Can I get into Cambridge with bad GCSEs?

Unlike many other top universities, Cambridge pays close attention to your GCSEs as they like to see a long track record of academic success. Hence, if you’re set on Cambridge, it’s best to have high grades in your GCSEs.  

But what happens when your GCSE grades aren’t as high as you’d hoped? Can you still get into Cambridge with average/low GCSEs? Cambridge claims that poor GCSEs are not always a barrier to admissions, and indeed, each year we see students receive offers who don’t have the best GCSE results. 

This article delves into if and how you can get into Cambridge with average/low GCSEs. Let’s explore the possibilities!  

Here, at The Profs, we can also offer advice and improve your application. After all, we are Oxbridge admissions experts. We can help you make your UCAS application as deserving of an offer as possible, even with poor GCSEs. In fact, those who work with us more than triple their odds of getting into Oxbridge compared to the national average. 

Don’t forget to check out our previous articles: 

Understanding Cambridge Admissions 

Firstly, it’s important to understand how Cambridge University admissions work. Like many other top-tier universities, Cambridge considers a whole range of factors during the admissions process.  

Cambridge University states that it runs a holistic admissions process, meaning that all aspects of your application are considered to a more or less equal weighting. So, the overall strength of your application is more important than having one incredible section. This means that if you lack in one area of your application, but excel in all other areas, your weaker area might be overlooked. 

Cambridge’s basic criteria consider your historic grades (including your GCSE and AS grades, if applicable), your predicted A level grades (or IB grades or equivalent), your subject combination, your college choice, your personal statement, your reference/s, your work experience and/or extracurriculars, your English language ability (there are usually English language requirements if you’re from a non-English speaking country), your written work/admissions test result (if applicable) and your performance during your interview. 

So, since Cambridge takes a holistic approach to its admissions, it will consider each and every one of these factors and compare your performance in all of them.  

GCSE results are indeed a part of this jigsaw, but they are not the be-all and end-all. Poor GCSEs need not be the end of the road if you can smash every other aspect. 

Cambridge’s GCSE requirements 

Cambridge does not typically specify any GCSE (or equivalent) entry requirements.  

However, Cambridge does consider GCSE grades as a performance indicator (within the context of the performance of the school/college they have been achieved at).  

Some courses do specify some GCSE requirements:  

  • Psychological and Behavioural Sciences: If applicants have not taken an A level/IB Higher level in Biology or Maths, they should demonstrate evidence of strong performance in GCSE Sciences. 
  • Medicine and Veterinary Medicine: Applicants need a grade 4-5 (C) or above in GCSE Double Award Science and Mathematics. 
  • Law: Most applicants have at least four or five 7-9s (A-A*s) at GCSE but Cambridge states that there are always exceptions, and everyone is considered carefully. 

It’s pretty standard practice that most academic and employment institutions expect candidates to have at least a 4-5 (C) in GCSE Maths and English, no matter the relevance to what they’re applying for. So, obtaining this as a minimum is certainly worthwhile.  

Similarly, a 4-5 (C) is usually regarded as a pass grade. So, if you have a 3 or lower in any subject, it’s regarded as failing and it’s worth mending this as it could bring down the rest of your application. 

 By this same merit, “good” and “bad” GCSEs are relative to context. It’s a common misconception that everyone at Cambridge has 8-9s (A*s) for all of their GCSEs, and that achieving all 7s (As) or 6-7s (As and Bs) is sub-par. These are still great GCSEs and you can certainly work with them if the rest of your application is great!  

Some Cambridge colleges are more strict than others, so you should also research each college and take this into consideration if you’d like to apply with poor GCSE grades.

Please note: If you’re an international student, Cambridge accepts equivalent grades to GCSEs. See here for more information. 

