July 14, 2014

Summer 2014 - Part 1

The entrance to the Isle of Grain facility

I’m sitting here with my portfolio document open, the US common application and UK UCAS web-interface up, and a large, white, blank Word document, waiting to be filled with words of inspiration that will hopefully grant me acceptance to a university in the US or the UK. The only problem is that these ethereal words are not making their way onto the page. I’ve noticed that getting what is in my head onto paper is much harder than I initially expected. Combined with the fact that almost every sample essay I read is a thrilling journey through some life-changing experience that has left the author thoroughly changed, the task seems more and more daunting.

The UK personal statement is much easier. It’s just a well-ordered list of academic achievements with some reflection. my writing style is much better suited for that kind of essay. The US university essays are just completely different, and I don’t have a clue where or how to start. In any case, I’ll get through it somehow, but in the meantime, I have here to spew out my thoughts in an uncontrolled and un-succinct manner. I am somewhat wary that an admissions officer can come across these posts, so I’ll eventually write “An Open Letter to the Admission Officer” post, directing them to the important posts on this Blog.

June 29, 2014

Peterhouse Essay Competition

Punting on the River Cam
A few months ago I decided that I would put some time into writing an essay for the Peterhouse College, Cambridge Kelvin Science essay competition for the sake of being productive over christmas. Keep in mind that this was at a time when I thought AS-levels would be a walk in the park like GCSEs and that revision that early would be an utter waste of time. Turns out that AS-Levels were not as I had thought, hence the grand total of 194 past papers done in the run-up to the exams! A word of caution: do not underestimate the A-Level!

In any case, after several weeks of work, researching and writing the essay, I finally sent it off and began the long-overdue panic for the end of year exams. A bit of background to the competition: Peterhouse College, based in Cambridge, run annual science, english and history essay competitions, with set titles and a 4,000 word limit. The winner of each competition receives a cash prize, and, along with the second place and highly commended candidates, are invited to attend an awards luncheon at the college.

One day in June, I received a letter with the Peterhouse College letterhead. Tearing the envelope apart, they informed me that my essay had been highly commended, and that I was invited to the awards luncheon and to stay the night in the college’s accommodation! As you can imagine, it was all very exciting! So on the 26th of June, I made my way to Cambridge from Kings Cross Station in London, found my way to the college and was directed to my room for the night. Unfortunately, I had arrived late, so I missed the dinner, but Cambridge offered a host of places to eat well for a decent price. I managed to find some other prizewinners in the accommodation later that evening, and we stood in the hallway discussing universities, our essays and how one individual believed it to be disrespectful to a book if it is read in the late evening, when one cannot fully focus on it. Fascinating stuff, I have to say. We stood and chatted until about 12:30am.

June 23, 2014

The Other Side of the Fence

We meet again, dear readers. On the other side of the proverbial exam fence. There have been many a hurdle and many a challenge, but we are all done with it now! It has been a wonderful month, filled with ups, downs, surprises and boredom, and I congratulate my peers taking GCSEs and AS levels. It's all done for one more year. All the best to the A2 candidates, who still have a few action-packed weeks ahead of them.

I have already done my exam board run-down in my previous post, so I will not bother with another. If you want to see my reaction to some of the papers, I point you to my twitter profile, where the occasional tweet to OCR wasn't an uncommon occurrence!

I must point out that my writing skills have gone promptly down the drain, seeing as I had 10 mainly maths-based exams for which I had to prepare. The only reason why I can string together a full sentence without mentioning an OCR key word impulsively [Van der Waals! Minimum energy!] is because I had to write a German essay in my one German exam. Looks like my contrasting AS choice wasn't a bad move after all!

A lot has happened these past few weeks, notwithstanding the exams! Most notably perhaps, is the letter I received a few weeks ago, informing me that the essay I had written for the Cambridge Peterhouse Kelvin science essay prize had been highly commended, and that I had been invited up to Cambridge to overnight and have a formal lunch at Peterhouse college! That is taking place this week, so I am very excited! I also did a paper count to see how many past papers I had done for preparation for these exams. The grand total is 194, 140 of which are maths papers! So, in a year of approx. 6000 waking hours, I spend 300 on maths alone (not including marking time). That's 5% of my year, which is approx. 30 days - including sleeping time. That's a lot of time. I really hope I get the grades I want!

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