Demystifying Cambridge University Applications: A Guide for Parents and Carers

The School Report Blog

Demystifying Cambridge University Applications: A Guide for Parents and Carers

As you and your child explore higher education options, the prospect of applying to selective institutions like the University of Cambridge may seem both exciting and daunting.

Let’s explore the key steps in the application process and debunk common myths and misconceptions about applying to Cambridge.

What do we look for?

Our admissions process gives applicants lots of opportunities to show us their potential. We consider an entire range of information to help us find students who’ll thrive at the University. Cambridge is looking for the brightest and the best students, irrespective of social, religious, cultural, school, financial, or other background.

There are several aspects we look for in all applications:

  1. Academic ability and potential:

It’s really important that students are aiming for the highest grades in their current qualifications. Each course will have specific subject requirements, so students must check to ensure they satisfy these criteria before applying.

  1. Compatibility with the Cambridge learning environment:

Strong Cambridge applicants demonstrate critical thinking, independence, and adaptability. Candidates should embrace new perspectives, possess strong problem-solving skills, and exhibit motivation and dedication to their studies. Our teaching encourages dynamic learning, honing skills such as working under pressure and meeting deadlines, which are invaluable for lifelong success.

  1. Alignment with the chosen course:

We want to see applicants who display genuine enthusiasm and passion for their chosen field of study. It’s crucial for students to carefully consider their options and select courses and subjects that resonate with their interests and aspirations for the coming years.

Supercurricular Engagement

Supercurricular activities, which encompass academic exploration beyond the classroom, are a crucial part of a competitive application. A supercurricular activity is anything directly related to the course. Playing the piano, for example, would be extracurricular if applying for maths but supercurricular if applying for music. These experiences not only enrich understanding but also demonstrate commitment to academic exploration.

These activities might include:

  • wider reading
  • attending subject-specific university taster days
  • completing online courses (MOOCs e.g. Future Learn
  • participating in research projects like the EPQ
  • engaging in academic discussions.

Depending on what is relevant to the subject, this could also be job shadowing, volunteering, visiting museums, finding out about your local area, taking part in a competition or project, joining a debating society, or helping at a science club.

For some students, if they meet widening participation criteria, they can often also take part in university outreach programmes and summer schools for free, e.g. Sutton Trust Summer Schools and STEM SMART, which will give them a chance to try out university study for real.

Supercurricular top tips:

  • Encourage your child to keep a reflective log with summaries of supercurricular engagement. This will make it easier for them to write their Personal Statement (more on this below)!
  • Make sure your child chooses activities they have a genuine interest in rather than pursuing something because they think it will impress an admissions tutor.
  • Talk to your child about what they’ve learnt about through their supercurriculars – you can help them to explore their thoughts and opinions. This can be great preparation for interviews later in the application process.
  • Most supercurricular activities are free to access – you can find a list of recommendations for each course on our website.
  • Your child doesn’t have to do everything! Rather than reading an extensive list of books, it’s better for a student to read fewer items and be able to offer original reflections on them.
  • Good applicants for vocational courses e.g. Medicine/ Veterinary Medicine are encouraged to tie together work experience and extra reading.
  • A good joint honours statement will find links between the subjects.

The Admissions Process

The Cambridge University admissions process may seem complex but breaking it down into manageable steps can ease the journey for both parents and students. The process is holistic, so all aspects of the student’s application are considered together.

Here’s a brief overview:

  • Choose your course
  • Choose a College or make an open application
  • Check admission tests arrangements
  • UCAS application (deadline 15th October)
  • Complete additional forms
  • Submit written work and/or take admission test
  • Interview (usually December)
  • Decision (January)

The Personal Statement

Each student will complete a personal statement as part of their UCAS application. A well-crafted personal statement is crucial for showcasing students’ passion for their chosen subject, academic achievements, and supercurricular activities. Encourage your child to express their genuine enthusiasm and highlight their academic interests.

The personal statement should:

  • Be 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces) – whichever comes first
  • Portray the applicant’s character, knowledge, experience and ambition

Students should aim to focus on the following questions when writing their personal statement:

  1. Why are you applying for this course?
  2. What do you know about the subject and which aspects particularly interest you?
  3. What personal qualities, skills and experience will help you in this subject and how did you acquire these?