Postgraduate applicants: Cambridge’s entry requirements for postgraduate courses don’t mention GCSEs and A levels. When it comes to postgraduate applications, secondary school qualifications become much less important as they will predominantly consider your degree results. However, if you don’t have a 4-6 (C-B) in GCSE English and Maths, this could weaken your application and it might be worth investing a little time into retaking to be on the safe side. 

The average GCSEs of Cambridge students 

Most students who apply to Cambridge have at least four or five 7-9s (A-A*s) at GCSE. The majority of successful Oxford and Cambridge students have seven or more 9s (A*s) in their GCSEs. 

So, yes, all A*s will aid your application. And yes, the average Cambridge student has an academic track record of top grades. But perfect GCSEs are not imperative. Every year, Oxbridge makes offers to students with 1, 2 or even no 9s (A*s) at GCSE. 

Can I get into Oxford with bad GCSEs? 

The advice for Oxford will largely be the same as Cambridge: it’s always worth applying if you can make all other aspects of your application great, or if you’re willing to improve your GCSEs. 

However, Oxford seems to place a little more importance on GCSEs than Cambridge as they typically accept a higher number of applicants with fantastic GCSE track records each year. 

Consequently, if your only/main weak point is your GCSEs, you might have a better shot at Cambridge.   

Contextual GCSE requirements 

Cambridge aims to diversify its student body and be an accessible institution to all students with promise, including those who might lack certain privileges and opportunities. Hence, they do analyse “contextual data”. This does not mean that they will admit students with a poor academic record, however, it does mean that they will review your achievements in light of your context. For instance, Cambridge considers:  

  • Your individual circumstances: whether an applicant has spent time in the care of a local authority, has been eligible for free school meals or has any Extenuating Circumstances Form (where submitted) e.g. sickness or bereavement.
  • Your geodemographic data: the socio-economic characteristics of an applicant’s local area, and rates of progression to higher education there. 
  • School/college data: the GCSE performance, A Level performance, and recent history of offers to Cambridge or Oxford, of an applicant’s school/college. 

Consequently, Cambridge looks at the school you earned your GCSEs and considers whether it’s a public or private school, as well as the average grades of the student body there, before judging your results. Ultimately, Cambridge is looking for academic potential in students. So, if your GCSEs aren’t very high but they’re far higher than most of your peers, Cambridge might see potential in you.  

Also, note that Cambridge is lenient on grades/predicted grades that were affected by COVID-19. 

It is important that you mention any of the aforementioned factors that are relevant to you in your UCAS and/or MyCapp application so that you receive a fair shot at Cambridge.  

All that said, Cambridge has no clear rule regarding contextual data. So, how this affects your application is usually on a case-by-case basis.  

Cambridge seeks to lift up their applicants who lack support, rather than reduce expectations or let lower grades slide. Consequently, they might hold a less privileged student to their official grade requirements yet offer them the tools and support to achieve this. This is because, whilst Cambridge wants to be as accessible as possible, they require a comprehensive foundation of knowledge from their applicants and seek to “catch up” students who have lacked opportunities rather than admit unprepared students. 

However, as Cambridge doesn’t have GCSE requirements, it is more likely that they are less strict with GCSEs than A levels; they are especially likely to overlook poor GCSEs due to contextual circumstances if you have high A levels. 

Make use of your referee 

Ask your referee to vouch for you. You want your referee to defend why you have some poor GCSE grades and assure Cambridge that you are still a suitable candidate with a good academic track record. Maybe they can say how you make up for this loss.  

It is ideal if your referee can mention any limitations, contextual or extenuating circumstances in their statement. This way, you can focus your own personal statement on your strengths, rather than explaining or defending the weaknesses in your application. It can also sound more credible coming from a referee. Plus, you won’t have to use precious parts of your restricted word limit to say so yourself. However, if your referee won’t bring these things up, make sure that you do. 

