I am torn between going to the US and staying in Europe for University. Do I want that campus lifestyle in a relatively foreign and exciting country, with some of the best institutes of the world, or do I want to stay within the culture I want to potentially live and work in [in later life, anyway] and learn a second - maybe even a third - language properly by having classes taught in them? The UK, despite it being a familiar scene to me, is also not out of the question. Cambridge and Oxford are both world-class institutions, and dirt cheap compared to the US. In this post, I would like to dissect this dilemma - in my signature broken and disorganised way - and hopefully reconstruct it in a somewhat coherent manner.

ETHZ: the main building

August 30, 2013

A European in America and Other Fun Things

As the summer draws to a close and the memories of it are still fresh in my memory, this post is almost a bit too late! As many of you know from my last post, This summer was potentially one of the most influential on me as a person and in my academic career thus far. I know, being only sixteen, talking about a “career” is a bit too foresightful, but in all honesty, I do not bother too much to think about that: I just do what I enjoy, and those activities are called by others “CV builders”. I am just lucky that the stuff I enjoy doing is actually helpful! Anyway, enough with my possibly condescending mini-rant, onwards with the adventures I had this summer! This post is likely to be very long, so beware!

First, but not the focus of this post, I was kindly invited to go to Imperial College to undertake a week’s worth of work experience, working on the European Commission Project, BioSonic. The aim of the project is to devise a system and build a proof-of-concept plant thereof, by which waste sawdust would be processed into commercial chemical products. I, along with a good friend of mine and, rather interestingly, an American from Edinburgh, spent part of the week in the lab conducting rough experiments to determine the most important factor in the processing stage: time, compound concentration or temperature. I am not sure of the level of classification the project planners want to keep the project at, so I kept the description as ambiguous as possible! Overall though, my time spent at Imperial was great and I would again like to thank all that made that week (and a bit) so enjoyable: The post-doctoral research fellow, the professor that organised the entire week and even the PhD students in the coffee room, who explained their PhD projects to me!

Me in my lab coat

July 30, 2013

Summer and Miscellaneous Events

Editors note: I have been exceptionally lazy. My presumption of the events described below being demanding were correct, so as such, I have not had time to post! I am at the EPGY course at the moment, dealing with their computers stuck on the silly 8.5x11” paper size and bemusing American spelling, but believe me when I say that there will be a very long and involved post in the near future regarding the matter.

My word, this summer has been, and is going to continue to be, fantastic! Much has happened and much more will happen. I have learned a lot and I shall be learning much more. Yeah, you get the picture: an action-packed, quintessentially nerdy, profoundly perplexing summer!

Let’s start as I always do with my infamous airplane posts: I am currently sitting on a United airlines Boeing 747-400 on hoe way from London Heathrow to San Francisco! Also, this is my first long-haul flight traveling alone, in addition to it being my first visit to the US west coast. The reason? I applied for the Stanford University Education Programme for Gifted Youths Summer Institutes and was somehow accepted, even on my extremely rushed application!

Me, a gifted youth! The thought befuddles me.

I will be at Stanford University for three weeks, studying Environmental and Earth Sciences; the quantum physics and AI courses were oversubscribed, I have been lead to believe. As expected, my entire family was spamming me with congratulatory messages, while my teachers told me that I "will never want to come back"! We shall see: I have recently come to the realisation that the UK is not half bad, especially having been down to the lovely Winchester to meet Alicia Cuddeford (see her guest post).

June 27, 2013

Education and the examination swindle - part 5

Image from CSL CartoonStock

Look at this! I am getting back into rhythm of posting again! Let's hope that the trend continues! In further good news, it looks like my social life is taking a turn for the better and is slowly growing outside of Twitter (although I still like my Twitter friends, as demonstrated by me asking Alicia Cuddeford to write a rather eloquent post), so we shall have to see how that progresses, but it should be noted that people say "you cannot be a cynic or complain too much, otherwise you won't have any friends". Although this may be sound advise, I am stubborn, so here continues the rather negative series of "Education and the Examination Swindle", but more specifically, my A-Level choices and the realisation that the further education system [how education at 17-18 counts as "further", only the screwed up system knows] is flawed in its most basic constituents. So, allow me to tell you the tale of my entrance into this uniquely flawed system.

We begin during the spring term of this past academic year. All GCSE students, dutifully revising for the upcoming mocks and eventually, the actual GCSEs, were handed out the school A-Level choices booklet. For a bit of context, the GCE A-Level, or General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, is the qualification taken at ages 17 and 18, with it split up into two smaller qualifications: the AS and the A2. Both of these combined give the A-Level qualification, and the scores scored in each examined module contribute to the overall A-Level grade. Convoluted, right?

June 24, 2013

Education and the Examination Swindle – Part 4

Image from "Get the Best Grades Now Blog"

Editors note: The lovely Alicia Cuddeford has gracefully written a post to continue with our "Education and the Examination Swindle" series. As ever, I may or may not [suspense!] agree with her views, but I have written a few footnotes for the reader's amusement. Enjoy!

Hello again TheCompBlog readers! Since Nicolas didn’t think that my post last year was complete rubbish, I have been invited back to write for him about this darn education that keeps inconveniencing my life. For those who don’t know who I am, I’m Alicia and I am a student in the grand old city of Winchester. I wrote a post for Nicolas last April about my opinions on secondary education which can be found here, but now, seeing as my past year at 6th form college is fresh in my mind, Nicolas thought it would be nice for me to share them.

I feel like I should probably introduce my college, because I’m told that it is quite prestigious. Peter Symonds College, or “Hogwarts” as it is commonly known by a street urchin like me, is one of the largest sixth form colleges in the country. Ben Ainslie and Jack Dee came here, something which Peter Symonds really get off on – newspaper articles are smeared along the walls to let us know that we too could achieve greatness, while also serving the purpose of allowing cynics like me to snort at them. As previously mentioned, it is in Winchester, therefore the target student is from an affluent family who shop at Waitrose and dress in Jack Wills clothing. Because of this, I initially thought that I wouldn’t fit in well here, but I was wrong.[1]