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The Teachers' 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.

Newsletter features

Counselling, May 2020

Cambridge Counselling Service

May 2020

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the University of Cambridge Counselling Service has put together an informative feature about the services they offer and some self-help tips which may be of interest to you and your students. 

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Careers, March 2020

Cambridge Careers Service: Top tips to help students prepare for the future

March 2020

As it's National Careers Week, we've put together an overview of our careers service here at the University of Cambridge along with some tips to pass on to your students.

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Interviews, December 2019

Cambridge Admission Interviews

Dr Sam Lucy, 2 December 2019

As we approach Christmas, Admissions Tutors are gearing up, not for the festive season, but for the interviews that will soon be here. Running through the first few weeks of December, this stage of our application process brings thousands of students to the University to meet with academics.

As you can imagine, this is a significant logistical undertaking, requiring the co-ordinated efforts of staff across the University. So why do we do it? Well, the interviews give us a better sense of whether an applicant would benefit from and flourish in our teaching environment – an interview itself closely mirrors the small group teaching (the supervision system) that is so integral to study at Cambridge. At the same time, interviews help us to assess whether an applicant has the right background knowledge (if the course requires it), while also enabling us to gauge their interest in the subject material and their flexibility in thinking. This isn’t always apparent from their paper file. Interviews don’t consist of trick questions, and interviewers have no hidden agenda – they want to encourage applicants to do their best. Ultimately we want to see how an applicant understands and develops ideas when given problem-solving scenarios or asked to discuss material relevant to the course they are applying to, and to check that we can teach them effectively.

The application process is holistic in its nature and takes into consideration all of the data that is provided, of which the interview is only one part. Applicants should, of course, engage with, and prepare for the interview, but it is by no means the most important element. And, as they prepare, we know that applicants will look to you for advice.  Often, they won’t have experienced a formal interview before. The following should help you to answer their questions.

What will the interview be like?

Firstly, applicants should generally expect two subject specific interviews, usually with two interviewers in each, though this can vary (it’s definitely not a panel though). The academic part of each interview would normally last 20-30 minutes, though a few subjects might use a lengthier interview of up to 45 minutes. Each interview is an interactive assessment. The overarching goal is to assess a candidate’s aptitude, core knowledge and technical skill, their capacity to learn from mistakes and participate in a discussion of their subject. Applicants don’t need to get every question ‘correct’. Instead, we want to see how a candidate can tackle a problem or idea they are not familiar with, and how they can think around an idea. So, for an applicant, explaining your thinking aloud is key.

Remember to encourage your students to keep the dialogue going. They are allowed and encouraged to ask for clarification or to pause for thought before answering. We are not looking for perfection, but instead to see if an applicant is right for the course to which they have applied. By encouraging them to think aloud we can observe motivation and aptitude as well as analytical and critical abilities.

During the course of the interview, the interviewers will take notes. Interviewees shouldn’t worry about this or let it put them off – notes simply help interviewers, who may be involved in many separate interviews, to remember what has been discussed.

It’s important to note too that appropriate adjustments can be made for those who require them at interview, so Colleges should be notified of these in advance, and, for those students who meet specific criteria, the Colleges are pleased to provide support with the public transport costs of travelling to interview.

How can applicants prepare?

There are several ways you can help your students to prepare for the experience of academic interviews. Students should practise speaking aloud about the academic work they have completed and the subject they are interested in. Generally, we would want applicants to demonstrate critical ability and precision in expressing core knowledge and ideas, that they have the ability to apply existing knowledge methodically to new situations, and the ability to assimilate and apply new concepts. Doing so verbally is very different from answering questions in writing (though in more technical subjects they may well be handed pen and paper and asked to explore their thinking that way). Practising talking about their subject and their ideas about it to teachers, friends, and family members is the easiest way to become more comfortable in thinking aloud, and is somewhere you as teachers can help, either by engaging with your students directly, or by encouraging discussion among a high-attaining subject peer group.

Encouraging students to refresh their memory about any super-curricular work they have done is also useful – it is possible that they will be asked about this in their interview, particularly if it has formed a part of their personal statement. They should be able to explain how they have gone beyond the school curriculum, the kinds of things they have read or engaged with, and the academic debates they are interested in. Obviously, anything they have mentioned in their UCAS personal statement could be asked about – everything there should be true, at least by the start of December(!) and our interviewers would expect candidates to have more to say than they have been able to squeeze into that statement.

