Cambridge colleges - any advice / experiences please?

(83 Posts)
Zahra1 Tue 03-Mar-20 19:30:08

Hello, I was wondering if anyone might be able to provide any insights into the various Cambridge colleges as DS is thinking of applying, as open days don’t really start until June. Just thinking ahead, but it’s all a bit bewildering! Specifically -

- I know Cambridge state your chances of a place are equal regardless of which college you apply to (or not in the case if an open application), but csn this really be the case?

- What are the reputations of various colleges (if any)?

- DS was thinking of applying to Kings, but noticed they take about 85% from state schools every year. Fair enough obviously and in line with national statistics, but, in his case, would he have more chance elsewhere if applying from an independent school eg. St John’s, where the balance is more 50/50?

- Are some colleges eg Trinity and Christ’s considered more academic than others and therefore the bar is higher for entry?

- Do the further out colleges, ie Girton and Homerton, receive less applications and are they therefore easier to get in if you apply to them?

- How can the “pooling system” work effectively when colleges interview differently and some require you to send in some essays prior to interview, while others don’t. How can it be as standardised as they claim?

Does any of this makes any difference to anything? Any advice welcome?

OP’s posts: |
Purplepooch Tue 03-Mar-20 19:44:04

The advice we received was it really doesn't matter and not to overthink it. Go for one that feels like somewhere you can see yourself at. There is also a chance of pooling so don't get over invested either. I really don't think you can choose one strategically.
I think the process of Selection is holistic and they throw everything into the mix. So a college that needs an essay sent has one more thing in the mix. It probably is no advantage or disadvantage- it just is.
I am not sure about the % of independent over state school students but I really don't think that's worth getting too hung up about (although 50% is a huge % so am not sure on that one)

Purplepooch Tue 03-Mar-20 19:51:46

Have you seen these College open days. Some in March/ April

user1464279374 Tue 03-Mar-20 19:53:56

I went to Cambridge about ten years ago and to answer the questions as helpfully as I can!

- No I don't think it is equal. A lot of my state school friends applied to places like Christ's and John's but ended up being pooled to the further out colleges (Homerton, Girton). We often did better in our finals than friends who did get into those colleges but I think they were better prepped for interview. I would hazard you are more likely to get in if you apply to the colleges which aren't as 'traditional' and popular (so the less pretty ones/further out ones).

- Each college very much has its own 'personality' which is sometimes accurate other times a long held stereotype. Trinity is known to be full of maths genius types. John's is quite sporty and a rich college. Peterhouse is quite insular. The newer colleges always unfairly seen as less academic. Kings very liberal.

- As above I do think some colleges prefer those who are from private rather than state and vice versa, even if they'd never explicitly say that.

- Yes some are considered more so but I don't think it makes a difference to individual students when there.

- I think yes.

- Not sure how the pool runs now but I think basically some Directors of Study are more inclined to look past the interview itself/the prep for that and look at potential.

Hope that's helpful!

PetraDelphiki Tue 03-Mar-20 19:59:19

A few thoughts:

Central or not
Then look at accommodation costs/location (what is guaranteed)

Don’t try to game the system (except avoiding kings if you’re private)...more people get into the less popular colleges from being pooled from places like trinity than do from applying there directly (can’t remember where I saw the stats sorry)

Or do an open application - university sends it to an relatively undersubscribed college...

AnnaMagnani Tue 03-Mar-20 20:11:14

From DH's out of date experience, and our joint experience of hanging around Cambridge a lot:

Everyone ends up thinking their college is the best, regardless of whether it is where they originally wanted to be.

There are pros and cons to everywhere - if you are stuck out in one of the out of town colleges, no-one will ever come to visit you (DH rapidly realised he was always the one making the effort to see friends in town) but you are also free of the hordes of tourists.

As a student you might end up thinking proximity to Sainsburys is far more important than you did as a 6th former.

Some colleges might have lots of state school students but still not be diverse - if they all come from the same grammars every year and indulge in groupthink no of course I'm not thinking of King's here

An old historic college might sound nice but you will be jealous of your mate with the purpose built accommodation and en suite bathroom.

And depending on what course you are doing your college might not be very important to you at all.

Zahra1 Tue 03-Mar-20 20:13:38

Thanks user, very helpful and as I suspected tbh.

Petra - do you think he should avoid Kings then? Are they less keen on independent school applicants?

I think Trinity and St Johns have the highest numbers of applicants overall? Or Jesus?

Thanks for the info on the individual college events. We’ll try and go to a few.

Also, do you feel really “out of the action” if you’re at Homerton or Girton? I think I read they’re a half hours walk out or ten min bus ride, but it must be a pain after a night out?

Homeryon looks good though as all rooms refurbished and en-suite.

Smaller colleges could also be appealing - more of a sense of community perhaps somewhere like Christ’s or Trinity Hall?

OP’s posts: |


Zahra1 Tue 03-Mar-20 20:16:57

Thanks Anna. DS is at an independent, but a very urban, liberal one and there’s allsorts there tbh.

