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How to Get Into Cambridge University

How to Get Into Cambridge University

10 min Read|February 24 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb


Gaining a place at Cambridge University is a dream for many, but it's certainly no easy feat. With its rigorous academic standards and highly competitive selection process, Cambridge is known for being challenging to get into. However, with the right approach and preparation, it's entirely possible to secure a spot at this prestigious institution. This article will guide you through everything from understanding the application process and entry requirements to mastering the admissions tests and crafting a compelling personal statement. We'll also touch on the importance of extracurricular activities and provide insights into life at Cambridge. So, if you're aiming for a place at one of the world's top universities, read on to discover how you can enhance your chances of becoming a Cambridge student.

Is it hard to get into Cambridge University?

Securing a place at Cambridge University is undeniably challenging. The acceptance rate hovers around a mere 21%, reflecting the university's stringent selection criteria and the high calibre of applicants each year. This figure alone underscores the competitive nature of the undergraduate admissions' process. Experts often cite the university's reputation for academic excellence and its rigorous curriculum as reasons for the intense competition. According to the Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, "The selection process at Cambridge is designed to assess students' academic potential, subject interest, and suitability for the course they have applied for".

The university receives thousands of applications from the brightest students worldwide, all vying for a limited number of spots. For the 2020/2021 academic year, there were approximately 19,000 applications for undergraduate courses, with only around 4,000 offers made. This high level of competition means that applicants must not only excel academically but also demonstrate a genuine passion for their subject and a capacity for deep, critical thinking. While the challenge is significant, understanding the hurdles and preparing accordingly can make the seemingly daunting task of gaining admission to Cambridge a tangible reality for dedicated students.

Below is a breakdown of the courses with the lowest and highest acceptance rates.

Cambridge University Courses with the Lowest Acceptance Rates

Graph showing Cambridge University Courses with the Lowest Acceptance Rates

Cambridge University Courses with the Highest Acceptance Rates

Graph showing Cambridge University Courses with the Highest Acceptance Rates

Understanding the Cambridge application process

The application process for Cambridge University is unique and requires careful navigation. Prospective students must submit their applications through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) by October 15th, earlier than most other universities. This early deadline allows time for the subsequent steps unique to Cambridge, including the submission of additional questionnaires, potential admissions tests, and the all-important interview process. Read more about UCAS points here.

A critical aspect of the Cambridge application is the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ), a further form that provides the admissions tutors with more detailed information about you. This includes your personal statement, which is your chance to demonstrate your passion and suitability for your chosen subject.

For many courses, applicants are also required to sit for admissions tests that assess skills and aptitudes rather than knowledge. These tests are designed to gauge your potential to succeed in the rigorous academic environment at Cambridge.

Finally, the interview is a pivotal part of the process. Unlike typical job interviews, these are academic in nature and focus on assessing your intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. According to the university, around 75% of applicants are invited to interview, with the majority of interviews taking place in December.

Understanding each step of this process is crucial. Preparation, attention to detail, and a clear demonstration of your academic passion and potential are key to navigating the Cambridge application successfully.

What are the entry requirements for Cambridge University?

The entry requirements for Cambridge University are notably stringent, reflecting the institution's commitment to academic excellence. For most courses, the typical offer is A*A*A* at A-Level or 40-42 points in the International Baccalaureate (IB), with 776 in Higher Level subjects. Specific course requirements can vary, so it's crucial for applicants to check the details for their chosen subject.

The most popular courses are highlighted below followed by the least popular.

The Most Popular Cambridge University Courses by Applications

Graph showing the Most Popular Cambridge University Courses by Applications

The Least Popular Cambridge University Courses by Applications

Graph showing the Least Popular Cambridge University Courses by Applications

In addition to these academic qualifications, Cambridge looks for evidence of super-curricular activities that demonstrate a deep interest in the chosen field of study. This might include reading beyond the school syllabus, engaging in relevant projects or competitions, or attending workshops and lectures on particular courses.

The university also places a strong emphasis on contextual data, understanding that personal circumstances can impact educational opportunities. According to the Cambridge Admissions Office, they consider factors such as school performance and the educational and socio-economic background of applicants to identify those with the greatest potential.

It's not just about grades; Cambridge seeks students who show exceptional promise, intellectual curiosity, and a capacity for in-depth understanding. The Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, notes that successful applicants "demonstrate the academic ability, to keep up with the fast pace of a Cambridge course". Therefore, meeting the entry requirements is just the first step; showing how you stand out academically and personally is what truly counts.

