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Natural Sciences (Physical)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

The 'Physical' and 'Biological' classifications in Natural Sciences are very flexible, and students often mix modules from the biological and physical sciences, or change their preferred area entirely.

St John's College has a strong history in the Natural Sciences, including among our alumni the double Nobel Prize winning geneticist Frederick Sanger and the physicist Paul Dirac, one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics. We continue these traditions today, with a strong teaching fellowship maintaining broad interests across the sciences. There are at least fifteen Fellows and other teaching staff who are directly involved in supervising Natural Scientists in the College (see 'People'). Recent research by our teaching Fellows has been published in the world leading journals Nature and Science.

The Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is perhaps unique in the UK in its flexibility and broad scope. Throughout, the emphasis is on developing an understanding of principles so that graduates are well equipped to both understand and contribute to future scientific advances. The broad nature of the course is particularly well suited to modern science, where traditional subject boundaries are being abandoned in favour of cross-disciplinary approaches.

The supervision system is integral to teaching at Cambridge, and at St John's you will have regular supervisions, usually in groups of 2-3 students. In the first year you will have 4 supervisions per week, mostly with teaching fellows from the College. The College also offers considerable additional support, including an excellent library, grants towards the costs of essential books and laptop computers and prizes for academic excellence in Natural Sciences.

Many students spend the summer carrying out research projects in UK or European universities. Students can also participate in an exchange programme with California Institute of Technology.

Courses in Natural Sciences

The first year will involve choosing three (out of a possible eight) basic experimental subjects, plus an appropriate course in Mathematics. This will give you a thorough and broad foundation on which to build your chosen speciality. 

Second year students choose three subjects, giving them the opportunity to become more specialised in a particular subject, or to retain a broad approach. By the third year you will be specialising in one of sixteen subjects, chosen from a list that runs from Astrophysics to Zoology and includes Biochemistry, Chemistry, Materials Science, Plant Sciences, Psychology and Physics.

In all Natural Sciences subjects it is possible to graduate with the BA Degree after three years. Four-year courses leading to the degrees of BA and MSci are available in eight subjects including Biochemistry, Chemistry, Geological Sciences, Materials Science, Physics and Systems Biology, subject to appropriate examination performance.

Students who read Natural Sciences during their first one or two years may also complete their degrees in another subject: for example, Chemical Engineering, Mathematics, Electrical and Information Sciences, Management Studies or Law.

Directors of Studies

Dr Paul Wood - Chemistry
Dr Edward Tipper - Earth Sciences
Dr Jason Robinson - Materials Science (Part I)
Professor Serena Best - Materials Science Parts II & III
Dr Sue Colwell - Mathematics for Natural Sciences
Dr Paul Wood - Natural Sciences (Physical)
Professor Mete Atatüre - Physics & Astrophysics


Entry Requirements

Natural Sciences (Physical): 3 Science subjects (which will include at least one mathematical subject). Most successful candidates offer both Mathematics and Further Mathematics at A2, or at least Further Mathematics at AS level. Further Mathematics is not a requirement, but opting to study it usually indicates a degree of comfort with mathematics which is of great benefit when studying physical science subjects. If you are taking Mathematics and Further Mathematics at A2 together with two additional subjects it is possible that we would ask you to obtain A*A*AA.

We take a flexible approach in the subject combinations we accept but, whatever the combination, it must be one that gives a sufficiently firm scientific foundation for the subjects that you would wish to take in the very broad first-year course. If you are in any doubt about the suitability of your combination of subjects as a preparation for the Natural Sciences Tripos please contact us well before the deadline for submission of a formal application for advice.

You will also be required to sit a pre-interview written assessment and a written test at interview stage (see below).

We expect to admit about 30 students to read Natural Sciences every year, with approximately half classed as ‘Biological’ and half as ‘Physical’ Sciences. However, these classifications are very flexible, and students often mix modules from the biological and physical sciences, or change their preferred area entirely. Whilst we view each application independently, students invited for interview will normally have an average above 85% in three relevant subjects plus at least 90% in one AS science subject (including Mathematics).

Those invited for interview will have three interviews. First a tutorial interview followed by two subject interviews by the Director of Studies and other teaching fellows. We conduct our interviews in a friendly and informal manner, and you should not feel too daunted by the prospect of them. No special preparation for the interview is necessary, or indeed desirable. The interview with the Natural Science Fellows will be concerned with subject-related topics, but we do not expect you to have detailed prior knowledge of topics outside of the areas you have covered at school. The interview is not a test of memory, but is concerned with exploring your analytical ability to think through scientific problems. Further details of the process are sent to students selected for interview.

