Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Some advice from one of our top London tutors, Chris, on university applications.
When I applied to the University of Cambridge I did what most people I met there did, and chose the college I applied to virtually at random. I made my decision based on the fact that the person showing me round on the Open Day I went to was from that college and showed it to my group as he was taking us to the Law Faculty, and it looked pretty good during the 20 minute tour. It all worked out, and I think I made the best choice for me by accident, but it was a fairly silly way of picking the place I was dreaming of spending three years of my life at. So, having spent three years at Cambridge before graduating last year, I hope this collection of thoughts on college choice helps you make your choice based on a little bit more information than I did.
Before I start with the tips, here is some basic information. You probably already know this, but it is quite useful for reassuring parents that you know what you are doing.
Firstly, there are 27 undergraduate colleges (the other 6 are for post-graduate or mature students) at Cambridge. Two of them only admit women, and all the rest admit both men and women.
Secondly, you choose which college you want to apply at when you fill in your UCAS form, which you have to submit by mid-October if you want to apply to Cambridge. You can also submit an open application, which is essentially saying that you don’t mind which college you go to. Thirdly, whilst the college you apply to will interview you, if they like you, but don’t have enough space for you, they will put your name into the ‘pool’, which is a list of students that the other colleges can look for students in if they don’t feel they can find enough good people in the group who applied to them. Some colleges recruit most of their students this way.
So, onto the collection of thoughts:
Do not make an open application. There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, because you are incredibly likely to end up at one of the less popular colleges, particularly Murray Edwards (the less popular women’s college) if you are female, with all the disadvantages of being interviewed there, which I will come onto in the next thought; secondly, because there will definitely be colleges you want to attend more than others, as they differ a lot – why would you take all choice out of your hands?
Do not apply to the less popular colleges because you think it will be easier to get into Cambridge if you do. In fact, the colleges that get most of their students from the pool are often the ones you have the lowest statistical likelihood of getting a place at. Whilst there is no official reason why, I suspect it is because they attract those who are less confident in their chances and are looking for an easy way into Cambridge. If you are thinking about applying to one of these colleges (the admissions statistics are available on the Cambridge University Website so I won’t make the subjective judgement of deciding the cut off point for a list), think very carefully about whether you would be happier applying to another college which is more popular, and incidentally admits a higher percentage of applicants.
Decide if you really want to go to an old college. Obviously, most people’s image of Cambridge is of one of the older colleges, usually King’s College because of the chapel. But there are plenty of colleges which don’t fit that stereotype. 9 of the 27 were founded after 1800, and most of those don’t look anything like the tourist postcards of Cambridge. The older colleges are (generally thought to be) prettier, closer (on average) to most faculty lecture theatres, and (usually) richer, but they come with some serious disadvantages as well. Firstly, they often don’t house their students all on the same site, so you may only spend your first year living in the pretty 18th Century courts you fell in love with when you visited. Secondly, putting modern accommodation in buildings built before inside plumbing was in fashion means that some rooms are interesting shapes and sizes, the number and effectiveness of showers and toilets is sometimes inadequate, and the single glazed windows let in the cold in winter. Also, the tourists that wander all over your college can get really annoying, especially when you are trying to study for exams. So weigh these up – it can help a lot in narrowing down your options.
Different colleges have different cultures. This isn’t the same thing as the stereotypes Cambridge students believe about students at colleges that aren’t theirs – only some of those are true! The only way to really get to know what the culture at a college is like is to ask someone who went there recently, or better yet is still there, about what the other people at the college are like. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this for a good number of the colleges you are thinking of applying to, it should help you work out where you want to go.
Some colleges are better for some subjects than for others. Usually, an academic at a particular college will supervise (teach one-to-one or in a small group) the students at their college in their specialism. This means that if you apply to their college, you will often end up being taught by that academic you really admired when you read their book. Also, if there are very few fellows (academics) at a college in your subject, you are much more likely to end up being supervised by post-graduate students than if the college has lots of available academics on its staff.
The colleges are spread across a huge proportion of Cambridge, so you should check how far you will have to travel to get to lectures. Obviously some colleges, like Girton and Homerton, are a long way from almost all lecture theatres, but, whilst Cambridge is a very small city, it might be worth looking into where the colleges you are thinking about applying to are in relation to the relevant faculty buildings. That said, unless you don’t or can’t ride a bicycle, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
The cost of living at different colleges varies widely. Unless money is simply not an issue for you, looking up the average costs of things like room rent and meals at different colleges will be very useful for you. Bear in mind that different colleges make you pay for meals in different ways (some require you to pay a fixed sum each term, as well as for each meal). Also, whilst all colleges take part in the main bursary scheme, the Newton Trust Bursary, some colleges are pretty generous with allowances for things like books, which might make a difference to you.
Decide if there are any ‘deal-breakers’, things you simply won’t apply to a college if it does, or doesn’t, have. There are loads of potential examples, but the one for me was that I didn’t want to apply to a college where how well you do in exams determines where you live in second and third year (an academic room ballot).
Get the alternative prospectus. The Cambridge University Student’s Union produces an alternative prospectus, which has a bit about each college written by students who study there. Whilst it isn’t perfect (the last time I looked, pretty much every college claimed to be the friendliest), the entry should tell you a bit about what students at each college are most proud of.
Go and visit (if you can). Clearly time, distance, and money make it impossible for some people to go and visit Cambridge before they apply. But if you can do it, it’s worth it. Don’t go during May or early June, because lots of colleges close during exams (and look up when ‘May Week’ – a week in June where end of term parties happen – is and avoid that as well). When you do go, just look around and think about whether you could see yourself studying there for three (or more) years. Some colleges charge a few pounds for entry, mostly the touristy ones, so make the most of those by acting like a tourist whilst you look round.
Finally, don’t worry too much about choosing a college. Almost everyone thinks their college is best – even the people who applied somewhere else and got chosen from the pool.
If you would like to discuss UCAS or Oxbridge Specific Applications then feel free to get in touch and find out how we might be able to assist you. Visit the Titanium Tutors website for more.
Blog Post Crafted by Chris
Background: Chris studied Law at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2013, and is now a very experienced private tutor.