How do you qualify for Cambridge University?

Qualifying for Cambridge University involves more than meeting the academic entry requirements; it's about demonstrating your suitability and potential for your chosen course. The university assesses each applicant holistically, considering a range of factors to gauge their readiness and aptitude for the rigorous Cambridge environment.

Academically, you need to be among the top students in your class, with excellent grades in subjects relevant to your chosen course. For instance, for a science course, top grades in subjects like maths, physics, or chemistry are essential. The university's website provides detailed subject-specific requirements.

Beyond academics, Cambridge looks for signs of deep subject interest and engagement. This could be through essay competitions, relevant work experience, or extended projects. Dr. Sam Lucy emphasises the importance of demonstrating "commitment and enthusiasm for your subject" beyond the classroom.

Additionally, your performance in any required admissions tests and interviews will play a crucial role. These assessments are designed to evaluate your thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and subject passion. According to the university, these components allow them to "assess applicants in a more rounded way".

Ultimately, qualifying for Cambridge means showcasing not just academic excellence but also a genuine, demonstrated interest in your subject, critical thinking skills, and the potential to thrive in a challenging academic setting.

Tips for acing the Cambridge admissions tests

Acing the Cambridge admissions tests is a critical step for many applicants. These tests are designed to assess your academic potential and suitability for the rigorous courses offered at the university. Here are some tips, backed by data and expert opinions, to help you excel in these assessments.

  • Firstly, familiarise yourself with the format and content of the test for your subject. Each test is different, and understanding what to expect is crucial. The University of Cambridge provides specimen papers and past papers on their website.
  • Secondly, practice under timed conditions. Time management is a vital skill during these tests. Get used to working quickly and accurately under time pressure.
  • Thirdly, enhance your problem-solving skills. These tests often assess how you think and approach unfamiliar problems, not just what you know. Engaging in puzzles, logical games, and additional problem-solving exercises can be beneficial.
  • Additionally, seek feedback on your practice work. Whether from teachers, tutors, or online forums, constructive feedback can help you identify areas for improvement. Lastly, stay calm and focused during the test. Anxiety can hinder performance, so practice relaxation techniques and maintain a positive mindset.

Remember, these tests are just one part of the application process. They're designed to challenge you and bring out your best academic qualities. With thorough preparation and a strategic approach, you can put yourself in a strong position to succeed.

How can I increase my chances of getting into Cambridge?

Increasing your chances of getting into Cambridge requires a multifaceted approach, focusing on academic excellence, personal development, and strategic application choices. Here's how you can enhance your application based on data and expert advice.

  • Firstly, excel academically. Cambridge applicants typically have top grades. According to the University of Cambridge, the majority of successful undergraduate applicants will have A* grades at A-Level or equivalent. Focus on achieving the highest possible grades in your relevant subjects.
  • Secondly, choose the right subject. Your passion and aptitude for the subject should be evident. The university suggests that successful applicants are those who have thought carefully about their chosen course.
  • Thirdly, develop a strong super-curricular profile. Engage in activities that deepen your understanding and interest in your subject. This could include reading beyond your syllabus, attending lectures, or completing relevant projects.
  • Fourthly, prepare thoroughly for the admissions tests and interviews. Practice past papers, refine your problem-solving skills, and seek feedback from college admissions tutor on your performance.
  • Additionally, seek guidance from teachers, counsellors, or mentors who understand the Cambridge application process. Their insights can provide valuable direction and feedback.
  • Finally, reflect on your genuine interest in the subject and the university. Your application should convey your passion and how you've pursued it actively. By focusing on these areas, you can present a strong, well-rounded application that showcases your suitability for Cambridge and increases your chances of admission.

Is it harder to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

The debate over whether it's harder to get into Oxford or Cambridge is longstanding and complex, with no definitive answer. Both universities are incredibly selective and prestigious, with similar acceptance rates and entry requirements. According to recent data, Oxford has an acceptance rate of around 17.5%, while Cambridge's is about 21%. However, these figures fluctuate annually and vary significantly by course and college.

Experts suggest that the choice between Oxford and Cambridge should be based on the specific course you wish to study and the unique aspects of each university's teaching style and college system. Students should look carefully at the undergraduate course and content and consider factors such as the structure of the course, the subjects available, and the teaching methods.

