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The Newsletter keeps teachers and HE advisers up-to-date on events, the latest admissions news, and resources for students. Regular feature articles explore admissions, the University, and current topics.

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Preparing for Admissions Assessments

Dr Sam Lucy, 16 October 2019

As applications to Cambridge are submitted and students begin to prepare for the next stages of the process, we thought it would be helpful to discuss admissions assessments - what they are, why we use them and what can be done in preparation.

Most applicants are required to take a subject-specific written admission assessment, which is usually either sat pre-interview or, for those who are invited, at the time of interview in Cambridge. These assessments are a way for us to differentiate between well-qualified students using a common set of data; in some subjects they assess current knowledge and understanding, while all aim to gauge academic potential.

The outcome of an admissions assessment is considered holistically alongside the rest of the information we are provided with in an application. Results can help Admissions Tutors consider whether a student is suited to the course they’ve applied to and whether they will be able to do well. There are some key ways in which your students can prepare for their assessment.

Specification documents and past papers are available on the University website ( - select the relevant course and then look under the ‘Entry Requirements’ tab). You should encourage your students to look at the specification and familiarise themselves with the format of the assessment, and revise any expected knowledge. We would also recommend attempting two of the multiple-choice papers under timed exam conditions (this could be something that a teacher facilitates). This will help students get used to the style of the questions, and the speed with which they need to answer them. Answer keys are provided for these multiple-choice sections, as well as the suggested answers for the long-answer science questions in the Natural Sciences assessments, so they can gauge their own performance.

For the Arts and Humanities script sections, engaging with similar exercises can enable students to practise relevant skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and the formation of clear and well-structured arguments. For essay-style answers, they should be planning these in detail before starting to answer. Unlike A Level, we do not use specific assessment objectives, but are looking for well structured and well written answers that focus specifically on answering the question set in a logical way.

Whilst students should do their best to prepare, it’s important to remind them that the assessments are designed for the highest ability range; they should not expect full marks (generally half marks and above is a good performance in the multiple-choice sections). Finding a test difficult might be a new experience for some students, so try to encourage them to embrace the challenge and not be disheartened. It is important to note that any knowledge required for the tests is based on the GCSE/A Level school curriculum, though the questions may be challenging and require them to make links between different areas of knowledge.

At some Colleges, for some courses, students may also be asked to take an additional assessment at the time of interview. Students should check for details on the website of the College they selected or were allocated to.

It’s also worth highlighting to your students that, in addition to the pre-/at-interview assessment, Colleges may ask applicants to submit some written work (such as essays), which could be discussed at interview. This does not need writing specially; marked school essays are what is expected. This should be something that the candidate would be happy to discuss at length, rather than necessarily the essay that got the highest mark. If you have a student who feels that they do not have anything suitable, they should ask their College for advice about what to send.

We hope that this helps you to support your students as they approach their assessments in the coming weeks. As you can see, there’s no big secret about how to prepare for an admission assessment – as with most assessments, students just need to revise, practise, and try to enjoy the academic challenge they’re presented with.

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