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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.


Understanding the Cambridge Application Process

Dr Sam Lucy, 20 May 2019

Supporting students through the application process to Cambridge can seem daunting; we know that our process has extra stages not usually required by other UK universities. This is because we are in the fortunate position of both having a very strong field of applicants, as well as there being a high likelihood that when we make students an offer, they tend to accept. This means that we can only make around 1.2 offers for every place available (around 4500 offers for 3500 places).  

I hope that taking the process apart can clarify each step and make things simpler for those of you who are guiding students through the process of applying to us; future blog posts will then deal with each stage in more detail.

The process
The process begins with (1) students making their course choice (the most important decision they make), then (2) choosing a College, (3) submitting an application, (4) usually taking a written assessment, (5) attending an interview, and finally (6) receiving a decision.

Stage 1: Choosing a course
The first thing students need to decide on is the course they wish to study. Because we are assessing which students are going to thrive on the course, it is important to encourage students to choose a course that they find interesting, that they enjoy, and in which they have the potential to excel.

Many of our courses encompass a number of subjects, so students should pay particular attention to the course description and structure; even if courses at different universities have the same name, this doesn’t mean that they will be identical. Students should also look at assessment methods – Cambridge has formal exams at the end of every year, and relatively little coursework, which may not suit everyone.

Once a student has decided on a course, they should check the entry requirements (are particular A-levels required, for instance), and continue to explore that subject, both to start to develop their interests and ideas in it, but also to confirm that it is the right subject for them.

Stage 2: Choosing a College
Applicants can choose the College they wish to be assessed by. Colleges are like a mini ‘campus’, which acts as a student’s domestic base while they study at Cambridge. The Colleges provide academic as well as pastoral support, organising small group tuition (‘supervisions’) and providing academic resources such as libraries.

Students can apply to a specific College or make an open application (meaning they will be allocated a College to be assessed by). The allocated or chosen College will process the student’s application but, if a student is made an offer, this may come from a different College to the one to which they applied or were allocated – more about this below.

Stage 3: Submitting an application
Next, students need to apply to study at Cambridge through UCAS by 15 October. This application will include a course and a College choice (remember students can choose to submit an open application). The UCAS school/college reference is particularly helpful when it provides detailed evidence of an applicant’s performance and potential in relevant subjects.

We also ask our applicants to complete a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ); the link to this will be sent by email once their UCAS application has been received and the deadline for completion is 22 October. The SAQ enables us to collect some additional information, such as eligibility for Free School Meals, class sizes, topics being studied, details of part-time employment and of any teaching difficulties. This helps us to fully contextualise applications, alongside our use of home postcode and school-based measures, so some corroboration in the teacher reference can be helpful.

If a student has experienced particularly challenging circumstances, please remember to complete an Extenuating Circumstances Form for them to detail these.

Stage 4: Written assessment
Once a student has applied through UCAS, they are usually required to take a written assessment. Often this assessment takes place before students are invited to interview (pre-interview in late October or early November) but sometimes it happens at interview; this depends on the course being applied for.

The assessment is subject-specific and gauges an applicant’s abilities and potential for their course.

Students need to be registered in advance for pre-interview assessments by their test centre, so students and teachers should check online for information on deadlines and how to register.

Stage 5: Attending an interview
In early to mid November, Colleges will decide which applicants to call for interview (this will range from around 60-90% of the field, depending on the course). For UK applicants, interviews are in Cambridge. Students will be interviewed in a College setting; there are usually two interviews, with a pair of academics in each. These interviews normally take place in the first three weeks of December, so students should keep this period free of unbreakable commitments.

While applicants may initially be nervous about the interview, it’s important to remind your students that they are designed to see how a student thinks and whether they would thrive in Cambridge’s teaching system. It is not meant to be scary – there are no ‘wrong’ answers; interviewers are interested in exploring how students approach new material and how they apply their knowledge to problems or issues that they won’t have encountered before.

Stage 6: Receiving a decision
Finally, students will be notified of decisions in mid January. There are two possible outcomes: a student is made an offer or their application is unsuccessful. If a student is made an offer, this may come from the College to which they applied/were allocated to (see stage 2) or they may be offered a place by a different College through the pool.

The ‘winter pool’ is designed to ensure that the best applicants who have been squeezed out by the competition at their original College are offered places – Colleges would rather admit a strong applicant from the pool than a weaker applicant who applied directly/was allocated to them. More information on the pool system can be found at

I hope that this explanation of the Cambridge application process has been helpful. Please consult our website if you want more detailed information on each stage:

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