Makeup for your bad GCSEs by trying this  

Remember, GCSEs are just one piece of the puzzle. You can overcome low GCSE grades and make your dream of studying at Cambridge a reality. Let’s run through some tips on how: 

1. Offer an alternative academic track record: 

While GCSEs are considered, A level predictions and performance in written assessments or admission tests are often viewed as more important. This is because they are a more recent indication of academic ability and are closer to the level of study required at university. Not to mention, they often revolve around your chosen discipline.  

Cambridge itself states that strong performance in years 12 and 13 can make up for poor performance in GCSE. So, if your A level predictions and written work or admissions test fit your entry requirements, you might still receive an offer even with lower GCSE grades.  

Obviously, you should try to go beyond simply meeting your A level and written work/admissions test requirements. The higher you can make these grades, the more redeemable your GCSEs become. If your A level results are outstanding, it will be clear that you have a lot of academic potential, the key attribute that university admissions staff are looking for. 

We have excellent tutors with plenty of experience in helping students smash their admissions tests and A levels. Just reach out if you need any help.

2. Submit the perfect personal statement: 

You should submit a personal statement to UCAS that demonstrates your curiosity, enthusiasm and dedication for/to your chosen course. This should be a unique piece of work that helps you to stand out from the crowd and mentions your other notable and relevant achievements.   

You will also have the opportunity to submit a personal statement to MyCapp, which you can write directly to Cambridge and address why you are the perfect fit for your specific course at Cambridge University. 

Both your personal statements should prove to Cambridge that you would be a talented student who enjoys learning and challenging themselves and would work hard for the duration of their degree. The better these statements are, the more likely Cambridge will overlook your GCSEs being a little lower than what they usually consider.  

Unsure about how to ace this part? Get help from one of our amazing personal statement tutors.

3. Present an impressive background  

Cambridge values students who have undertaken relevant work experience and extracurricular activities. Especially if they are relevant to your chosen degree and/or demonstrate transferable skills that could aid your undergraduate performance. Pursuing your subject outside of academia is proof of your genuine passion for it and your commitment to it. And even better if you have earned awards or achievements! 

Extracurriculars could also include MOOCs or wider reading. Cambridge really values students who independently learn about their subject beyond the curriculum. Teach yourself first and second-year concepts and get started on the reading list for your chosen course to demonstrate that you are already able to understand your discipline at university level! Cambridge provides a list of suggested readings here.

Showing that you are hungry for knowledge and interested in independent learning will take the spotlight off your GCSEs.

4. Smash your interview  

The interview is another critical aspect of Cambridge admissions. 

Cambridge interviews 75% of its applicants, so if you get an interview it doesn’t mean you’ve surpassed the point of them caring about your GCSE grades. But you can think of your interview as your chance for Cambridge to overlook your GCSEs. 

If you wow Cambridge with your interview as well as all other aspects of your application process, and it’s just your GCSEs that are lacking, then you’ve got a really good chance of getting an offer! 

Be confident, friendly, and enthusiastic. But most of all, be prepared. Read over your personal statement/s and be ready to answer any questions about it. Practice answering questions and have some texts that you are ready to discuss or pull from. 

Remember, Oxbridge interviews are more like one-to-one conversations, and they are predominantly checking how you think and approach problems, and whether you would be a good fit with their teaching style. Here, the university assesses your academic potential and passion for your chosen subject. Your performance in this area can significantly outweigh weaker GCSE results. 

Check out our previous article on preparing for an Oxbridge interview. Our founder even made a video on how to smash a university interview!

Nervous? Don’t be. We have experienced interview tutors who specialise in Oxbridge interviews.

Finally, remember that all four of these points are important. Don’t aim to make up for poor GCSEs with just one of these factors. Your best bet at being accepted despite having sub-par GCSEs is by excelling in all four of these areas!  

