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Apply to the University of Cambridge: why, what and how

Updated: Jun 25, 2022

It was a great honour of Cambridge International Academy to host an admission talk delivered by an admission tutor of the University, attended by over 170 prospective international students. This was the final talk of our 2020 Autumn Admission Talks, in which 9 leading universities participated. Our annual Autumn season of talks focused on undergraduate studies. Be sure to keep a lookout for our forthcoming Spring Admission Talks which will focus on postgraduate studies.

In this article we summarise some key points taken from the talk on applying to the University of Cambridge for undergraduate studies. We also indicate some comparisons with Oxford where relevant.


Cambridge is an academically rigorous and research-focused university where students learn about the fundamental principles behind their subjects. It is not a vocational university, although Engineering, Medicine and Veterinary Sciences have some vocational aspects.

The University of Cambridge provides world-class teaching in lectures, seminars and practicals. Students learn from leading experts in their fields.

Cambridge practices a unique small group teaching system called ‘Supervision’ which is similar to the Oxford ‘Tutorial’ system. This teaching method is great at helping students to fully understand and dig into the depths of their courses.

Cambridge has a very personalised support system in which students have a designated Director of Studies to support them academically, and a tutor who plays a welfare and pastoral support role.


As a student you will be both a member of the University of Cambridge and of your College. The University is the body responsible for your degree, and organising all your courses through the various university departments. Whatever College you are a member of, the courses and degree will be the same - a University of Cambridge degree.


Your College will be, in essence, your home and ‘mini-campus’ whilst you are in Cambridge. Colleges provide both academic and pastoral care. In College you will have your room but be living in a community with people taking many different courses and degrees. There will also be some academic facilities for your use, such as a library, as well as places to eat and drink and, of course, the College dining hall.

Supervisions are also organised by your College, though they may not necessarily be conducted there. This may depend upon where the academic tutor for your supervision is based.


So what kind of students are admissions officers at Cambridge looking for?

In a word, as members of one of the top universities in the world they are looking for equally ‘top’ students. This means students that can demonstrate both academic ability and potential.

How can these qualities be demonstrated? By showing in your application that you have a genuine interest in your subject of choice, and that you are motivated. This could be, for example, that you have read or taken part in activities relevant to your subject but ‘outside the curriculum’. Enthusiasm is less important, as you can be very enthusiastic about something but (frustratingly!) not necessarily very good at it. Motivation is important to demonstrate, and if you can do this it probably means that you are also very enthusiastic about your subject too!


The most important part of the application process is to be sure about choosing the right course for you. To be as sure as you can you should therefore read the course summary very carefully. If you need to ask for further information about the course, then do so. The more positive you feel about the course being right for you, the stronger will be your application.

A less important part of the application process is choosing a College. Colleges do vary in terms of location and size, for example, but in most areas they possess similar facilities and support mechanisms. The College you apply to will not influence your chances of being offered a place in Cambridge. Indeed, where Colleges are over-subscribed there is a ‘pool’ system where students can be allocated to other Colleges with more room.

You will need to apply through UCAS. Shortly after submitting your UCAS application, you'll be asked via email to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). International students may also need to submit the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA) which is a questionnaire to collect useful information that isn’t part of the UCAS application, and to make arrangements for overseas interviews. Full details are easily available on the University website in the ‘undergraduate study - applying’ section.


Admissions Tutors take a holistic approach to reviewing applications - nothing is looked at in isolation. So they will take into account not just the facts of the grades on your examinations certificate, but also all the other information you will have provided. The interview comes at the end of the process but is not where the final decision to offer a place, or not, is made. The interview is just one part of the jigsaw puzzle used to get an overall impression of your application before bringing everything together. So the key message to take away from this is that, just because you performed beneath your potential in one aspect, this does not mean your overall application will be ruined.

For international students there is no limit to the number that can apply except in medicine, where only one or two student places are available in each of the colleges.

Getting into Cambridge is very competitive, and on average only around 20% of those applying will succeed. But remember this - no-one will go anywhere unless they try!


As mentioned earlier, the first thing to be absolutely certain about is the course you wish to apply for. If you cannot find your perfect course at Cambridge, then look to see if you can find it elsewhere.

Second, be proactive in your learning and look outside the curriculum at relevant opportunities to set yourself apart from the rest. Reading, voluntary roles, online courses - relevant to your subject - will all make you a more interesting applicant.

Third, be consistent and work as hard as you can in the run-up to making your application.

And finally, practise. Practise any admissions tests you may need to take; time management is a vital skill to acquire or enhance before taking the actual test. Practise discussing your subject in English with friends and teachers; this will help you greatly when you come to be interviewed.


Q1. Can I apply to both Cambridge and Oxford?

A1: You need to choose between Cambridge or Oxford. Broadly, Cambridge courses tend to be broader and Oxford courses more focused. As said before, read the course summaries and ask questions to be certain you choose the right course. You can find a useful comparison of Oxford and Cambridge.

Q2. Are pre-16 qualifications, such as GCSE, very important?

A2: (I)GCSEs are less important than more up to date assessments, but can be useful in gaining a better understanding of student progress.

Q3. Are some colleges better than others?

A3: No, at least not in the sense of you needing to be ‘better’ academically. Some Colleges have more space than others, that is all.

Q4. How can I make my applications stronger? Will extra-curricular strength my chance of getting into Cambridge?

A4: With respect to extra-curricular activities, these will not help although they can be mentioned in passing. Super-curricular activities are another matter and may well have an impact upon your application if they are relevant to the course you are applying for.

In the end it is your academic ability and potential that is important, and how you can demonstrate this with evidence to show that you are a motivated student who is passionate about their subject!

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