Beyond this, there are several mock interview videos that students can watch on the University’s YouTube channel, featuring Cambridge students and academics. These films give an insight into the range of different settings in which interviews might take place, and a really good idea of the styles of questioning; watching these can really help to visualise the experience and feel more at ease when they arrive. For those who feel nervous in the run-up to the interview, it’s worth reminding them that interviewers want to encourage candidates, not catch them out. Please don’t encourage them to spend too much time researching the interviewers themselves though – it is much better if they have developed their own genuine interests in the subject, rather than suddenly developing an enthusiasm for ours shortly after receiving the interview invitation.

What can applicants expect when they arrive?

When they arrive at their interviewing College, there will be current students, porters, and other staff there to chat with interviewees, helping them to settle in and get around. In the interview itself, they just need to listen carefully, expect to be challenged, remember that the interviewer wants them to do well, answer as clearly as they can, and be themselves.

Finally, when it comes to that burning question about what applicants should wear for interview, there is no dress code: they should wear what they feel warm and comfortable in (Cambridge in December can be cold!).

It is always a pleasure to meet so many interested and engaged applicants – we look forward to welcoming them in December. Hopefully this information will help to demystify the process and allow you to help your students get the most out of their interview.

Admission Assessments, October 2019

Preparing for Admission 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.

School/college references, September 2019

What we look for in a school/college reference

Dr Sam Lucy, 25 September 2019

School/college references are an important part of a student’s UCAS application, and can offer universities a great insight into the general academic performance and engagement of an individual student. The reference gives you the opportunity to highlight a student’s academic strengths, particularly in relation to their school cohort, and provide specific examples of why you believe a student would be well suited in terms of their academic performance and potential to the subject and universities they are applying to. Often it can seem difficult to pin those details down in a reference and teachers frequently ask what we, at Cambridge, are looking for from a teacher’s reference. I hope that the following will offer some guidance and practical tips to help.

A teacher reference tells us about an applicant’s ability and potential. Admissions Tutors at Cambridge want to see evidence that an applicant is not only academically strong, but also well suited to the course they have chosen, and the style of teaching used here (which has a strong focus on small group teaching). We want to choose students who we believe will thrive at Cambridge. A reference that gives examples in support of an applicant’s intellectual flexibility and curiosity, their analytical ability, logical reasoning and ability to learn quickly is very useful. What is particularly valued is your assessment of where their performance places them within their subject cohort (e.g. ‘my top chemist in a very strong cohort of 30’; ‘one of the strongest historians I have taught in my 20 years as a teacher’). The example below demonstrates how you may wish to structure the reference.


Example school/college reference structure

First 10%
This should include school or college information, particularly anything relating to qualification reform or to adverse school performance measures (e.g. ‘students at XX School typically embark on three full A-level subjects’; ‘XX School has recently been judged In Need of Improvement by Ofsted’). If you are able to share the information, please mention whether a student is eligible for free school meals or is in receipt of a low income bursary or similar.

Middle 80%
The core of your reference should be centred on subject specific information, course choice, and the student’s aptitude for studying their chosen subject at degree level. For example, evidence of willingness to explore and discuss ideas outside of the classroom, and evidence of steps taken to find out more about their chosen subject.  Focus on examples of contextual achievement – for instance, a student’s rank order in class or their ability relative to their peers. Highlight areas of particular strength and point to evidence of it in practice. It is normal for this section to consist of separate paragraphs provided by subject teachers; it can be helpful to order these by their relevance to the course being applied for.

Final 10%
Here it’s helpful to cover any mitigating circumstances (including nature and length of impact) that they have experienced and/or that might affect their performance at interview. This may already be the subject of an Extenuating Circumstances Form (see below) for their Cambridge application, but their other university choices will also need alerting to such disruption. It can be useful to alert potential interviewers that an applicant might tend to be shy (“XX might at first seem a little reserved” or similar); this enables them to structure the interview appropriately.

In cases where there are extenuating circumstances that have caused significant educational or home life disruption or disadvantage for a student, it may be appropriate for the school/college referee or the student’s doctor or social worker to complete and submit the Extenuating Circumstances Form (ECF). The ECF gives the Cambridge Colleges the information they need to assess any applicant who has experienced personal or educational disadvantage. The ECF is submitted in addition to the school/college reference and needs to be provided by 22 October. For further information, see our Extenuating Circumstances Form webpage.