Additionally, while both universities use a similar application process, including written assessments and interviews, the specifics can vary. For instance, the interview style and admissions tests might differ slightly, reflecting the distinct academic focus and culture of each institution.

Ultimately, whether Oxford or Cambridge is harder to get into can depend on individual circumstances, including the course you're applying for and your particular strengths and interests. It's essential to research both thoroughly, considering how each aligns with your academic goals and personal preferences, rather than focusing solely on perceived difficulty.

How to write an outstanding personal statement for Cambridge

Writing an outstanding personal statement is crucial for your Cambridge application. It's your chance to show the admissions tutors who you are, your passion for the subject, and why you would be an excellent fit for the university. Here are some tips, backed by expert advice, to help you craft a compelling personal statement.

  • Firstly, focus on your academic interest in the subject. Cambridge looks for students who have a deep and genuine interest in their chosen field. Discuss the aspects of the subject that fascinate you and any additional reading or research you've done beyond your school curriculum. According to the University of Cambridge, a strong personal statement is focused on the subject the student wants to study.
  • Secondly, demonstrate your critical thinking and analytical skills. Discuss how you've engaged with your subject at a higher level. This might include competitions you've entered, related work experience, or specific projects or essays you've completed.
  • Thirdly, reflect on what you've learned from your super-curricular activities and how they've prepared you for university-level study. Be specific about how these experiences have developed your understanding and skills.
  • Additionally, while it's important to be enthusiastic, avoid clichés and overly dramatic language. Keep your statement honest, reflective, and focused on your academic interests.
  • Finally, proofread your statement multiple times. Errors can detract from the impression you're trying to make. Consider asking a teacher or mentor to review it as well.

Remember, your personal statement is a chance to show Cambridge why you're a unique and suitable candidate for your chosen course. Take the time to make it thoughtful, engaging, and reflective of your academic passion and potential.

The importance of extracurricular activities for Cambridge applicants

Extracurricular activities play a significant role in the Cambridge application process, demonstrating your broader engagement with your chosen subject beyond academic achievements. While academic performance is paramount, extracurriculars can provide the edge in a pool of highly qualified candidates.

Cambridge looks for evidence of 'super-curricular' activities — those that extend your subject interest and knowledge. According to the University of Cambridge, these activities show that you are enthusiastic about your subject and that you will be able to cope with the demands of studying it. This might include reading related books, attending lectures or seminars outside of school, or engaging in subject-specific competitions.

Participation in relevant extracurriculars demonstrates your initiative, time management, and commitment — qualities essential for success at Cambridge. For example, if you're applying for a science course, involvement in science Olympiads, research projects, or science clubs can significantly bolster your application.

However, quality matters more than quantity. The university advises focusing on activities that genuinely interest you and reflect your passion for the subject. Reflect on what you've learned from these experiences and how they've prepared you for university-level study.

In your application, articulate how these activities have deepened your understanding and enthusiasm for your subject. This approach shows the admissions tutors that you're not just academically capable but also actively engaged and ready to contribute to the intellectual life at Cambridge.

Life at Cambridge: What to expect as a student

Life at Cambridge University is a unique blend of academic rigour, rich traditions, and a vibrant community life. Understanding what to expect can help you prepare for a fulfilling experience.

Academically, Cambridge is known for its intense terms, which are shorter but more concentrated than at many other universities. Students typically have a series of lectures, seminars, and one-on-one or small group supervisions each week. The university's website notes that the pace is fast, and you will need to be prepared to work hard.

Outside of academics, Cambridge offers a plethora of extracurricular activities. With over 700 clubs and societies ranging from sports to music, drama, and debating, there's something for everyone. Engaging in these activities not only enriches your university experience but also helps build a supportive network of friends and colleagues.

The college system is another unique aspect of life at Cambridge. Each student is a member of a college, which provides accommodation, meals, and pastoral support. Colleges are vibrant communities where students from different disciplines live and learn together, fostering a sense of belonging and mutual support.

Finally, Cambridge is a historic city with beautiful architecture, museums, and parks. It's a stimulating environment that offers plenty of opportunities for relaxation and inspiration.

