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Applying to Cambridge
The application process might seem complicated at first glance, but it's not as bad as it looks. It's surrounded by myths and uncertainties, despite the fact that interviewing is becoming more common-place at other universities. It's important to emphasise that there's no magic formula to 'getting it right', but with forward planning you can make it as stress-free as possible. The best way to help your application is really just to work hard at sixth form and to think about your subject outside the confines of the curriculum. You don't have to be incredible at your subject, but you do need to be doing really well, be genuinely interested and really want to study this subject for the next few years. At the end of the day, the people who will admit and teach you spend their life researching the subject and want students who share their enthusiasm. They don't want to battle to keep you motivated.
Interviews are universally feared, but they're not that bad – many people even enjoy them.
Cambridge is like all universities, in that you apply through UCAS. This needs to be done by the 15th October, earlier than the general deadline, so that there is time to process the application and organise interviews. UCAS applications are fairly simple, though many people worry about their personal statement. This lets you talk about your academic achievements and interests, and may be a starting point for your interview, but it's not something to lose sleep over.
Key Fact: 90% of applicants will receive an interview
By applying to Cambridge you don't risk anything: you still have four other spaces on your UCAS form. It's easy to use the excuse that you don't want to waste a choice by applying to Cambridge when you 'won't get in', but the majority of people who actually get offers think exactly the same thing. What is certain is that you won't get in if you don't apply.
Once you've submitted your UCAS application, you'll be asked to fill in an online questionnaire, with some additional information, such as your UMS (module) marks if you have sat AS levels. Depending upon your subject, you may be asked to submit written work. This is your chance to show off your best work. This might be AS coursework or an essay you wrote a couple of weeks ago. Most College websites give you an indication of whether they request work and you'll be given plenty of notice. You shouldn't need to write anything new, but it's worth re-familiarising yourself with the topic and essay before you go for an interview.
Some Colleges may ask you to sit written tests. This will vary from subject to subject and College to College, but there will be plenty of information on the University website. Remember that tests and interviews are just one part of the process and that they look at the way you think and apply knowledge, rather than asking you to learn new information.
Key Fact: One in four candidates will receive an offer of a place.
You will hear in January whether you have a place, you have been unsuccessful or placed in the pool. Around 20% of candidates will be placed in the 'pool', and from this 20% will receive an offer. This is a moderation process, which allows other Colleges to consider you and make you an offer. You may be called to another interview in January. The pool ensures that, however competitive a College, you have an equal chance of receiving an offer.
Interviews seem to be universally feared by applicants, yet almost everyone (whether or not they gained a place) will admit that they weren't actually that bad. They might not be your idea of a fun day out, but some people (unexpectedly) enjoy them. There are a lot of myths that surround Cambridge interviews, but nine times out of ten they are just myths. Don't be put off by stories of tweed-jacketed professors: in reality, interviews take the form of a conversation about your subject, and give you a good opportunity to get a feel for Cambridge's small-group teaching. It's also a great way to meet other students and the people who might be teaching you for the next few years.
You are likely to have at least two interviews, lasting in the range of 20 to 30 minutes with either one or two interviewers at a time. Interviews are a lot like supervisions (the most important and useful part of Cambridge teaching), which is why they are used in the admissions process. They are an opportunity to talk about something that interests you and that you will already know things about. The interviewer is not out to trick or intimidate you. Be yourself: there isn't any 'Cambridge type' that you should try to be. Similarly, it genuinely doesn't matter what you wear: jeans and a jumper is just as fine as a suit. Interviewers are only interested in finding out the way in which you think and how you handle a challenge.
It's difficult to know how to prepare for an interview, and there's no set of questions they are going to ask you. It's certain, though, that you're going to have to talk about your subject and it will probably help to practice speaking about this out loud, whether this is volunteering answers in class, arranging a mock interview with a teacher, or talking to yourself whilst making breakfast. Think about why it is that you want to study your subject and what specific aspects of the course you find interesting. At the same time, it's not helpful to sound over-rehearsed, and interviewers will pick up on 'set pieces'. If you are asked to send written work or you've filled in a pre-interview questionnaire, keep it fresh in your mind, as you may be asked about it in the interview. In general, though, the best preparation is simply to be yourself and read around the work that you enjoy.
There are a lot of people and companies who will try to sell you things that they claim will increase your chance of getting a place. We strongly discourage you from buying materials or interview practice from private companies - we have never seen any reliable evidence that paying any such company increases your chance of getting a place. And in reviewing many such services and publications, we have found many to be riddled with misinformation and inaccuracies about the application process and how best to approach it. Authentic and more accurate resources are available from the Cambridge Admissions Office, the University website and the Students' Union. You will never be asked to pay for advice or materials from these sources.
It's easy to say and harder to do, but try not to worry about the interview. It's easy to get worried about the little things and to replay every answer you gave in your head, but this won't help you and won't make your Christmas particularly fun. Make the most of the experience, spend a night in Cambridge for free, meet new people and give it your best shot.