OP’s posts: |
user1464279374 Tue 03-Mar-20 20:21:09

I was pooled to Homerton and would say yes I did feel out on a limb. But I think that was because I hadn't chosen to be there and I resented it a little. I actually ended up living in a flat share with other students from my college in second and third years.

BUT I am very much not a person who liked the insularity of college life generally (meals in hall every day, doing things in big friendship groups etc). My friends were from lots of different colleges and societies and so I felt like a 'university' student. Many people felt and acted like that from central colleges too. And most people at Homerton and Girton loved being in college and living out their time there.

I think a big part of it is personality and what would suit your son!

AnnaMagnani Tue 03-Mar-20 20:27:23

Oh another point - where will his college be compared to his department?

Robinson and Selwyn are actually really handy for anything on the Sidgwick site for example and the University Library.

DH's comment is don't pick anywhere that's too small as everyone will know who's shagging who - so not Peterhouse or Corpus Christi.

Some colleges specialise in particular subjects - however you might think that given you spend all your time in lectures with people in your subject, you don't want to see them in college. DH's college was stuffed with lawyers and he was not a lawyer. It was fine and he had friends in and out of college.

Seashore2018 Tue 03-Mar-20 20:32:12

I would avoid Trinity Hall until they've worked out how to deal with predatory men, both staff and students.

FlorestanAndEusebius Tue 03-Mar-20 20:44:11

My experience is fairly out of date now (15 years) but I picked randomly since I didn't have a clue and ended up at Selwyn. I loved it. It made my life much easier being near my faculty and I enjoyed being in a relatively small (but still pretty) College. Accommodation was all quite close - second years 'lived out' but were mostly within 10 min of College. Subject is probably relevant: scientists are in a very different area of town to English/Law etc for lectures and libraries. Being in the West of Cambridge was also quite nice in avoiding tourists and being closer to Newnham/Grantchester when we needed an escape!

Zahra1 Tue 03-Mar-20 20:53:03

Sea - thanks I had no idea.

user - he’s pretty confident and sociable and gets on with most people, but gets a bit bored with the loud, public school, alpha-male sports team type scenarios. I was thinking maybe the bigger colleges such as Trinity, Jesus or St Johns might have more of that going on, but I’m probably talking nonsense tbh.

“don't pick anywhere that's too small as everyone will know who's shagging who”

Oh my god, but yes - good point!

OP’s posts: |
PetraDelphiki Tue 03-Mar-20 20:55:50

Personally I’d avoid kings just because of the tourists!!!

Seriously do look at things like accommodation costs - I was horrified to see how variable they are (nephew started at Robinson this year) girton make a big thing about all rooms costing the same and if you get a rubbish room one year you’ll get a brilliant one the next...but all at the same cost - if you want a rubbish/cheap room both years that’s not an option.

Are you allowed to live out of college? What about catering costs? Can you stay in holidays or do you have to be gone the minute term ends? Can you store things in your room?

Then proximity to lectures etc...

If I was recommending (30 years out of date so hefty pinch of salt) I’d say Newnham for girls (I’ve never met a newnhamite who didn’t love it), catz, Sidney, Emmanuel, Jesus, johns, Selwyn, maybe trinity, queens, Clare. (I didn’t go to any of these)...these are the ones that people seemed happiest at.

But it really doesn’t matter...if you don’t get on with your college you’ll have friends everywhere else anyway! One friend spent so much time in his girlfriends college they gave him a pigeonhole!

Dancingdreamer Tue 03-Mar-20 21:37:07

The Cambridge alternative prospectus is a good way to get some summary stats on colleges and a sense of the college culture. Also college application numbers vary by subject - so one college may be very popular for some subjects and less popular for others. The Cambridge website has details of application numbers by subject. This doesn’t mean you have less chance of getting into Cambridge but a higher chance of being pooled.

I would also suggest from the experience of my DD’s friends that you are less likely to be picked up from the pool if you have applied to a traditionally less popular college eg Homerton or Girton as it is assumed that the popular colleges will be rejecting stronger applicants.

ErrolTheDragon Tue 03-Mar-20 23:17:38

Here's the link to their admissions stats - links to detailed data on the right but you can have fun with the graph generator. (Flyovers on the bars give numbers)

Re location, if the subject is one which requires much time at the West Cambridge site then that may put a different perspective on Girton and the 'Hill Colleges' (Churchill, Fitz and Murray Edwards, but the latter is women's so not relevant to your DS)

* Also, do you feel really “out of the action” if you’re at Homerton or Girton? I think I read they’re a half hours walk out or ten min bus ride,*

The hill colleges are about half an hours walk from the centre, so Girton and Homerton must be more - the obvious answer is of course to cycle, weather permitting.

It may be worth checking more what the accommodation is really like especially after first year - eg DD has friends who live in flats over shops in town, owned by or sublet from the college, Caius in that instance I think.

ErrolTheDragon Tue 03-Mar-20 23:26:37

Sorry, I forgot the link

Mumoftwoyoungkids Wed 04-Mar-20 00:00:05

NB - before I start my knowledge is two decades old!

