Cambridge is one of the most prestigious universities in the world, which is why it has a low acceptance rate of just 19%. If you’re worried that you don’t meet Cambridge’s requirements, there are some tips and tricks that could tip the scales in your favour. Let’s break them down.
Cambridge’s basic criteria consider your grades, subject choices, college choice, application, experience, language ability, and performance during your interview. This article will explore each of these factors, helping you to identify which areas you might be lacking and to equip you with the know-how to combat this.
- What are the criteria to get into Cambridge?
- Understanding Cambridge’s entry requirements for undergraduates
- Understanding Cambridge’s entry requirements for postgraduates
- What should I do if I don’t meet Cambridge’s Entry Requirements, and how do I get in?
- We can help!
What is the criteria to get into Cambridge?
Cambridge, as the second part of the portmanteau “Oxbridge” and one of the two oldest universities in the world, has a longstanding reputation as a top-tier educational institution. It can afford to be choosey. Hence, Cambridge runs an extremely competitive admissions process.
Meeting or exceeding Cambridge’s entry requirements doesn’t guarantee you an offer. You are considered in relation to the standard of applicants that year.
When it comes to entry requirements, Cambridge considers a variety of factors:
- Grades: Cambridge’s esteemed university ranking means that it asks for much higher grades than many other universities. So, check whether your grades are up to par!
- Subject choices: Some colleges or courses at Cambridge might deem it essential that you’ve studied X or Y subjects. In other cases, they might strongly recommend or encourage specific subjects. Beyond what is mandatory or advised, it’s important that your subject choices convey a genuine interest in your chosen degree, as well as applicable knowledge, and relevant capability.
- Your college choice: This carries weight regarding your eligibility as Cambridge will consider your suitability for this college as well as your chosen course.
- Your application: Your personal statement should demonstrate your suitability for both Cambridge and your chosen degree. It should prove that you are motivated and impassioned by the course.
- Your experience: Relevant work experience, extracurriculars, and extra/other qualifications might give you an edge over other students or make up for other areas in which you lack.
- English language ability: If your first language isn’t English then you will need an English language qualification. See here for those accepted by Cambridge. The grade and/or level of proficiency expected depends on your course, so check your specific course requirements. In particular, you’ll need a reasonable standard of spoken and written English at the time of the interview. For postgraduates, the expectations are less general and can be found on our table. Moreover, language conditions will be at the discretion of the Cambridge college that makes you an offer.
- Your interview: Many universities do not interview their applicants so this is an extra step that adds some further effort and pressure to the process. However, it also gives you a valuable opportunity to stand out if your application on paper is not as strong as your peers!
Please note: There are additional steps and criteria if you are applying for a specific scholarship and you often need a reference, so ensure that you add this separately to your general checklist.
For general advice on how to get into Cambridge, check out our previous blog!
Feeling overwhelmed by all the factors you’ve got to consider? Or just generally daunted by the Cambridge admissions process? Here at The Profs, we have amazing admissions tutors, with a proven track record of tripling their students’ chances of success. They can help you with meeting the entry requirements, as well as preparing your perfect application. Don’t stress, just reach out to our friendly team for an expert helping hand.
Understanding Cambridge’s entry requirements for undergraduates
First thing’s first, you need to understand Cambridge’s expectations. We have made a table where you can see Cambridge’s criteria for each of its undergraduate courses. Just click below to check it out:
Can’t find your subject? Click here to find your undergraduate course.
Are you an international student? Check out Cambridge’s help page for international services where you can find your specific country of residence as well as the corresponding entry requirements.
Understanding Cambridge’s entry requirements for postgraduates
Applying for a postgraduate course is completely different to applying for an undergraduate course. Cambridge considers a new set of criteria, and it varies according to the course. We have made a table where you can see Cambridge’s criteria for each of their postgraduate courses. Just click below to check it out:
Can’t find your subject? Click here to find your course.
Are you an international student? Check out Cambridge’s help page for international services where you can find your specific country of residence as well as the coinciding entry requirements.