While life at Cambridge can be challenging, it's also incredibly rewarding. The university's blend of academic excellence, rich cultural traditions, and a supportive community provides a unique and enriching environment for personal and intellectual growth.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, securing a place at Cambridge University is a challenging yet achievable goal. By understanding the rigorous application process, meeting the stringent entry requirements, and preparing thoroughly for interviews and admissions tests, you can significantly enhance your chances of acceptance. Remember, it's not just about academic excellence but also demonstrating your passion, critical thinking, and suitability for the unique Cambridge environment. With dedication, preparation, and a genuine love for your subject, you can join the ranks of Cambridge's illustrious alumni and pave the way for a bright and impactful future. So, embrace the journey, seek support when needed, and take the first step towards making your Cambridge dream a reality.


What's the typical day like for a Cambridge student?

Cambridge students experience a blend of structured academic activities and personal study time. Mornings often start with lectures attended by all students in the subject, followed by smaller group seminars or labs, particularly for science courses. A unique aspect is the supervision system, where you meet with a tutor either individually or in small groups to discuss your work in depth. This is a time for intense learning, tailored feedback, and intellectual exploration. Afternoons might be spent in the library, conducting research, or preparing for the next supervision. Despite the academic rigour, there's time for relaxation and extracurricular activities. Evenings offer a chance to engage in societies, sports, or simply socialise with friends in the college bar or dining hall. The balance of rigorous study and a rich social life is a hallmark of the Cambridge experience.

Can I apply to multiple colleges at Cambridge?

When applying to Cambridge, you must select a single college as your preferred choice. This is because each college offers a unique community and atmosphere, and it's important to find one that best suits your preferences. However, if you're not admitted to your chosen college, you may be placed into the 'pool', where other colleges have the opportunity to offer you a place if they have vacancies and your application is strong. This system ensures that strong candidates have the best chance of admission, even if their initial college choice doesn't work out. It's important to research colleges thoroughly before applying, considering factors like location, facilities, and the specific support and opportunities each offers.

Are there study abroad opportunities at Cambridge?

Cambridge University encourages its students to gain international experience and offers various opportunities for study abroad. Through programmes like Erasmus+ and international exchanges with partner institutions, students can spend a part of their degree studying at a foreign university. These opportunities vary by course and department, with some offering structured year abroad options, while others provide more flexible arrangements. Studying abroad allows students to experience different academic environments, cultures, and languages, enriching their education and personal development. It's an invaluable chance to broaden your horizons, gain new perspectives in your field, and develop a global network. Interested students should plan early, as these programmes often require additional applications and preparations.

How diverse is the student population at Cambridge?

Cambridge University is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive student body. Students come from over 147 different countries, bringing a wide range of cultures, languages, and perspectives to the university. Efforts to increase representation from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds are ongoing, with outreach programmes, scholarships, and admissions policies aimed at widening participation. The university's diversity enriches the learning environment, allowing students to learn from each other's varied experiences and viewpoints. While there's still progress to be made, the trend is towards an increasingly diverse student population, reflecting the university's global reputation and appeal.

What mental health support does Cambridge offer?

Cambridge University takes student well-being seriously and offers a range of mental health support services. The University Counselling Service provides free, confidential counselling to students, offering individual sessions, group therapy, and workshops on topics like stress management and resilience. Each college also has a team of pastoral staff, including chaplains, nurses, and tutors, who can provide support and guidance. Additionally, there are student-run peer support schemes and nightline services offering a listening ear. The university recognises the pressures of academic life and aims to provide a supportive environment where students can thrive both academically and personally.

How does college choice affect my Cambridge experience?

Your choice of college at Cambridge significantly influences your daily life and overall university experience. Each college is a self-contained community, offering accommodation, meals, social activities, and pastoral support. They vary in size, location, architecture, and atmosphere, so your choice can affect your living environment and the people you'll interact with daily. However, academically, all undergraduate students attend the same lectures and have access to the same university-wide resources, ensuring a consistent high standard of education. The college system fosters a close-knit community feeling, with opportunities for socialising, sports, and cultural activities. It's important to research and choose a college that feels like the right fit for you.

What are the dining options on Cambridge campus?

Dining at Cambridge is centred around the college system, with most colleges having their own dining halls serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These halls offer a range of options, often at subsidised prices, with special dietary requirements usually catered for. Many students enjoy formal hall dinners, a Cambridge tradition where you dine in a formal setting, often wearing academic gowns. Beyond college dining, Cambridge city offers a plethora of cafes, pubs, and restaurants catering to diverse tastes and budgets. From quick bites to international cuisine, there's something for everyone. Many students also have access to kitchen facilities in their college or accommodation, offering the flexibility to self-cater.

