Natural Sciences at St John's


For further details about the Natural Sciences Tripos, head here for videos on the papers offered in first year. Please note these are aimed at incoming Freshers. 

Natural Sciences (Physical)

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.

We are also home to the Larmor Society, the Natural Sciences society of St John's College, named after the eminent alumnus Joseph Larmor. The Larmor Society put on a number of talks spanning all areas of scientific research, and hold a variety of social events throughout the year.

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.

Entry Details


Typical Entry Requirements

A Level: A*A*A

International Baccalaureate: 42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

Essential Subjects: A Level/IB Higher Level in 3 science/mathematical subjects, including at least 1 mathematical subject

Desirable Subjects: A Level Further Maths

Submitted Work: None

Pre-interview Assessment: You will be required to take the Natural Science Admissions Assessment (NSAA) consisting of two 60 minute sections of multiple choice questions, more information can be found here

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.

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.


Admissions Interviews

Those invited for interview will have two interviews, each of 25 minutes, with the Director of Studies and other teaching fellows. It’s our intention to conduct the interviews in a friendly and informal manner with the minimum amount of pressure, but we recognise that candidates will be nervous. We do not expect candidates to have detailed prior knowledge of topics outside of the areas covered at school. The interview is not a test of memory but is concerned with exploring candidates’ ability to analyse and think through scientific problems. Questions often involve deriving a mathematical function and exploring its behaviour. No special preparation for the interview is necessary, but it might help to practice some of the more advanced problems on the Isaac Physics website for the subjects being studied; this is also useful preparation for the NSAA test.

Please find some questions that test qualities we are looking for in the interview on the document here

Further information regarding interview dates and arrangements can be found here.


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.


Directors of Studies
Dr Paul Wood - Natural Sciences (Physical), Chemistry
Dr Edward Tipper (Dr Alexander Piotrowski for 2021/2022)- Earth Sciences
Professor Jason Robinson - Materials Science (Part I)
Professor Serena Best - Materials Science Parts II & III
Professor Mete Atatüre - Physics & Astrophysics, Mathematics for Natural Sciences