Getting onto the Computer Science undergraduate course at Cambridge University is a difficult task, but one that can be made easier – and less stressful – with preparation. Ideally, you should start thinking about which kind, of course, you would like to study at university whilst you are choosing your A-levels or IB courses – particularly if you are planning to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. This will not only maximise your chances of picking the right subjects for your course but will give you time to think about finding extracurricular activities that might help to round out your personal statement and make you stand out from other applicants.
Firstly, it is crucial that you have the right grades in the right subjects. Currently, you need to be predicted at least A*A*A or 40-42 points at IB, with 7 7 6 at Higher Level, for your application to be considered. All colleges require that you should have taken Mathematics, but some also require that one of your A*s (or 7s) should be in Mathematics or that you have secured an A* in Further Maths or Physics if have taken either of these subjects. If you are offered a place, you will then need to achieve these grades to be fully accepted. It is worth noting that no prior programming experience is required by Cambridge, but having some knowledge and experience will demonstrate a genuine interest in the course, which is always beneficial when the pool of applicants is as competitive as at Oxbridge.
Secondly, you need to decide whether you want to make an open application or apply to a specific college. Cambridge is a collegiate university – this means that it is composed of several different colleges, each of which has its own teaching staff, halls, and benefits. All colleges offer Computer Sciences, so if you would like to apply to a specific college there is plenty of choices. An open application is an application that does not specify which college you would prefer to attend. Different colleges have different facilities, accommodation, and are differently sized, whilst others cater specifically to women or mature students. You can have an initial look at the Cambridge University website to see where you might be interested in applying to and student forums might also be able to give some advice. Ideally, you should try to visit any colleges that you are considering before applying, as this is the best way to get a sense of what they are like. The college that you choose indicates your preference but candidates are occasionally assigned to colleges other than the one they applied to, for a multitude of reasons. Cambridge tends to hold open days in July, during which there will be specific talks about applying for Computer Science, which many applicants find highly beneficial and can be timed to coincide with visiting colleges.
Once you have decided upon a college (or to make an open application) you should begin the process of applying to Cambridge through UCAS. It is worth noting that you will not be able to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge at the same time. Also, all Oxbridge UCAS applications must be made and submitted before 15th October the year preceding the year you would like to start your course (for instance, if you would like to start your course in October 2020, then you must submit your application by 15th October 2019). If you are applying from outside the United Kingdom you may be required to submit your application sooner, in which case you should consult the university website. At this stage, you will hopefully have the right predicted grades and a strong personal statement. This is your opportunity to show off your passion for your subject and all of the reasons why you will do excellently studying it. If you have planned correctly this should be demonstrated not only in your academic achievements but also in your extracurricular activities – it is very helpful to have shown some engagement with your subject outside of your school studies, as well as showing that you are a well-rounded candidate.
Every applicant for Computer Sciences at Cambridge you will have to sit Cambridge Test of Mathematics for University Admission (or ‘CTMUA’). Certain colleges may also require that you sit an additional assessment – such as the Computer Science Admissions Test. You must register for this test well before October 15th and it is advised that you do so in August or September. The easiest way to do this is via the admissions testing website, which will assign you a test centre (the test centres will submit your actual registration for the test). For most applicants, their school will be a registered test-centre and most pre-interview assessments are conducted on or around the 30th of October. These pre-interview assessments will be considered, in conjunction with your references, personal statement, and predicted grades, when Cambridge is trying to decide whether to offer you an interview and also whether to offer you a place once your interview has been conducted. For advice on how to prepare for these tests, you can consult the Computer Sciences department page on the Cambridge University website or on the admissions testing website, alongside past-papers and mark schemes.
When your test has been completed and your application fully submitted, Cambridge will then consider whether they will invite you up for an interview. Cambridge tends to give interviews to a greater proportion of students than Oxford, however, they take a smaller proportion of those students that they interview. Interviews are generally conducted within the college that you applied to, if you submitted an open application then you will be assigned a college to interview at. Sometimes applicants are asked to interview at more than one college, if this is the case then you will be informed whilst you are in Cambridge for your initial interview. There are a number of reasons why you might be interviewed at more than one college; being asked to do conduct another interview elsewhere does not, on its own, correspond to either a greater or lesser chance of success.
The interview process can seem daunting and there are lots of legends about eccentric professors and absurd questions. However, interviews are there for a few very good reasons. Primarily interviews are there to make sure that you are a good fit for the style of teaching at Cambridge. Cambridge uses the tutorial system, which means that you will spend a great deal of time being taught in small groups, pairs, or alone by a tutor (rather than predominantly in large seminars or lectures). An interview situation offers an insight into how you cope with being taught in the tutorial style – responding to new information and questions in real-time. Some of the brightest students in any subject do not flourish in this environment, so do not take it too badly if you do not excel in or enjoy the interview process. Also, if you are a student from abroad for whom English is not your first language then interviews are a good opportunity to see whether your English is strong enough to undertake a course taught in this manner. Some colleges might also make you sit additional testing at the interview, which they should make you aware of beforehand. For further information on interviews at Cambridge, as well as information on how to prepare, please visit the Cambridge website on https://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/applying/interviews/what-do-interviews-involve or https://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/applying/interviews/how-should-i-prepare. Interviews tend to happen in the first few weeks of December and you should know whether you have secured one by late November.
Once you have completed your interview the only thing left is to wait and see whether or not you have been successful. If you receive an offer then the only thing left to do is firmly accept via UCAS, achieve the necessary grades, and await further correspondence from the university and your assigned college. You will know whether this is the case by early January, however, there is the chance that you might be pooled. Pooled students are those whose positions at their college of choice was taken by other candidates, but are strong enough to challenge weaker applicants to other colleges, thus meaning that their application to the university might be successful. If you are pooled then there is a small chance that you might be asked at this stage to sit another interview at a new college, however, this is quite rare. Either way, all applicants should know whether they have a place at university by the end of January.
If you have any additional questions as to how to get into Cambridge University to study Computer Sciences, do not hesitate to get in touch!