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What we are looking for in a student

What we are looking for

This is one of the questions that we are most commonly asked, and there is no easy answer!

We really do look at each application carefully and individually. Each application is considered in detail by a number of academics, so a successful application does not depend on whether or not just one individual sees your potential; making these decisions is a team effort and we try our best to make sure everybody gets the same level of full and fair consideration.

It is important, however, for prospective applicants to be aware of a number of things.

First, there is no magic dart.

We sometimes have applicants who have excellent academic grades but who don't manage to demonstrate a particular aptitude or enthusiasm for the course for which they have applied and so don't receive an offer; and we sometimes have applicants with imperfect academic grades, but whose written work and interview performance show such potential that we decide to make them an offer of a place.

We also give careful attention to your context, and whether you have any extenuating circumstances which may mean that your academic record is not reflective of your true ability. Particularly with regard to your academic record, we are more concerned about how well you have done compared to others in your school, than we are with how well you have done compared to those from schools with significantly greater or significantly fewer resources. 

Some individual courses do have prerequisites, subjects which you have to have studied to a certain level and standard in order to be admitted for that degree course. This is simply because, however clever you are, you will find it too difficult to engage with the first year of that course if you have not studied the required subjects to the required level at school. More details about these subject-specific requirements can be found here.

For other courses there are no specific requirements, although there may be subject choices that will best help you to prepare for study in your chosen area at university. These are outlined on the individual subject pages.

Fine, but give me a few more hints here... 

OK. Different subjects require different skills and aptitudes to succeed, and so to some extent interviewers in different subject areas will be looking for different things (more details about these can be found on individual subject pages), BUT there are a number of qualities that most successful applicants are likely to be able to demonstrate, regardless of the subject applied for:

  • Intelligence. You do need to be clever, and to be able to demonstrate your intelligence in order to study at Cambridge. You do not, however, need to be some kind of genius. There probably are a few geniuses at Cambridge, but most of the people who study (and teach) here are not that; they are simply clever and hard-working.
  • Which is the next thing successful applicants will usually be able to show: evidence that they work hard. Student life at Cambridge is busy and the courses are taught at a high level. However clever you are, you won't do well if you don't put in the effort. We will be looking for evidence that you are conscientious and unafraid of hard work.
  • Aptitude for your chosen subject. We will want to see evidence that you are truly invested in the subject you are applying to study, and that you have the skills and aptitude necessary to succeed in it. It is, of course, possible to be extremely clever, hard-working and able, but not particularly suited to a specific course of study.
  • Enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity. Enthusiasm alone is not enough, but we do want to see some evidence that you are genuinely interested and motivated and that you are intellectually curious: that you really do want to learn and discover new things. It is possible to get a long way with intelligence and hard work. We want to see something more; we want to see people who are excited by new ideas and intellectual challenges.

It is unlikely that somebody demonstrating just one or two of the qualities above will be successful in applying to Cambridge. You do not have to demonstrate all of them to the highest degree, but successful applicants will usually demonstrate them all to some degree.

OK, but how do you judge these things?

It's not easy, and it is one of the reasons that we ask for so much material in your application. Some very clever people are not at their best in exams, but can demonstrate their intelligence, aptitude and motivation in their interviews or written work. Others are very nervous and feel they don't do so well in an interview, but their performances at school or in our admissions assessments speak for themselves.

Again, it will vary slightly from subject to subject and person to person as to exactly where the balance lies, but common to all applicants is the fact that we will look at their application in the round. It is very unlikely that one bad day in the exam hall, or a nervous performance in an interview will, on its own, prevent someone who is otherwise cut out for study at Cambridge from receiving an offer.

One final thing

Cambridge entrance is necessarily competitive. Much as we would like to, we are simply unable to accommodate every intelligent, motivated, hard-working person who applies. Applicants are, therefore judged against the other people who have applied for the same subject in the same round, and the strength of that competition, whilst always high, inevitably varies from year to year.

Each year we are unable to make offers to some applicants not because we do not think that they are clever enough or hard-working enough, nor because we do not believe that they would do well at Cambridge, but simply because there are too many others who, considered in the round, have made even stronger applications.

Many people who are unsuccessful in securing an offer from Cambridge go on to do superbly well (and some of them come back to teach here, having earned a very good degree somewhere else!).

There is no way to be certain of gaining a place at Cambridge, but there is a way to be certain of not gaining a place: which is to not apply. If you have a strong academic record in your own context, if you think you can demonstrate intelligence, enthusiasm, motivation, and an aptitude for your chosen subject, and if you like the idea of studying at Cambridge, then we would encourage you to give it a go!