Advice for Applicants

‘How can I increase my chances of getting an offer from Cambridge?’ is a question which sometimes comes up at our Open Days.

You’ll find commercial organisations which claim to be able to improve your personal statement or interview performance, but we have never seen any reliable evidence that paying for such advice helps you to get a place – quite the contrary, in fact. Everything you need to know is available free from the Cambridge Admissions Office, the University website, or the Colleges.

Making an informed choice

Finding the right course should be your first priority, and your choice of university will come next. Remember, it’s not like A levels – courses in the same subject at different universities can vary widely, even if they have the same name. Think through whether you would enjoy Cambridge’s particular style of teaching: a combination of formal lectures and small-group teaching, known as supervisions. Cambridge degrees are still mainly assessed by end-of-year desk exams – are you good at this kind of test, or do you prefer assessed essays/coursework?

• UCAS has a useful video about choosing a course and search tools to help you find courses matching your interests.

• There’s also a video about choosing a Cambridge course on the University website and each of the subject sections from Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic to Veterinary Medicine has a short video of academics and students talking about what the course involves, what’s special about the Cambridge course, career prospects, and what makes a successful application.

If the Cambridge course seems like the one for you, download the prospectus, come and talk to us at an Open Day or contact us to arrange an individual visit.


Making a strong application

Cambridge and Newnham assess applicants solely on the basis of academic achievement and potential.

Strong applicants have (in the context of their schooling) an excellent track record in public examinations, have researched their chosen course well, to make sure that it matches their interests, and have explored that subject more widely and deeply. Depending on subject, exploration can involve reading, on-line research, the undertaking of research projects or extended projects, attendance at masterclass-type days or residential events, or work experience where relevant (most usually for vets, medics and architects).

Strong applicants will also have checked that their A-level or equivalent subjects meet the requirements of their chosen degree course (note that there can be slight differences between colleges – Newnham, for example, will only accept applications for Natural Sciences from those taking three science/maths A-levels, IB Higher Level subjects, or equivalent).

We do not place any weight on extra-curricular activities, but do like to see some evidence that applicants have ‘spare capacity’ in their lives outside of managing schoolwork (which is as well demonstrated by shifts in a supermarket as by taking part in sport or music). Please refer to our FAQs for applicants and other resources for further advice, or get in touch.

Writing your UCAS personal statement

You’re probably already getting lots of advice about this from your school/college, but don’t forget that Cambridge views your UCAS personal statement slightly differently from other universities. For one thing, we are not particularly worried about a broad range of extra-curricular activities (but see elsewhere on this page for super-curricular activities). However, we realise that some other universities like to see ‘well-rounded’ applicants, so do include the fact that you have captained your school netball team, or passed Grade 8 piano! Don’t just list them though – be specific about what they reveal about you such as good time-management, leadership skills or long-term commitment to practising.

Guidelines from UCAS
• An article from the Guardian Education
• And some things not to put in, from a UCAS expert


Super-curricular activities

Because we use academic criteria (ability and potential) to select our students, showing us evidence of your ‘super-curricular’ activities in your personal statement will help to convince us of your enthusiasm and commitment to the course you’re applying for. For example …

• Read beyond the syllabus:
Follow news and discussions on topics related to your subject in newspapers, journals and magazines. You don’t have to buy them – explore your local library and you’ll probably find The Economist, Financial Times or New Scientist. Many of the national daily newspapers have occasional supplements on things like science, the environment, or social/political issues.

Use faculty and department websites to find reading lists for applicants/first-year students. You don’t have to read everything – just pick one or two titles which seem interesting. Beware: don’t reference them in your personal statement unless you have actually read them!

Some examples:
English – Cambridge Authors. Find out more about the lives and literature of ten famous Cambridge-educated authors, from A S Byatt to Zadie Smith;
Human, Social & Political Sciences (click on the link at the bottom of the page for further reading);
+plus magazine – an online magazine, part of the Cambridge-based Millennium Maths Project;
Natural Sciences – preparatory reading for each of the first year papers.

• Take up opportunities to stretch yourself:
Enter competitions such as the Mathematics Senior Challenge, or essay-writing competitions such as one of the Newnham Essay Prizes;
Apply to attend a subject-focused Open Day or taster day, to see what it would be like studying your chosen course;
Apply to a summer school at Cambridge such as the Senior Physics Challenge or the Sutton Trust Summer Schools.

• Get some relevant work experience:
If you’re applying to study Medicine or Veterinary Medicine, work experience will enhance your personal statement, but it’s not always easy to find. Never mind if you can’t find a placement shadowing a brain surgeon – use your imagination and seek out slightly less obvious but equally useful activities. Have you thought of learning first aid and becoming a St John Ambulance volunteer? You’d learn life-saving skills with the additional perk of getting in free to fun events!

• Use other media besides the written word:
TV or cinema documentaries, blogs and Twitter accounts can all provide updates on developments in your subject. Here are just a few examples:
Classics – Meet the Romans (Professor Mary Beard);
Medicine – started off as revision notes for medical students, but you are sure to find items of interest here if you’re planning to study medicine;
Modern Languages – lots of interesting articles and blogs are listed here and don’t forget to check your local cinema programme and the TV listings for foreign language films;
Natural Sciences (and in fact almost every other subject!) – search for key words on BBC iPlayer.

• Show that you have developed your interest in your subject beyond the school curriculum:
Your school/college may have a club or society focusing on your particular interest, whether it is mathematics or history – if it doesn’t, why not start one?
Some academic institutions (e.g. the Royal Geographical Society) offer student memberships;
Look out for public lectures happening in your area: these might be advertised by the local university, like the events programme of the University of Cambridge, or by organisations such as the Alliance Française (the link is to the AF in London, but it exists in other cities too).


People who can help

As well as your teachers and your family, there are lots of other people who can help you with your application. For example, your school may invite back former pupils who are now at university, to talk to you at careers/HE events.

If you haven’t already discovered it, The Student Room has lots of useful forums where you can chat with other applicants and current students about everything from hobbies to careers. There is one on Applications and UCAS, a section dedicated to the University of Cambridge, and even a thread specifically about Newnham College!

And feel free to contact the Admissions Office at any of the Cambridge colleges: the admin staff are not involved in the academic selection process, so asking them as many ‘silly’ questions as you like will not disadvantage your application – and anyway, there are no silly questions!