What should I do if I don’t meet Cambridge’s Entry Requirements, and how do I get in?
We have some insider advice to share if you don’t meet Cambridge’s entry requirements. Cambridge might not necessarily be beyond your reach! Below is a breakdown of what you could be lacking regarding Cambridge’s entry criteria, and how to tackle this.
Please note: Even if your chosen course does not have any/many specific A level subject requirements, you should check Cambridge’s general subject preferences here. Cambridge is not keen on vocational subjects and they do consider your combination of subjects. Also, your specific course page will often detail what subjects most of the recent successful applicants took.
1) If your subject choices don’t align with Cambridge’s expectations
There is a wide spectrum of subjects at Cambridge so the ideal subject combination relies on your chosen degree subject. Typically, if you are choosing a Science, they’ll value you having A levels in STEM subjects. More generally, they’ll want to see you have studied the subject you’re applying for if it’s a common subject e.g. they would expect an English Literature applicant to have studied English Literature for A level but they would not expect Law applicants to have studied Law for A level. Always be sure to check your specific course’s subject requirements.
Top tip: Cambridge offers some unique courses, like Land Economy, HSPS, and Natural Sciences. If you’re interested in taking one of these degrees, you can really stand out. Research one of these unique courses in depth and convey that you have a genuine passion for it in your personal statement that is well evidenced with relevant readings.
Recovery tips: What can I do if I don’t meet the subject requirements?
It is important to recognise that if a certain subject is required, it might be worth your time to take the missing subject.
Sometimes there are fast-track options available, such as using school holidays to take classes and revise. Alternatively, you can get a tutor, and invest time and effort outside of school into taking the added subject. If you implement these strategies, you might be able to catch up in time for the exam/coursework deadlines or proceed with later deadlines. If your school will not facilitate you adding this subject to your timetable, they may still allow you to sit the exams. If not, you might be able to find an external institution to sit the exams with. If you’re eligible for a bridging programme, you could also benefit from taking a course at Cambridge’s Sutton Trust Summer School in your missing subject. Cambridge also offers a summer programme for international students.
If you’re applying for a postgraduate course with an undergraduate degree in the “wrong” subject, your solution might involve: enrolling in a conversion course, completing a relevant supplementary qualification, or taking a short course at Cambridge University. For example, Cambridge offers a range of short, online courses that are available to everyone.
What if I can’t get a grade in my missing subject?
It is definitely worth explaining to Cambridge why you have not studied a required subject. For example, if your chosen course requires you to have studied a certain language, and your school doesn’t offer this subject, you should flag this in your application. Or if your chosen course requires you to have studied a Natural Science but your school wouldn’t let you enrol in a Natural Science class because you tried too late in the year, had the wrong background, or for whatever reason it might be, you should note this in your application. If your referee can mention this for you, that is ideal, but if not, ensure that you do so yourself.
Another tip for if you are missing a required subject is: to try to find a related extra qualification that you can complete which can stand in for the missing one. For example, those who are not taking a Humanities subject but want to get into a degree programme that requires a grade in this might consider taking a niche or clearly thought over MOOC in this field or participating in the International Linguistics Olympiad to bolster their application. There are also numerous writing competitions for young people, such as The Young Walter Scott Prize and the Young Poets’ Competition, placing in one of these could positively impact your application. Better yet, many of Cambridge’s colleges host essay prizes – most of which can be entered by UK students outside of Cambridge University. However, a student applying to a postgraduate degree in a business discipline despite not having studied any quantitative subjects might consider taking the GRE to make up for this as it is required for some postgraduate Cambridge courses.
For some courses at Cambridge, A Level Further Mathematics is very strongly encouraged. If it is unavailable or you recognise its desirability too late, Cambridge specifies that you should take on as much additional pure maths and decision maths as possible. Cambridge offers examples, such as studying Further Mathematics AS Level or using online resources covering advanced material. Cambridge will also consider good performance in Maths competitions and/or completion of the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme. Beyond this, you could participate in the Maths Olympiad, or take the TMUA or UK Maths Challenge. Finally, it is recommended that you contact your chosen college for further advice and guidance.
