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Tips from a Cambridge Admissions Tutor

What does your role as the Director of Admissions involve and what do you enjoy the most about it?

I have overall responsibility for planning and managing undergraduate and graduate admissions to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and for overseeing our outreach activities, both in the UK and outside it. I also participate in University policy-making on admissions, and in University-wide recruitment initiatives, particularly those involving international engagement. There are many aspects of my role that are enjoyable, for the challenge they present – selection processes at Cambridge are heavily evidence-driven, and I always find it fascinating to balance research findings into “what makes a good undergraduate” against my own intuitive judgement of a candidate, at interview. Another plus is that I get to travel and meet talented, highly-motivated young people around the world!

What are the major changes in the admissions process after the A-level examination system has been reformed?

Until this year, Cambridge placed significant weight on the “unit module scores” (or actual percentage scores) achieved by candidates in their AS-level examinations, which were shown to have a better correlation both with final A-level results, and outcomes in University examinations, than alphabetical grades alone. We still have unit module scores for students in some parts of the UK, and for international A-level candidates, but the reforms to the A-level examination system in England mean that we no longer have UMS for the majority of our candidates, and have had to look for other quantitative indicators of academic potential, as well. At the moment, the University is piloting two different means of data-collection: applicants for about half our courses are asked to take a written assessment in November, and applicants for the other half are asked to take an assessment on the day of their interview. But our overall approach remains holistic: we still aim to interview around 80% of our applicants, and the results of the assessments are simply one piece of a “puzzle” that also includes interview scores, academic record, personal statement, and reference.

How can the students prepare for the new assessment forms in the Cambridge admissions process?

The best place to start is by looking at the assessment specification for the course in question, which provides a helpful overview not only of the format of the assessment, but also the core knowledge that applicants are required to have, in order to complete it successfully. For UK students, this is likely to be knowledge they have acquired in the course of their GCSEs and AS-levels, but students from other countries may find there are a few “gaps” they need to fill, especially in the sciences. Our experience this year suggests that some applicants who put in a relatively disappointing performance were let down by basic examination techniques: the pre-interview assessments, in particular, require candidates to work through material at a fast pace, so brushing up on time management is important. It’s also useful to familiarize yourself with the MCQ (Multiple Choice Question) format if it’s not one that you encounter regularly: there is an art to answering MCQs, which can be acquired with a little practice. Beyond that, you should definitely have a go at the specimen and past papers available on the University website. And if you’re applying for an essay-based subject, from outside the UK, be aware that essay-writing conventions can differ from country to country and do consider structure and style in advance.

What are the most important skills or characteristics you look for in prospective applicants’ performance?

Like all my colleagues, I am primarily interested in evidence of academic potential, and evidence that a student will rise to, and enjoy, the challenge that Cambridge presents – in terms of its intellectual demands, its workload, and its pace. I also want to see proof that an applicant is genuinely interested in their subject, that they are willing to pursue that interest outside the boundaries of the classroom (through wider reading, competitions, and other super-curricular activities), and that they can take their existing knowledge and apply it in unfamiliar contexts. Analytical skills are important in all subjects, and it is critical that applicants demonstrate self-discipline and self-motivation: attendance at lectures isn’t compulsory at Cambridge, so you have to want to get out of bed to hear the experts in your field!

What advice would you give to prospective applicants?

Research your choice of course, carefully, and be prepared to explain it at interview. You can’t always “judge a book by its cover” and if you want to study Psychology, say, you might find that either Natural Sciences or Education (Psychology and Learning) suits your interests better than the more obvious Psychological Behavioural Sciences degree. Make sure that you meet any subject requirements, and don’t assume that these are the same at Cambridge as they are elsewhere: we regularly accept applicants for Medicine without A-level Biology, for example, but we do insist on A-level Chemistry or equivalent. Don’t agonize over your choice of college, and don’t try to play the numbers game by scrutinising application stats: pick a college because you like the look of it, not because you think you have a better chance of getting in there. We work hard to ensure that all applicants who deserve a place at Cambridge secure a place at Cambridge, and there is no disadvantage in submitting an open application, if you are a competitive candidate. And be prepared to try again: lots of people get in, second time around!


Emily Tomlinson is Admissions Tutor at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge and spoke to Antonina Kiełkowska, who is studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge. 

Picture by Aleksandra Majak 

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