How to improve GCSE grades 

If you’re worried about your GCSE grades getting in the way of you receiving an offer to Cambridge, the most obvious solution is to improve them. You can do this one of two ways: 

  • Get your GCSEs remarked: You might have a few grades that are just one or two marks off a higher grade. If this is the case, it might be worth getting them remarked. If one or more go up by just one mark, you’ll enter the higher-grade bracket, and raise the overall profile of your GCSEs! And if they are at the top of a grade bracket, risking them being marked down a couple of marks shouldn’t affect your overall grade. Of course, there is always some risk involved so it’s a good idea to get a couple of teacher’s opinions on the matter and be prepared for the worst-case scenario.   
  • Resit your GCSEs: The best bet in all of this is to actually resit your GCSEs and improve your grades. However, this is also the option that takes the most effort. But, if you do this during Year 12 or a summer holiday (before your workload increases too much), you can avoid retaking your GCSEs during the end period of secondary school when things get a little busier and more stressful. 

Should I improve my GCSE grades?  

In terms of retaking, it may or may not be worth your time. Here are the factors you can consider regarding whether you should retake your GCSEs to get into Cambridge:  

  • Who are your peers? – If you are applying alongside students from your school who have 7-9 (A-A*) in GCSE, and students at your school generally get good grades, it is probably worth investing some time and effort into GCSE retakes. However, if your peers pale in comparison to you, you might be okay without revisiting your GCSEs. 
  • Have you smashed your relevant subjects? – If you’re hoping to study English Literature and you only have one or two 4-6 (C-B) grades in Maths and Chemistry, and for the rest you have 7-9 (A-A*), it is probably not worth retaking. Whereas, if you have a 4-6 (C-B) in English or another essay subject, then this is probably something you want to improve. If you are applying for a degree like Law, it’s worth retaking GCSE English to get the highest grade (level 9) in your exam results. Or if you wish to study a language at Cambridge, you might want to retake your GCSE language to earn a top score. 
  • Are your dud grades in vocational subjects? – If you have mostly 7-9 (A-A*) grades and one or two 4-6 (C-B) grades in vocational subjects, like IT or Business, it is probably unnecessary to retake these. As long as these grades are not in subjects related to your degree. 
  • How low are your “low” grades? – If your low grades are 4-5 (C) or above, then these might not be worth retaking, especially if you have 7-9 (A-A*) in subjects required for your course. However, grades below 4-5 (C) are important to retake, especially if they’re in non-vocational subjects. 

Consider taking a year out 

If this article is making you realise that you need to retake most or all of your GCSEs, or that you have many more areas to improve than just your GCSEs, you might want to consider taking a year out. 

You can use this year to study, retake, and put your absolute best foot forward, rather than scramble and hand in an application that could be much better. If Cambridge is your dream, a year out doesn’t mean much. Reach out if this idea appeals to you, or if you just want some general advice or support with your Cambridge application.  

Here, at The Profs, we have tonnes of experience converting a year out into a top Oxbridge application. Oxbridge applications are our forte, that’s why we triple our Oxbridge success rate is 3x the national average! Work with us if you want to maximise your chances of success and join the winning team. 

Can I Get into Cambridge with bad GCSEs? 

As we’ve learned from this article, the short answer is yes, it is possible.  

While GCSE grades form part of your Cambridge application, they are not the sole determining factor. You can highlight your strengths in other areas to give yourself a strong chance. So don’t be disheartened if your GCSE grades aren’t as high as you’d like. There could still be a pathway to Cambridge for you.  

That said, every application is unique, and it’s essential to focus on improving other areas of your application if your GCSE grades are lower than expected. Or consider improving your GCSEs.  

Reach out to us if you’re unsure about your plan of action. We can assess your profile or application and advise you on the best strategy for you. 

We can help 

The Cambridge admissions process can be challenging and overwhelming. That’s why we at The Profs offer professional guidance to help navigate it. Our talented, expert tutors can provide personalised support and mentoring tailored to your individual needs.  

Here at The Profs, we have a dedicated, experienced, and friendly team of:  

Whatever you need, we’ve got you. Triple your chances of getting into Cambridge by working with us. Don’t let Cambridge slip through your fingers.