The best personal statements are academic in focus. They will typically include a research paragraph in which a student delves into a particular area of interest in some depth and draws upon wider reading. This is the approach we would recommend. The recommended balance is:

  • at least 80% of the personal statement should focus on academic and course-related information
  • up to 20% could include other relevant information for example part-time employment, extracurricular activities, positions of responsibility etc

Personal statements are used differently by different universities and different courses within those universities. For many courses that receive more applications than they have places available, the personal statement is important. Other courses may place less emphasis on the personal statement and instead may focus on other aspects such as interviews, predicted grades or test results. Some universities (e.g. the University of Cambridge) may use the personal statement as a basis for discussion at interview.


If your child is one of the majority of applicants selected for an interview, they will have the opportunity to engage in intellectual discussions with tutors. You can help them by emphasising the importance of preparation, critical thinking, and confidence during the interview process. Interviews are likely to involve discussions on recent academic work, wider reading and/or work experience, visible issues related to the subject in the wider world, new scenarios in which to apply existing knowledge, written material prepared immediately before the interview, or scientific problems, graphs, or data. Interviewers are not trying to catch students out – we use the interview process to help us find out more about each student and whether they’d thrive in the Cambridge learning environment. As such, interviews won’t include:

  • tricky questions requiring bizarre responses
  • a memory or knowledge test
  • questions with immediately evident answers
  • scripted sessions identical for all candidates
  • a public speaking or debate contest
  • evaluations based on speech, attire, posture, or handshake
  • cultural or social assessments to determine your personality or character traits

To help ease the process, here are some top tips to consider:

  • Explain your thinking: encourage your child to articulate their thoughts clearly during interviews. While it’s essential to express ideas, remind them that they don’t need to fill every silence. Quality over quantity is key.
  • Prompting isn’t always negative: don’t assume that prompts from interviewers indicate a lack of understanding or failure. Tutors may ask questions to guide the conversation or delve deeper into a particular topic. Encourage your child to view prompts as opportunities to expand on their ideas rather than signals of inadequacy.
  • Time management and comfort: if the interview is in person, advise your child to give themselves plenty of time to travel to the interview venue and to wear something comfortable. Feeling at ease physically can positively impact performance.
  • Embrace reflection and enquiry: remind your child that it’s okay to pause, reflect, and ask questions during interviews. Encourage them to take a moment to gather their thoughts before responding. Asking for clarification demonstrates critical thinking and a genuine desire to understand.

Admissions Tests

Admissions tests, either before or at interview, are designed to stretch and challenge thinking. Students should look at all resources for their assessment test and familiarise themselves with the format of their exam and the knowledge that will be assessed. It’s essential to keep track of deadlines, as some are notably early in the year, and be aware that taking a specific test might be a requirement for some courses.

Written work

The requirement to submit one or two graded school or college essays, which might be deliberated upon during interviews (a more widespread practice for arts subjects), varies depending on the course and College you apply to. For specific information, refer to our website.

Myths and Misconceptions

Now, let’s tackle some common myths and misconceptions:

Myth #1: “It’s Too Competitive to Bother Applying”

It’s easy for students to feel discouraged by the perceived competitiveness of Cambridge admissions. With about a one-in-six acceptance rate, Cambridge offers a realistic chance for determined and ambitious students to pursue their aspirations. Most applicants are granted the opportunity for an interview, though figures fluctuate across courses and cohorts. Certain disciplines, including Medicine, Law, Economics, Computer Science and Engineering, are more competitive, attracting exceptionally accomplished applicants. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to recognise that a substantial number of offers, totalling over 4,000, are extended. Many students I speak to tend to underestimate their academic prowess significantly. Remember, if you don’t apply, you won’t get in!

Myth #2: “Cambridge has minimum GCSE requirements, and you have to take 4 A Levels (or equivalent)”

GCSEs have proven valuable for the admissions process as they provide insight into earlier academic performance but there is no fixed minimum requirement. We look at a student’s placement within their school’s broader GCSE performance rather than comparing them to schools across different sectors in the UK. If a student believes that their GCSE performance was severely affected by factors such as illness or family circumstances, we encourage them to inform us by using our extenuating circumstances forms.

We typically encourage students to apply with three A-Levels, and our offers usually reflect performance in these three relevant subjects. If you’re studying four A-Levels, your offer may be based on all four subjects. Check out our information on challenging offers for more details.

