University matters: undergraduate admissions

University matters: undergraduate admissions

  • Teaching and learning

Sutton Trust image by Tom Almeroth-Williams

Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment, challenges the myths and misconceptions surrounding Cambridge admissions. 

There is a strong relationship between the success of a university and the calibre of the students it admits. I’m pleased to say that at the moment, there is much to celebrate. Undergraduate applications and entry standards are at an all-time high, and the student body (from both the UK and overseas) is more diverse than ever before.

This may come as a surprise to you if, like me, you have heard some of the myths and misconceptions often cited as reasons not to apply to Cambridge. Sometimes these can be amusing (stories about the mysterious questions allegedly posed by our interviewers are an annual feature in several national newspapers) but when they deter bright candidates from applying the impact can be serious.

As a graduate, you are in a unique position to challenge these myths. There is no story more powerful than ‘been there, done that’. If you have ever wondered what to say to a keen young person wanting to apply who worries that Cambridge might ‘not be for me’, here are some facts.

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of undergraduate acceptances from state schools has risen from 54 per cent to 62 per cent; ethnic minority students make up almost one fifth of our intake; and around 10 per cent of our students come from households with an income of £15,000 or less.

Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment

Facts and figures

The University actively seeks out and welcomes the most talented applicants from all backgrounds. In each of the last two years, we received 16,500 applications – a record high. Despite the introduction of higher-rate tuition fees in 2012, our numbers – including those from under-represented groups – have continued to rise.

We have made great strides in improving social diversity. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of undergraduate acceptances from state schools has risen from 54 per cent to 62 per cent; ethnic minority students make up almost one fifth of our intake; and around 10 per cent of our students come from households with an income of £15,000 or less. And we are more internationally diverse, with one in five undergraduates coming from overseas. They are all admitted from the same field, on their individual merits. We don’t have admissions quotas (other than where there is a specific funding contract, such as for Medicine).

We do not use the interview to pick students who fulfil a stereotype of what a Cambridge student should look like. While we do interview 80 per cent of candidates, their academic profile is by far the most important factor; no one receives an offer unless their academic performance warrants it. Likewise, while we value the qualities that they bring to the Cambridge community, we do not award places on the basis of ability in sports, music or any other extracurricular attribute.

Myths about university life

Applying to Cambridge should not affect the likelihood of other universities making you an offer, as they cannot see your other choices at that point. For some, the choice of College is important, but actually Colleges are more alike than they are different and all students benefit from the same core of University teaching and from excellent small group teaching in College regardless of the College they are ultimately admitted to.

Then there are the myths about university life: that studying here is prohibitively expensive, and that the amount of study leaves little time for a social life. A Cambridge education actually represents excellent value for money. Although our fees are the same as at many other institutions, our concentrated, eight-week terms mean less money is spent on accommodation, which all Colleges guarantee for the whole three or four years. Students from low-income households receive up to £3,500 a year in non-repayable grants. As for workload, the fact that the University supports more than 700 student societies speaks for itself.

In considering applicants, all that interests us is how bright they are, their interest in the subject and how they will take advantage of the opportunities that we offer.

Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment

Admissions ambassadors

Sometimes, these myths mean that capable students choose not to apply. But there is much you can do to challenge these misconceptions. You are our most credible ambassadors. If our worldwide network of alumni can put forward the facts about Cambridge in day-to-day conversations – at the office, across a dinner table or at the school gates – it resonates more effectively than a dozen press releases.

We will be doing all we can to support you. We are developing online resources to provide easy access to all the up-to-date facts about the University and its admissions. Ultimately, our message is a simple one: in considering applicants, all that interests us is how bright they are, their interest in the subject and how they will take advantage of the opportunities that we offer.

Article by​ Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 78. Find out how to receive CAM.