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September 23, 2008
Applying for Cambridge: The colleges and subjects which give you the greatest chance of success
There is less than a month to the deadline for applications to Oxford and Cambridge, but many sixth-formers are still agonising over their choice of college and even of subject. John O'Leary, editor of the Good University Guide, explains how to maximise your chances...
"Competition is going to be stiff at either university – most successful applicants have at least three As at A level, or their equivalent – but it helps if there are only three candidates to the place, as there are in a number of subjects and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.
Today I will offer some pointers to demystify the admissions system at Cambridge before moving on to Oxford tomorrow. All the figures are available on the universities' websites, but some remain surprisingly little known.
Do schools realise, for example, that one Cambridge college took more students than it had applicants last year? New Hall (soon to be Murray Edwards College) had only 111 initial applications but eventually made 145 offers of places. More than 100 of those who received offers came via the pool, which provides a second chance for promising candidates who either make open applications or do not get into their first choice of college. T
The pool lowers the stakes for those who apply to the most selective colleges – nearly 3,000 applications were pooled in 2007 and 752 received offers of places. But the right choice of college still makes a difference. Only 44 of those who made New Hall their first preference actually received offers, but that was still more than one in three – a much more encouraging ratio than the one in five success rate at Pembroke.
The other guide to college strengths – albeit a rough and ready one - is the success of their undergraduates in final examinations. At Cambridge, this comes in the form of the Tompkins Table, which was topped this year by Selwyn College. Although the small number of students taking finals each year can make for big swings in the table, it does reflect the standard of the intake. It is (marginally) easier to get into a college in the lower reaches of the table than one at the top.
Competition for places also varies widely between subjects – from a success rate of more than half in classics in 2007, to less than one in eight for architecture. Of course, it is a bit late to switch to classics if you are taking science A levels, but the figures could still influence some decisions. More than a quarter of those who applied to read history received offers, for example, compared with less than one in five for social and political sciences.
Naturally, there is more to choosing a college (let alone a degree) than the odds on winning a place. But the schools that have a strong track record in Oxbridge admissions all have a strategy for choices of college, building up relationships with tutors and trying to spread their applications to maximise their students' chances of success. Those who do not have such advantages would be wise to do their homework."
Cambridge Colleges: Applications, offers and success
The Tompkins table 2008:
1. Selwyn (4)
2. Emmanuel (1)
3. Trinity (6)
4. Gonville and Caius (10)
5. Magdalene (13)
6. Churchill (15)
7. Jesus (9)
8. Christ's (2)
9. Corpus Christi (8)
10. Pembroke (7)
11. St Catharine's (5)
12. Downing (3)
13. Clare (17)
14. Sidney Sussex (12)
15. Trinity Hall (16)
16. Queens' (11)
Last year's positions are in brackets.
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