Recovery tips for if you don’t meet subject recommendations:
Finally, you might find that your subject profile does not clash with the subject requirements for your desired Cambridge course, but only the recommended/favoured subjects. In this case, taking another A level course might not be wise at all, nor would be discussing the missing favoured subject in your application. However, it is never a waste of time to take a relevant extra qualification that could bolster your application and show capability in Cambridge’s recommended subject/s. Cambridge is heavily competitive, so anything that you can do to present yourself as the ideal candidate for their course is advised. If your Cambridge course favours students who have taken History or a Foreign Language and you are without this, you should pursue something along these lines outside of your curriculum and flag that in your application. For example, you could join a History society and do independent research/work for the History department or take a Language course outside of school and complete an international language qualification.
2) Underestimated factors that carry weight
Your application is not about how great you are:
Surprisingly, a lot of applicants forget to mention what they intend to do with their degree as well as why they are applying, or why they are a good student for their chosen course at this university. This, however, is exactly what the application is supposed to focus on, rather than just proving why you’re great.
Cambridge wants students who have academic ability, and potential, would benefit from Cambridge’s learning environment, and are best suited to the course they are applying for. So, your application is the perfect chance for you to prove this to them. Show Cambridge that you’re well-suited to their course, your chosen college, and Cambridge itself.
Your choice of college:
You can choose a specific college to apply to or, if you don’t have a preference, you can make an open application. However, an open application does not mean that your application is sent to all colleges. Cambridge will assign you one and your application will be processed through them. Therefore, an open application will not offer you a greater chance of being admitted. In fact, showing clear knowledge of a college as well as a keen interest in joining their community might give you a better chance as this will show you have genuine enthusiasm rather than handing in a generalised application. Cambridge could also assign you the most competitive college for your course, so it might be better to take the reins yourself. Colleges vary in that some are recognised as the most prestigious for particular disciplines and have tighter acceptance rates. Similarly, some have larger student bodies and therefore can accept more students. Officially, Cambridge states that choosing a college that attracts fewer applications will not increase your chance of being made an offer, but it is definitely worth your time to consider not aiming for the college with the most admissions if your application is lacking in some areas.
Other relevant factors you should consider when choosing your college include the age limit of who they accept, their location, type of accommodation, fellows in the college, and facilities available. You can find out about all of Cambridge’s colleges here. Cambridge suggests you take virtual tours and contact your shortlisted colleges’ admissions offices to help you make a decision.
If you’re trying to make up for weak points regarding your application, it could be a good idea to invest a lot of time into researching a college that suits you as a person, as well as your learning style, and academic interests. Maybe the college hosts competitions or societies that are relevant to your experiences and passions. Or maybe you could contribute to the college’s existing research or participation in a project. If you construct a convincing argument as to why you’re the perfect candidate for that particular college, you’ll increase your chances.
For undergraduates: Cambridge has an early deadline compared to most other universities. Whilst the standard UCAS deadline falls in January, Cambridge’s deadline for standard undergraduates is in October. Applying much earlier than the deadline will not increase your chances so do not rush your application by any means. Just be organised enough to have your application 100% ready for Cambridge’s deadline.
For postgraduates: Unlike undergraduates, there is no overarching deadline for all postgraduate applications to Cambridge as the admissions process is not done through UCAS or another body. Instead, you apply directly to Cambridge. The broad window for deadlines is usually by January or early February, whilst the deadline for more competitive courses falls between March and April.
Postgraduates might benefit from applying earlier than the deadline. Applicants receive their answers earlier if they applied by the earliest deadline, hence there are fewer spaces left for those who submit their application by the final deadline. If you are lacking in any areas, it’s a good idea to submit your application long before the deadline and have yourself compared to as few candidates as possible. Moreover, you’ll know sooner if your application wasn’t successful and be able to try some other universities.
