Applying to Cambridge

Excerpt taken from University of Cambridge communication to Alumni

Against a background of changing GCSEs and big data, Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, explains just exactly what it is like to apply to Cambridge today.

Whether it was last year or last century, everyone remembers their Cambridge interview. The sweaty palms. The curveball question. That slightly giddy feeling you get when you realise that you might, after all, have done, maybe, okay.

But while today’s candidates may feel the same, the process for the intake of 2018 will be firmly twenty-first century. So, against a background of changing GCSEs and big data, Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, explains just how it works.

The role of data and metrics

Data hasn’t replaced the interview, but it’s become an increasingly important part of the mix, as research uncovers the factors which correlate with success once an applicant is actually at Cambridge.

“For a number of years, we have asked applicants to fill in an extra online questionnaire to get more information, including questions around what the student is studying at A-level or equivalent, class size, teaching difficulties, and any kind of AS level performance, if relevant. Students may also be asked to send in written work, such as school essays. Within the old A-level system, what seemed to correlate well was performance in AS-levels,” says Dr Lucy.

“However, as most AS-level results no longer count towards A-level results, we have introduced a system of common format written assessments as part of the selection process. It’s all about collecting multiple indicators, so that selectors have a wealth of information to supplement performance in interview.”

Putting applicants in context

The University has its own schools database, which holds information about the average GCSE and A-level performance. This enables admissions tutors to see where a candidate sits within their school context. “But we also look at other factors,” says Dr Lucy. “We would always flag if anyone has spent any time in the care system, if they have declared any extenuating circumstances (for which we have a special form), if they are at a low-performing GCSE school, or if their home postcode falls into certain geodemographic groupings or is an area of relatively low aspiration.

“It just ensures that, once again, you have a good sense of the circumstances in which that person has attained that particular educational profile.”

Admissions used to be seen as slightly mysterious – today the University uses everything from blogs to YouTube to ensure applicants have a real sense of what the process entails.

Dr Sam Lucy