For students attending schools that offer only three A-Levels, thoughtful subject selection is crucial. Make sure to prioritise any required subjects and consult our recommendations for your chosen course. Our perspective is that excelling in three A-Levels is preferable to spreading yourself too thin across four, which could affect your overall performance.

Myth #3: “Cambridge is Only for the Privileged”

It’s a common misconception that Cambridge University is exclusively reserved for the privileged few. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Cambridge welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, regardless of social, religious, school, or financial status. Admissions decisions are based on academic merit and potential, not socioeconomic background.

In 2022, both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford admitted a record number of students from state schools and black British backgrounds. At the University of Cambridge, approximately 73% of UK students enrolled were from state schools. Over a quarter of incoming students came from less advantaged backgrounds, with around 7% having been eligible for Free School Meals during their schooling. The number of Black British students admitted has increased by over 50% compared to 2019/20.

Concerns about imposter syndrome, where students feel they don’t belong, are common among Cambridge applicants. However, many find that most fellow students share similar anxieties. Despite disparities in admissions figures compared to the wider population, the university has a diverse student body. Various student-led societies cater to diverse interests and backgrounds, including sports, cultural societies, and support groups like Class Act, which is for all students who have faced (or are facing) any kind of social, educational, cultural or economic disadvantage and ease their transition to university life.

Finally, efforts to enhance diversity and accessibility at the University of Cambridge include the introduction of a fully funded Foundation Year for talented individuals who miss top A-level grades through educational disadvantage and disruption. Admissions decisions are informed by a range of factors, including geodemographic data, school/college performance metrics, and individual circumstances such as experience with the care system or eligibility for free school meals, all declared within the application process.

Myth #3: “The Interview Process is an Interrogation”

The prospect of facing an interview at Cambridge can be intimidating for both students and parents alike. However, it’s essential to debunk the myth that interviews resemble interrogations. In reality, Cambridge interviews are opportunities for students to engage in intellectual discussions, demonstrate critical thinking skills, and showcase their passion for their chosen subject. Tutors are not out to catch students off guard; rather, they aim to assess suitability for the academic environment and potential for success. Encouraging our children to approach interviews with confidence and curiosity can help alleviate anxiety and foster a positive experience.

Myth #4: “Cambridge is All Work, No Play”

The common perception of Cambridge students as solitary scholars is exaggerated. While the academic demands are rigorous, the social aspect of university life is vibrant and inclusive. Cambridge offers an abundance of social opportunities, including clubs, bars, socials, balls, and theme nights, hosted by Colleges and student societies. Cambridge alone has over 500 student-run clubs and societies, ensuring there is something for everyone. Each College has its own social calendar, allowing for nightly outings and participation in a wide range of activities. With a genuine interest in your subject and effective time management skills, our students will tell you that student life at Cambridge is a fun, well rounded university experience.

Myth #5 “Oxbridge is more expensive”

The tuition fees at Oxbridge, for Home/UK fee status students completing their first degree, match those of other universities, standing at £9,250 per year, with provisions for fee reductions for students requiring assistance. Both the University and its Colleges allocate funds specifically for investment in bright young individuals who could benefit the most.

Cambridge offers several financial advantages, notably due to its shorter terms of eight to ten weeks, resulting in accommodation fees only for only a proportion of the year, compared to the potential year-round rent payments at other universities. Guaranteed accommodation for three years is provided at Cambridge. Additionally, minimal transport costs are incurred as most destinations are easily accessible on foot, bus or by bicycle.

Furthermore, Cambridge hosts well-established bursary schemes, hardship funds, book grant funds, and travel grant funds, with the value of each bursary contingent upon household income. The Cambridge Bursary Scheme provides non-repayable bursaries to Home fee status students pursuing their first undergraduate degree. Enhanced awards are available to independent students, with an additional Educational Premium per year for those previously eligible for free school meals. The objective is to ensure that financial constraints do not impede any student admitted.

Moreover, Cambridge offers exceptional value for money, boasting outstanding facilities, including over 100 libraries, and employing a highly effective supervision system. This personalised approach, with small group sessions led by academic experts, distinguishes Cambridge from most other universities.

To find out more, visit the Parents, Guardians and Supporters page on our website and you can also hear Jon discussing common misconceptions, required grades, and other information that most people don’t know about the application process on a recent episode of the What My Best Friend Does podcast.

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LinkedIn: Jon Datta