Demonstrate expert knowledge:
Show that your understanding of the course is beyond comprehensive by talking about very specific and complex concepts. The best way to do this is to do your research and go beyond the curriculum and A level understanding. If you take the time to read a large breadth of quality literature around your subject, you can reference academic texts or textbooks and analyse them to demonstrate that you are able to work at university level. Be careful not to read the most popular texts that most students in your field might point to. Express something unique to your personal interests. Or find something unknown, underrated, niche, and/or peculiar to talk about.
Better yet, research your specific department, and discuss how you would contribute to your department’s existing published research or accomplishments. Cambridge favours students who are able to think critically and independently. It can be impressive if you find a way to conduct proper research related to your subject and demonstrate the critical ability to explore it outside the confines of your school environment. The importance is showing Cambridge that you can flourish as an academic without handholding and a regimented school structure. If you really want to impress Cambridge, you could study the first few weeks of a first or second-year module for your chosen course and talk about this in your application. This will prove that you are already able to think and study at university level – which is what Cambridge is looking for.
If you’re a postgraduate applicant, it is recommended that you have a very strong undergraduate dissertation with a connection to your chosen degree. The more independent thought it demonstrates, the better. If you are applying for a research Master’s, as opposed to a taught Master’s, it’s important that you show the capability of research methods.
Talk end goals:
Cambridge values applicants with a clear and ambitious career plan because they want their students to go on to get good jobs after university and maintain a strong Cambridge alumni network. For example, if you’re applying for a course in Economics or Law, it’s imperative to show you’ve thought about your career and what comes next. So, mention your career aspirations in your application and be specific. What institution or company do you want to work for, and what do you want to specialise in? If you’re not sure, educate yourself. Also remember, your career aspirations don’t need to be set in stone. You have every right to change your mind later down the line.
The bottom line is that Cambridge wants students with a real interest in the chosen subject, and it’s a bonus if they will also maintain their employability rankings.
Also, if your degree is something with a clear academic focus it’s better to say your academic plan.
If you’re applying for a postgraduate degree, you will need to present a very clear objective behind this course: What do you hope to achieve with this and what makes your research proposal special?
Your work experience or professional experience
What work experience can do for an otherwise weak application should not be downplayed! Cambridge itself states that they sometimes admit students who might not meet the minimum entry requirements when they have practical experience which makes up for where they fall short. In these cases, this is entirely up to the admitting department to decide if they would like to accept the application. If this is the case for you, include your CV and a statement as to why you should be considered, and how your work experience makes you an excellent candidate.
Your work experience or professional experience (undergraduates):
For undergraduate courses at Cambridge, work experience is never a requirement. However, Cambridge is a very competitive university, especially for undergraduate entry, and it’s best to do all you can to stand out to maximise your chances. Work experience in a relevant industry to your chosen discipline can demonstrate your drive and commitment to the subject. Expressing what skills you have learned from this experience and how they will help you with your course will also make you a more attractive candidate. Therefore, it is good to have some work experience regardless of the strength of your application, especially if your application is lacking in any area.
Remember, context is important. Remain as relevant to your degree as possible. For example, if your degree values critical thinking skills you should be referencing work experience that marries up with this.
Try to get work experience at a relevant institution/company and highlight that you are looking forward to working there or in the same field after university. For example, if you are applying for a Politics degree, it is great if you can say you got some work experience at Chatham House. If that’s not an opportunity you can access, you can stand out by saying that you went to court to watch a particular case. Work experience is more important for postgraduate applications where you can reference a whole summer of work rather than just a week or two.
It’s good to keep in mind: Does your work experience prove that you worked hard and developed relevant and valuable skills? Or does it only show that you benefitted from a lucky connection? Cambridge is only interested in an experience that has made you a better-suited student for your chosen course! Again, working there for a decent chunk of time demonstrates that you did a good job and must’ve learned some skills even if you got the opportunity from a link. By the same token, don’t worry if you’ve not had the chance to gather any impressive work experience. You can make up for this with extensive knowledge about your course that you’ve gathered from a MOOC, research, or wider reading.