Admissions Assessments

For Natural Sciences you will be required to take a pre-interview written assessment. For Natural Sciences Physical you will also be required to take a 1-hour written test set by the College, either before or after your interview. The test is designed to test ability in Mathematics and to see how candidates apply their mathematical ability to Physics and Chemistry. Students not taking Chemistry or Physics at AS level will not be penalized by their inability to answer questions on these subjects. The test is based on the core A-level syllabuses and is designed to be accessible to all applicants.

For the written test at interview some sample questions from previous years are available.


We take account of all of the available information about you to assess your potential and thereby to make a decision about your application. This includes reviewing your academic record, reference, personal statement, interview performances, written test, pre-interview written assessment result, and anything else that is relevant. Should you narrowly miss an offer of a place, we are very active in placing your application in the Winter Pool and in informing other Colleges who are looking in the Pool.

Boyko Vodenicharski
My name is Boyko, and I am an undergraduate in my third year reading Natural Sciences. Before coming to St. John’s I studied in a public school in Bulgaria that specializes in languages and literature. Two years before graduating high school I got involved in Physics competitions, which sparked my interest in problem-solving and Science.A couple of years back, I was faced with picking a college...
Nina Klein
Nina joined St John’s in 2009 to commence her studies in Physical Natural Sciences. She previously attended Esher College (a comprehensive Sixth Form just outside London), and took A-levels in Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths.‘After finishing Sixth Form I was really looking forward to starting university and was very excited to be going to Cambridge. Having completed my degree I can...
Anita attended Wirral Grammar School for Girls in Merseyside before coming to study Physical Natural Sciences at St John’s in 2010. She took A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry. She obtained a First Class Honours in a BA and MSci in Experimental and Theoretical Physics and is now going on to do a DPhil in Particle Physics at Oxford University.The best aspect of studying...
Originally from Kendal, a small town on the edge of the English Lake District, Simon attended Kirkbie Kendal School. He studied A-levels in Maths, Further Maths and Physics before arriving at St John’s in 2008. After graduating with a 1st class honours degree in Natural Sciences (specializing in Experimental and Theoretical Physics) in 2012, Simon is currently studying towards a PhD in Earth and...
Tim Allen first came to St John’s College in the summer of 2007 on a summer school organised by the Sutton Trust. At the time Tim was an A-level student at Great Baddow High School in Chelmsford, Essex. When he returned a year later to matriculate, he was certain he had made the right choice.I chose St John’s after visiting the college in the summer of 2007. For me St John’s embodies everything...
Nikolaus is from Vienna, Austria. He studied Natural Sciences at St John's from 2006 to 2010 graduating with a 1st Class MSc in Chemistry. In summer 2008 he took part in an exchange program with California Institute of Technology, USA. Besides his curricular commitments, Nikolaus found time to row for Lady Margaret Boat Club and was an active member of Cambridge University Yacht Club. He is...
Louise Connell
Louise joined St John's in 2006 having studied A-level chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics at Headington School, Oxford. She read Natural Sciences, specialising in Materials Science in her fourth year, graduating with a first class MSci in 2010. Louise is now pursuing a PhD in Biomaterials at Imperial College London.'When I was looking around Cambridge trying to decide which college to...
Francesco Belfiore
Francesco is originally from Catania (Sicily) and joined St John's College after completing his IB diploma at the United World College of the Adriatic, in Duino (Italy). For his IB he studied Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and English B at Higher Level. He enrolled at St John's to read Natural Sciences (Physical) concentrating on Physics during his BA and specializing in Astrophysics in his...
Robert Green
Robert Green grew up in Canterbury Kent where he attended Barton Court and Simon Langton Grammar Schools, completing A-levels in Maths and the three sciences. He chose to apply to Cambridge because of his interest in a broad range of science and the opportunity to learn more before specialising. Through the Natural Sciences Tripos he realised that his fascination was in the science of our Earth,...
Linus Schumacher
Linus went to school in Münster, Germany and did his A-levels (Abitur) in Further Maths, English, Physics and History. While applying to Universities abroad, he took some courses at the local University in Biology and Physics, but soon decided that Natural Sciences at Cambridge would be a better match for his interdisciplinary interests.‘In my first year, I started off studying physics and...