Are part-time work opportunities available for students?

While Cambridge's academic schedule is demanding, many students engage in part-time work, especially during vacations. The university's Careers Service offers resources and advice for finding part-time jobs, internships, and vacation work. Opportunities range from university and college roles, like working in libraries or catering, to jobs in the local city – retail, tutoring, or hospitality. It's important to balance work with your academic commitments, and some students prefer to focus on internships or work experience relevant to their future careers during the holidays. The university also offers various schemes to support entrepreneurial students in starting their own ventures.

How does Cambridge support international students?

Cambridge provides a welcoming and supportive environment for international students. The International Student Office offers guidance on practical matters like visas, travel, and adjusting to life in the UK. Orientation programmes help new students acclimatise and understand the academic system. Language support services are available for those looking to improve their English skills. Additionally, many colleges have international student societies, providing a community and support network. The university's global alumni network also offers connections and support worldwide. Cambridge's aim is to ensure all students, regardless of background, can thrive and make the most of their time at the university.

What sports facilities are available at Cambridge?

Cambridge University offers extensive sports facilities catering to all levels, from beginners to elite athletes. The University Sports Centre provides a gym, indoor courts, and a range of fitness classes. Many colleges have their own sports grounds, boathouses, and gyms. There are over 80 sports clubs at the university, offering everything from rowing, football, and rugby to less common sports like octopush and quidditch. The annual Varsity matches against Oxford are a highlight, particularly the historic Boat Race. Participating in sports is a great way to stay healthy, relieve academic stress, and build friendships.

Can I change my course after admission?

Changing courses at Cambridge is possible but not guaranteed. It usually occurs after the first year and depends on your academic performance and the availability in the desired course. You'll need to discuss your intentions with your college tutor and the relevant department to understand the implications and process. Some courses have natural progression options, like from Natural Sciences to a more specialised science. Changing to a completely different field is more complex and may require you to meet additional entry requirements or even reapply. It's important to think carefully about your course choice when applying, but Cambridge does offer some flexibility to transfer if your academic interests evolve.

What's the ratio of lectures to practicals?

The ratio of lectures to practicals at Cambridge varies significantly depending on your course of study. Science and engineering subjects tend to have a higher proportion of practicals, labs, and fieldwork, reflecting the hands-on nature of these disciplines. For example, subjects like Natural Sciences or Engineering might involve several practical sessions each week alongside lectures. In contrast, arts and humanities courses focus more on lectures, seminars, and independent study, with fewer practical elements. However, even within these subjects, there may be opportunities for practical work, such as language oral sessions or art studio time. Your specific course outline will provide detailed information on the structure and expectations.

How accessible are professors outside of lectures?

Professors and academic staff at Cambridge are generally very accessible to students. They understand the importance of supporting students' learning and are available through various means. Supervisions are a key time for direct interaction with faculty, providing an opportunity for in-depth discussion and feedback. Professors also have office hours when you can drop in or make an appointment to discuss academic matters. Many are also involved in college life, dining with students and participating in college events, making them quite approachable. Building a rapport with your tutors and supervisors is encouraged and can significantly enhance your academic experience.

Are there entrepreneurship opportunities for students?

Cambridge is renowned for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. The university offers various resources and programmes to support student entrepreneurs. The Cambridge Judge Business School's Entrepreneurship Centre provides training, mentoring, and networking opportunities. There are also numerous student societies focused on entrepreneurship, offering workshops, competitions, and events to develop your business skills and ideas. The university's strong links with the tech and biotech industries, particularly in the 'Silicon Fen' area, provide further opportunities for collaboration and real-world experience. Many successful startups have originated from Cambridge, and the environment is ripe for those looking to start their entrepreneurial journey.

What's the process for finding accommodation?

In your first year at Cambridge, you'll typically live in college-provided accommodation, which you apply for through your college. This might be on the main college site or in nearby college-owned houses. Colleges offer a range of accommodation types, from traditional rooms in historic buildings to modern flats. After the first year, you may have the option to continue living in college accommodation or find private housing in the city. The university provides resources to help with this, including a housing advice service. Living in college accommodation is a unique aspect of the Cambridge experience, offering a supportive community and convenient access to college facilities.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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