Your work experience or professional experience (postgraduates):
For postgraduate courses at Cambridge, work experience is sometimes required or recommended for courses surrounding subjects like Medicine, Health Sciences, Law, Policy, and AI. Again, make sure that you stick to roles and industries that complement your course. Alternatively, some of Cambridge’s courses, such as Finance related ones, deem candidates unsuitable if they have already got work experience or professional experience. Hence, it is very important to check your course’s entry requirements. Only if your course encourages experience should you get it and mention it! Generally, longer work experience is better unless your course states otherwise.
Don’t forget to mention the experience you might have picked up during your undergraduate course. You can apply for ‘Spring Weeks’ through Cambridge and other top universities. These are designed to give you a comprehensive introduction to your relevant industry. It is great if you are able to say you’ve done this as it proves you have some experience, but more importantly, it shows that you have initiative, motivation and passion. Similarly, if you completed an internship, or if you were a part of any university society, especially if you had a position such as president or treasurer, it’s extremely valuable to highlight this.
Explore as much as you can to know what you’re good at and what you want to do.
Extracurriculars can be a great opportunity to boost your application. If the activities are related to your chosen subject, they can demonstrate genuine passion and interest in the subject. If you have any accomplishments within your extracurriculars, they can be evidence that you have talent, capability, and skills that will equip you for your degree. That said, don’t write ‘fluff’, check that your extracurriculars genuinely relate to your chosen course and strengthen your application. Ensure you add new experiences to your repertoire if you’re falling short in any areas of your application.
Show that you have the X factor. Have you been an appreciated leader for anything, or recognised nationally as a high performer for something? Whatever it is that you have achieved, can you link it to academia, and more importantly, to skills that your course requires? For example, a black belt in Judo might be hard to associate with the Law degree you’d like to take, whereas, being head of your school’s debate team is certainly relevant. On this same note, being part of the UK Maths Olympiad team massively heightens your chances of studying Maths at Cambridge, particularly at Trinity College. With hobbies like music, it is probably only worth mentioning if you have impressive grades and/or play multiple instruments and can link this talent to skills required by your chosen degree. The main importance is the relationship between your hobby and your desired subject, as these extracurriculars only become beneficial if they relate to your ability to excel as a student in your chosen department.
For postgraduate applicants, it’s perfect if you can mention being an integral part of a society relevant to your subject during your undergraduate degree.
Don’t allow mentioning your extracurriculars to detract you from your discipline. Align yourself with your subject as early as possible within your application.
Don’t ignore the power of your referee:
You should always set up a meeting with your referee early in the application process because their statement about you is just as integral as your personal statement.
A good referee is important. Obviously, you want them to speak highly of you, but ideally, they will highlight your skills and qualities that are relevant to your chosen degree. For this reason, as well as for the general impression of your application, it is best to choose a referee who teaches your chosen subject or within your discipline. It is also a good idea to choose a referee who knows you well enough to write you something of quality.
Talk to your referee about your strengths that they might not be aware of: what you have read around your subjects, and your work experiences and non-school achievements. You want your referee to convince Cambridge that you are good at your chosen subject/s, passionate about them, and committed to your discipline.
Use your referee wherever you need them and ask them to vouch for you. If you lack a particular qualification or a high enough grade in something, you want your referee to defend why that is 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. However, it is important to note that this is somewhat relative. For example, it is unlikely that your referees’ commendation will save you if all your A level grades fall a good chunk below minimum requirements.
It is ideal if your referee can mention any weaknesses 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.
You will be invited to complete the MyCapp Application soon after you submit your UCAS application.
This step is often massively overlooked as it is misunderstood as a minor data collection form. However, it can showcase your talents in a manner that is purposefully geared towards Cambridge. Your UCAS application is sent to all your university choices and cannot be personal to Cambridge, whereas your MyCapp can be. You can demonstrate to Cambridge that you have great rationale related to your subject. The MyCapp can significantly impact your application outcome so it’s very important and certainly not a throwaway step in the admissions process. Use this chance to speak directly to your department at Cambridge and explain why you’re suited to Cambridge specifically. You want to do the work to stand out here if your entry requirements are lacking.
Further details on what MyCapp is and how to complete it can be found in our previous blog here.
After your A level grades, your admissions test and your interview are the most important factors.
Cambridge interviews 75% of their applicants and yet their undergraduate acceptance rate is just 19%. Hence, your interview is the deciding factor for whether you are admitted to Cambridge or not! If you’re falling below the minimum entry requirements but are good at talking about academia, and more importantly, your discipline, then this is your chance. Cambridge interviews 25% more of their applicants than Oxford. So, a borderline candidate, who is good at interviewing, has a slightly higher chance at Cambridge.
Generally, the Cambridge interview is used as an equaliser. Once you’ve gotten to the interview you can disregard your grades as they will no longer determine whether you gain admission. However, you should be conscious of your admissions test score. You have a little more room for a hiccup in your interview if you have an amazing admissions test score. Whereas if your score isn’t very good, the interview might be an uphill battle.
In your interview, Cambridge is checking whether you think independently and are excited about your course. When they ask you a question, they are watching how you answer it, rather than your answer itself. Your interview is your chance to engage academically with people in your discipline who are far more senior. Your Cambridge interview is also an audition to check your suitability for the one-to-one conversational style of teaching that you would receive there. Hence, if you can smash this, assuming you’re selected for an interview, you’re in with a good chance of admission even if you don’t fulfil all of Cambridge’s entry requirements.
3) If your grades aren’t up to par
Grades are expected and considered before anything else. In short, Cambridge does expect you to have their required grades, and even then, having them might not be enough. So, the value of meeting Cambridge’s academic entry requirements cannot be underestimated. Generally, Cambridge has one grade requirement higher than Oxford. Hence, fewer people can apply to Cambridge than Oxford and you will find it easier to get in if you have very strong grades. Cambridge offers intensive, rigorous, and demanding courses, so they want to be sure that the students who gain admission can keep up.
Cambridge even states that their admissions decisions are solely based on academic criteria, your ability and your potential. So, it’s crucial that you show your potential if your grades aren’t ideal.
Many universities (even top universities) solely or predominantly consider your A levels. However, Cambridge considers your GCSEs as well as your A levels (or equivalent) so you must ensure that none of your historic grades let you down, especially in subjects relevant to your course.
The importance placed on your academic history can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you have the opportunity and platform to showcase all of your wins from when you were young. This can extend beyond your GCSEs themselves to any extra qualifications, courses, tests or extracurriculars you took and did well in, so long as they demonstrate academic excellence and/or talent in your field of interest. On the other hand, if you have had a dip in grades here or there over the years, this may weaken your application.
Also, don’t stretch yourself too thin if you’re struggling to get great grades. Consider dropping down to three A levels if you’re taking four. Cambridge states that four A levels are not an advantage over three unless the fourth is Further Maths and you are applying for a STEM course.
Please note: Cambridge claims that they accept equivalent grades to GCSE, A level, and/or IB, even if you have a mix. See here to find your grades.
So, let’s talk solutions for if any of your grades are lacking:
College requirements for your course:
The table provided is based on Cambridge’s standard entry requirements for the following courses but it is imperative that you always check your chosen college’s requirements as they can vary e.g. some colleges ask for an A* in a specific subject. Consequently, you might want to check the requirements for your course alongside each college and choose to apply for a college with lower grade requirements (if this is an option).
Careful what you declare:
Put your best foot forward as long as it’s not deceitful.
If you have two GCSE or A level grades for a singular subject, with one being lower than the other, you might not need to declare both of them. If the better result is the most recent one, then this is your rewritten grade, and you should only present this grade to Cambridge. However, there is a chance that they notice the date is later than your other GCSEs or A levels and ask you about that. If this happens you should explain that you completed the test twice and that this is your most recent result.
However, if your most recent grade is the lower one, then this is your current and rewritten grade and you have to declare it. But in this situation, you should declare both of your grades as evidence that you have in fact achieved higher before, and you can even state that the higher grade is the accurate representation of your abilities.
Similarly, if you took an extra test or qualification beyond your standard GCSEs and/or A levels then it is not mandatory for you to declare this or your results in your application to Cambridge. If you didn’t do very well, don’t bring it up.
All that said, make sure you talk to a teacher at your school to double-check what you have to declare as you don’t want to get into trouble or have your statements mismatch anything your school files for you.
Offer an alternative track record:
Mention all your relevant wins from the beginning to the end of your time at secondary school. Again, this can include absolutely anything that demonstrates excellent academic ability and/or talent in your field of interest. The better these wins are, or the more you have of them, the more likely they are to make up for your academic blips.
For example, you can stand out by mentioning scholarships, awards, class prizes, the percentile you were ranked in your class (if your school offers this), and competitions such as the Intermediate Biology Olympiad. Even things like a high chess ELO ranking could help you prove the academic capability of your mind. Having impressive work experience could also help you. Last but not least, Cambridge values wider reading around chosen subjects. Cambridge strongly recommends that students demonstrate they have pursued supercurriculars to make their application more competitive; this can include books, magazines, newspapers, podcasts, documentaries, websites, exhibitions, lectures, work experience, and more. Demonstrating a keen interest in a wide array of academic work around your subject and being able to analyse them comprehensively can demonstrate your interest and aptitude in your subject, even if you don’t have the ideal grades. Cambridge provides a list of suggested readings here.
This is the second element that will be looked at after your grades.
Cambridge requires admissions tests for many of its courses. Often these are written, but sometimes these are verbal or practical. Sometimes you will need to register for the test yourself and take it at an assessment centre, and sometimes no registration is necessary and your chosen college will provide the details to you. So, make sure that you check what is expected from you so that you are properly prepared!
Information on Cambridge’s admissions tests can be found here.
If your grades aren’t ideal and your course does require an admissions test this is a great opportunity for you! If you impress Cambridge with an amazing score on your admissions test, they might overlook your school grades being a little on the low side. For example, if you’re applying for Maths and you have slightly lower grades than A*A*A, but you ace all sections of your STEP exam, Cambridge might still consider you. Preparing, practising, and/or revising as much in advance as possible for your test will help you to do your best. So, be organised, and get started as early as you can.
Don’t forget, admissions tests are The Profs’ forte! We can help you smash yours, just like we’ve helped so many before you.
Please note: You should be aware of the average scores for your required admissions test e.g. the average scores of those invited for an interview as well as those who receive an offer. These differ from year to year, so check your specific test within the current date so that you know what to work towards. Aim above the average scores of interviewees and offer holders to make your application as competitive as possible. Also, check that there have been no changes to your test format. For example, the PAT has been completely changed so past papers for the PAT might not be relevant. Also, be aware of different sections and skills within your admission test. For example, the TSA is split between a Q/A section and an essay section so you should be prepared for both and avoid leaning too heavily into your weaker or stronger side.
Your course and/or your college might ask you to submit one or multiple written works prior to your interview. If this isn’t mentioned by your course on the table, double check with the college admissions office to be sure as this can vary depending on your chosen college or individual circumstances.
Usually, the written work will be recent examples of your writing around a subject relevant to your course, however, it’s always important to check this with your course department and college as this can differ.
Again, if your grades aren’t ideal and this is required from you then this is a great opportunity for you to impress Cambridge in another way. Take the time to choose the best possible example you have. Consult an admissions consultant here at The Profs or one of your relevant teachers for advice on what is best suited to hand in. Even consider writing something new, especially suited to Cambridge’s request. Although, if you do write something new, remember to get it marked. Be sure to revise your work as much as possible to ensure that it could not be any better!
Insider tip: Don’t just pick a piece with a high mark, also consider what it’s about and what thought process or skills it conveys.
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:
- 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).
- 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, it is important that you mention any of the above in your UCAS and/or MyCapp application so that you receive a fair shot at Cambridge. Though there is no clear rule, and 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. 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.
Improve your GCSE grades:
Cambridge does not specify any GCSE (or equivalent) requirements for their courses. However, Cambridge will consider your GCSE grades as a performance indicator (within the context of the performance of the school/college you achieved them at). So, 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 this is not the case, you might be okay without revisiting your GCSEs.
Context is also important. If you’re hoping to study English Literature and you only have one or two 6 (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 6 (B) in English or History, this is probably something you want to improve.
It is important to assess your need for a retake based on your overall performance:
- 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.
- Do you have a 7-9 (A-A*), in subject/s related to your chosen course? For example, if you are applying for a degree like Law, it’s worth retaking GCSE English to get the highest grade (level 9). Or if you wish to study a language at Cambridge, you might want to retake your GCSE language to earn a top score.
Improve your A level grades:
Again, the safest solution is to improve your grades. Most of Cambridge’s courses require A*A*A-A*AA. It is highly recommended that you meet these requirements, or better yet exceed them. It is definitely recommended that you achieve an A* in your chosen subject. So, if you’re not predicted these grades or are worried about getting them, it might be worth your while to take some time out to retake one or two modules in order to improve your predicted grade or plan to retake your A levels before you hand in your Cambridge application.
However, if retaking isn’t an option for you, you might want to consider achieving supplementary academic qualifications. You should ask your school and independently research what courses, tests and/or qualifications you can do to strengthen your academic repertoire. Obviously, you should only choose something related to your chosen course.
Please note: Once you have gone through the application process you might be given a conditional offer. If so, you must meet these requirements (usually specific A level grades) to confirm your place. If you’re falling below some of Cambridge’s requirements or expectations, or they’re worried about your performance in something, Cambridge might issue you a “challenging offer” to test your abilities and push you. Typically, this means an offer with higher conditions than what is standard. This could mean needing to achieve certain A level grades in a single sitting, in which case retaking would not be an option. Or, this could mean achieving a higher STEP score to account for a lower A level Maths score. However, challenging offers are very uncommon.
Improve your academic profile (postgraduates):
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 6 (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 majority of Cambridge’s postgraduate courses require an upper 2:1 degree at minimum or a first. If you only just meet your requirements or fall beneath them, it might be worthwhile to retake one element of your degree (an exam with substantial weighting or your dissertation) to improve your overall grade.
Something that you can do to boost your application (either as well as retaking or instead) is completing an extra higher-level qualification or course. Moreover, there are a bunch of free reputable online courses that you can take as well.
Consider what’s best for you:
Whilst it is easy to get carried away with the mentality of “I must get in”, take a moment to stop and reflect. If you’re really struggling to meet the requirements for Cambridge, are you sure this is definitely the university for you? And if your history of grades for this subject is far below expectation, are you certain that this is the course for you? It might be worth taking some time to mull over whether this course and Cambridge are suited to you and whether you’d be able to keep up. Your mental well-being and happiness are important!
4) Consider your options
Here at The Profs, we have a dedicated, experienced, and friendly team of:
Anything you need, no matter how niche, we can help. We also provide application assessments, where we can tell you your chances of getting into Cambridge, and where you need to improve. Getting students into university is our speciality! That’s why we have a 95% success rate in helping students get admitted to their first or second-choice university.
Finally, if you find that you meet none of the entry requirements mentioned in this article and you do not want to invest a year into getting everything up to scratch, or maybe a year couldn’t fix everything, then it might be worth considering a different course or a different university. Here at The Profs, we can help you establish your options and make a decision that is right for you.
We can help
Triple your chances of success with an expert Cambridge admissions tutor! It won’t be our first or last time helping a student who doesn’t fit Cambridge’s ideal student profile earn an offer. At The Profs, we know exactly how to help you. 55% of our students who apply to Cambridge get in!
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