It’s worth noting that there is no need to write a special or separate reference for Cambridge - we will receive a copy of the UCAS reference you supply. If you wish to submit comments about an applicant that are specific to Cambridge, please direct them to the Admissions Tutor at the College the student is applying to. If a student has made an Open Application, direct the letter to the Cambridge Admissions Office. Please make sure that in the case of a specific Cambridge letter that the applicant’s name, course, and UCAS personal ID are all clearly indicated. Normally it is not necessary to write an additional reference, but please do let us know if any disruption occurs after the UCAS deadline.

I hope that, as applications are submitted in the coming weeks, this guidance proves helpful and answers some of the questions you may have had about what we are looking for from your reference. The key thing to remember is this: most students applying to Cambridge are described as ‘outstanding’ – what we want to know is why.

Subject Exploration, July 2019

Subject Exploration

Dr Sam Lucy, 8 July 2019

As the summer break is drawing near, it’s a good time to encourage your students to explore academic subjects over their vacation. It’s important for students to enjoy the course they choose at University – it should be one that suits their abilities and their interests (and interest in and suitability for the chosen course is one of our key selection criteria). Through subject exploration and “super-curricular” activities (i.e. academically related activities that lie outside the formal school curriculum) students can work out where their real interests lie and therefore make a more informed course choice when it comes to applying to University. If a student knows which course they wish to study, encourage them to explore it in more depth over the summer; if they haven’t yet decided, encourage them to explore several options so that they can narrow down their options.

It’s particularly important for students who have been fixed on a chosen path for a long time that they gain some understanding of what a subject involves academically (this is especially an issue for subjects such as Medicine and Law, where the end goal is often the attraction). Similarly, a student who is intending to apply for courses with the same name as their favourite A-level should be encouraged to think more broadly, to see if a less familiar course is a better fit for their interests.

Subject exploration is a good way for students to deepen their interests and practise independent learning.  As well as helping to confirm subject choice, it can give them a taste of University-level academic work. This will be a far more independent way of learning, and some practice of this in advance can help them develop important research skills as well as broadening their subject knowledge. There are extensive resources available to help students explore their subject both at school and outside of a classroom setting and they don’t need to cost any money.

When it comes to subject exploration there is no set idea or program and nothing is prescribed or required. Teachers can enable, encourage and support super-curricular activities through a variety of ways. The following ideas will help to provide a starting point for you and your students.

There are a substantial number of online resources available that help enable prospective applicants to explore subjects in depth outside of a classroom setting. Here are a few examples:

In addition to online resources, directed reading can be beneficial for a number of reasons, particularly for arts and humanities courses. You could recommend a student keeps a reading journal and encourage students to read critically and analytically, asking themselves what the argument is in a text, what the supporting evidence is, if there are flaws and what they think of it. It’s important to emphasise to students that it is not about the quantity of material they read but instead the quality of the effort they put into thinking about them. Reading a few articles in a focused manner is much more effective than reading lots of books distractedly.

Another idea is project work. Working towards a piece of work such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) helps students to focus their learning in an area they are particularly interested in. It is important to note that the EPQ is not required, but completing one is encouraged. They can also conduct their own studies in this way, without needing to complete the qualification if it is not offered in your school.

You could also encourage students to attend university taster sessions, like the Subject Masterclasses offered at Cambridge. Although they have a small cost, bursaries are available and these events are a great way for students to engage with other people also interested in the same subject. You may well find that your local university offers similar events, or allows public attendance at some lectures.

Although work experience is not generally expected or required for University, except in vocational subjects such as medicine, it can still be useful. In courses like medicine and veterinary medicine, work experience can help demonstrate commitment to the intended career and allow a greater understanding of the realities associated with the field.

Of course, not all super-curricular activity needs to be outside the classroom. Teachers can create opportunities for students to explore a subject they are passionate about at school too. Leading discussion groups, working through Webinars, entering students for academic competitions or encouraging them to enter essay prizes; these are all ways in which students can explore a subject at school. Teachers can also help by linking highly motivated students who share the same interests so that they can work through material or projects together collaboratively.

If your students do decide to explore subjects over the summer, there are many ways in which they can show that subject knowledge and understanding when they apply to university. Personal statements, admissions assessments and submitted work can all incorporate super-curricular activities; students who engage deeply with their subject will often have better academic records and predictions too. Moreover, students might have the opportunity to explain their subject engagement at interview. So, the deeper exploration that they do over the summer can be used next autumn when they begin applying to University, and will make that personal statement much easier to write!

The Application Process, May 2019

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: