January 31, 2015

An Open Letter to The Admissions Officer

To the undergraduate admissions officer of a university I have applied to:

Please know that this is not a finely crafted personal statement or admissions essay, this is not me trying to excuse myself from the idiocies of thirteen year-old me and this is certainly not a coherent literary masterpiece, but I hope that through this and what you find on this blog, however embarrassing that may be, you get a bit of a context of my opinions, style and perhaps character. Maybe the students in my school are paranoid: many have changed their Facebook names, Twitter handles and taken their blogs offline, but I have decided against doing that, particularly in the case of this blog.

I am of the belief that opinions change with time and maturity. That is, in my opinion, exemplified in this blog. Through the years, my posts have wondered between Apple-fanboying to pondering perhaps some of the most irrelevant topics to recounting life-changing experiences. If you look through the archive back to 2010, the start of this blog, you will see thirteen year-old me ranting about Apple patent lawsuits and other perhaps embarrassing things. As the years moved on, I began to use the blog as more of a journal of some sorts, logging my worries, my ambitions and my university considerations.

This blog is a sort of time capsule. So is my Twitter and to a certain extent, my Facebook. I'm not trying to hide any of it - although I have restrictions in place, like any technically literate teenager! On the contrary: below I provide a brief narrative of some blog posts that have particular relevance to me, and perhaps even to you as well. Some are embarrassing, others, insightful, but in any case, they were all written by me at some point or another, and may serve to shed some light on the person behind the crafted application essays. There are some I have missed out on purpose to reduce clutter, but please feel free to browse! Of course, you don't have all the time in the world, and I do appreciate you reading my ramblings for this long.

From the "About" page:
"Opinions change, and I, as many other bloggers do, will freely admit that I am no exception. [...] This is not a technology blog, although it was initially started up to be so; instead, it had evolved into a personal diary of sorts, encompassing my thoughts, achievements and downfalls in one, easy to access place, so the world can laugh at my somewhat incoherent and silly musings."
Whether accepted or turned down, I thank you for considering my application, and wish your 1st years all the best for 2015!


Perhaps the most important post was my very long and heartfelt post, written over a week, about my experiences at Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youths. Those three weeks were some of the influential in my life thus far.

Over my past two summers, I decided to briefly document my experiences. (2014: Part 1 and Part 2 and 2013 Part1)

I like to rant about many things things, including, but not limited to, exam boards, the UK education system and even silly phone applications.

Choosing between universities was a large challenge for me. I documented these concerns sporadically over many posts, but tried to consolidate it in “The University Dilemma” about a year ago. A-Level choices were also very challenging for me.

I documented the adventures I had during the Toyota Technology Challenge in 2012. Part 4 of a four-part series sums my “obsessive devotion” to the project well.

I wrote a three-part series one summer about my tinkering with an Arduino and Lego NXT components that I had found under my bed one day that I didn't want to throw out: Part 1, part 2 and part 3.

I also wrote a three-part series back in 2012 about an online radio station that a few of my friends had. I was the technical director, responsible for getting our voices onto the air!
Part 1, part 2 and part 3.

In October 2011, Steve Jobs passed away. Just two years after a close call myself, it really drove home how quickly things could change. I compiled a list of my favourite videos and images I could find of him and put them into a post, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.

Of course, there are the posts and tweets I am embarrassed about. “The Dell Experience” in 2011 contains both my tweets and block-capital raging over a relatively unimportant subject. Another oddly written post, “The Ongoing Pinnacle of Human Achievement” documented my dismay at the retirement of the NASA Space Shuttle program.

…and yet some more embarrassment with some Sony and Microsoft Bashing in 2011. 

Looking back at these posts, I have some to realise that I was a bit too much of an Apple Fanboy back in the day.

January 4, 2015

A Year in Reflection - 2014

Celebrating New Year's Day

Another year has come and gone, just as I was getting used to writing ’14 on my work instead of ’13. To all those still regularly reading these posts - despite their infrequent nature - and those who happened to stumble across this post on their internet travels, I wish you a happy new year! Just as quickly as it came, 2014 is a thing of the past, and seeing as this blog has become a lot more of a space for me to throw words onto a screen, reflecting on the past year is probably not a bad idea.

2014 was an interesting year for me on many levels. There were ups and downs, moments of celebration and moments of despair, but overall, I have my health, there have been no deaths in the family and miraculously I still have friends, so I would say 2014 was a good year for me personally. I have found that looking back on the past day, week or year firstly prevents the time flying away and secondly helps you to appreciate the good times more. One day, everything just came together, making for a really good day, and I would have almost missed it if someone hadn't asked me how my day had gone.

Academically, 2014 was a success. I got the AS grades I wanted and when I think about it, I am amazed at just how much work I put into getting those grades. I have a past paper progress tracker, and the grand total of past papers I did came to 193 across maths, physics and chemistry. I probably didn't need to do that many, but I remember somehow that I just picked up a paper and did it almost instinctively, which is in one way worrying that our schooling system encourages preparation in this way, but in another way, fascinating knowing what you can do when you put your mind to it - and have a lot depending on it!

September 6, 2014

Year 13

The rear entrance to the main building.

And so it has begun: my final year of pre-university education. The thought is both an extremely exciting, as well as an absolutely terrifying one! I just got back from visiting ETH university again, and I do like the university a lot, and Zurich is an absolutely astounding city. Especially flying back to London, I now realise that fact even more. I don't really want to go into too much detail, but Zurich is certainly a favourite city of mine. Many thanks to my granddad, who came down to Zurich from Vienna for the two days to take me around the city and explore the niches with me, areas that I may not have known existed.

The university itself is as I had expected. I took the time to explore the course I am intending on applying to - electrical and electronic engineering - go on a few tours and attend a few lectures. The lectures were interesting as I leaned a great deal about software systems, but they were presented in German! The reason why I attended these was to see whether the language would be a huge barrier to my learning and I can say with complete confidence that it will not be!

One thing that did get me though was that ETH lacked that feeling of awe that I felt at Stanford. Now, the problem is that I tend to remember things better than they actually are, combined with the fact that I was at Stanford for 3 whole weeks, interacting with funny, intelligent and kind people. I didn't have that opportunity at ETH. In addition, imagining life in Zurich is hard for me, as I have only experienced campus university settings in the US and UK, which are very different to Europe, seeing as each university and city in Europe is so different! So I have to be very careful when I compare my university options.

Regardless, school has started, and university application deadlines are fast approaching! Cambridge wants the UCAS in by October, most US unis, sometime in December and Zurich's application opens in November. On top of that, I have the regular A2 subjects, and I am doing the most subjects possible with as few free periods possible, so this year is going to be great fun again!

And that was not sarcastic. My personal life has taken a very sudden turn for the better! I care not to elaborate much more on the open internet, but I can just say that several - or maybe one - things - or thing - have/has made me a very happy individual!

With that, let us take on the next challenges that await, and start the year with the same optimism that we did the last one, with the same poem:

It Couldn’t Be Done
By Edgar Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

Until next time.

August 17, 2014

Summer 2014 - Part 2

Well, these four weeks have gone far too fast. I just finished my four week internship at Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria and I must say, I learned a great deal there, not just about the automobile prototyping process, but also about the job world and life in general. Keep in mind that I decided not to go to Standard EPGY this year so that I could do this internship. In all honestly, I made the correct decision, not to forget the fact that I earned £1000 post tax in these four weeks, which isn't too shabby! So without further ado, let's begin.

I stayed with my very fun aunt over the four weeks in Graz. I've been to Graz before to visit her several times, but this time I really got to experience working life in a small city and see what kind of atmosphere Graz actually has. In comparison to London, it's not bad; just different. The constant arranging of meeting places and times isn't really necessary, as there is only one centre of town and everything is within 30mins on the public transport network away from the centre. When I think that it took me 45 mins on bus, tram, bus to get to work on the other geographical end of town, it's really not too bad. The people were nice and the cultural opportunities, immense: there were several free open-air shows on at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't really have time to go to one, but I passed a few on my commute. I'm sure there are such things in London, but the small city atmosphere is missing somewhat there. Going out onto the town at night is a regular and normal occurrence, even for the slightly older individuals, so the city centre certainly isn't dead on weekend evenings.

At work, I was required to clock in and out. I found this, as a non-shift worker, to be quite odd. I worked for 8.2 hours a day (38.5h week plus 0.5h for lunch), and if I worked overtime, I got to leave earlier the next day. The idea behind this is that your employer cannot exploit an individual, especially someone like an intern, but what surprised me was that even the bosses had to clock in and out! Of course, this system has issues: if I got all my work done for the day, I would have to sit out the clock to make sure I made the hours. Additionally, if I wanted to work at home in the evenings (as I would come to do), that work isn't counted on the clock, so there is a distinct work/play distinction, which I don't quite like that much: as the majority of life is work, do work that you like doing! If you like doing your work, then you will not have any problem working in your free time.

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.