When I was applying the most usual thing anyone said to me (and it was my dad) is that if you are going to be rejected from Cambridge (and many brilliant applicants are) then it is better to be rejected in January than in August. So go for the college with the lowest number of applicants per place or at least for one where you are sure you could make the offer.

For Kings (I went) the situation in my day was that they wanted both state and private to have the same application : offer rate. So if 85% of people applying were state then 85% of the offers went to state kids. Most colleges have a higher rate for private as the private kids generally interview better.

Queens and Catz might be good choices if you want centre of town and a good private/state mix.

exexpat Wed 04-Mar-20 00:21:46

When I was applying to Cambridge (decades ago) I found the Alternative Prospectus useful - it is produced by students rather than the colleges/university establishment. It was an actual booklet then but is online now, of course, but less detailed than it used to be:

You can also search the database on this site to see what the ratios are for particular subjects at individual colleges etc.

The Tomkins Table (now published by the student newspaper, Varsity) gives academic rankings for the colleges each year:

But bear in mind that all the other applicants also have access to the same info so it changes year by year - if it looks like it is easier to get into one college for a certain subject in one year, or one college is the 'best' academically, it is likely they will get a flood of applicants the following year.

Really, for most subjects, it is the luck of the draw. Nearly everyone who applies is high-achieving and capable of doing well, but there aren't enough spaces to go around. Best advice is to go for a look round, attend open days, read around, then toss a coin and go for one that ticks main boxes.

I chose my college based on location, finances (I was doing a minority subject and wanted a college with generous book grants and travel scholarships) and college fellows specialising in my subject. My late DH chose his college because his father went there. Other friends went by colleges' political reputations, architecture, sporting prowess or other random factors.

jackparlabane Wed 04-Mar-20 07:26:06

Agree with checking what accommodation is like for 2nd and 3rd years, how many people do your course in the college, and how close you'll be to lectures/labs/subject libraries/shops/boathouses/theatre/sports pitches etc.

Most of the tourists swamp King's, Clare Old Court, and Trinity St - beyond that they're a minor irritant.

They are basically glorified halls of residence.

mdh2020 Wed 04-Mar-20 07:30:59

What advice is your school giving you? When my son applied the school took an overview of all applications. They suggested which college to apply for and would only allow one pupil per subject to apply to a college. So my son and his friend went to the same college but reading different subjects.
Someone who applied last year to Oxford said that a lot of applicants seemed to be overseas students who pay higher fees.
Don’t be downcast if you don’t get a place - there are a lot of other very good universities

Zahra1 Wed 04-Mar-20 08:45:20

Thanks everyone. This is extremely helpful, as we have no prior experience.

mdh, I’m hoping his school might give a steer. That’s a good point about if there’s someone else from the same school applying for the same subject, it would make sense to go for different colleges.

Errol and exexpat - Thankyou for those links. We had been looking at the admission statistics for this subject by college. They give the applications versus offers per college and per subject for the last four years. I’m not sure what to think as some colleges will get 30 applications, but then take maybe 5 or 6, while other colleges will only get maybe 8 applications or less, but only take 2 - or none at all! So it’s similar proportions, just greater or lesser numbers. You can see some colleges use the pool much more than others too.

The other point is that four colleges, Kings, Christ’s, Trinity and Trinity Hall all ask for an essay/s prior to interview, while others don’t. In DS’ case, he will have a relevant EPQ, so thought he may as well use it! But then we saw Christ’s and Trinity tend to be top of this Norrington table, so thought maybe not confused Trinity Hall want 2 essays, which I guess is doable, but also an extra hassle. So Kings looked a reasonable choice, but then only 10-15% of their places go to international or independent school candidates, so we weren’t sure.

What a palaver basically.

Interestingly, even though Trinity is one of the most over-subscribed in terms of total applicants, the numbers for his course don’t look too bad - maybe 10 for 2 or 3 places? Trinity Hall is similar. It does vary year to year though, so I’m not sure you can read too much into the stats.

He’s applying for a humanities subject and the standard offer is A*AA which at least is slightly lower than what they’re asking for sciences, engineering etc. He’s predicted three A* and he got 10 9s at GCSE, but we’re very aware that all applicants will be the same. I would say DS is very realistic. He’s in a school where he’s very average, so he’s under no delusions! But I guess if you don’t have a go, you never know. He’s very keen on LSE too, but not sure if this is any less competitive. Even Exeter, Durham etc are asking the same grades as Cambridge. He might try KCL as a safer option because they ask AAB. He went on an app called “Unifrog” which gives three tiers of options for all subjects and this came up.

Mumoftwo - thanks for that point about application ratios. You can actually see in the stats that although only 15% of Kings applicants are from independent schools, the same ratio are made offers, so it’s not that they’re being squeezed out as such, just less apply for whatever reason. No idea why? Maybe it will make more sense when we visit....?

Thanks again to everyone.

OP’s posts: |
SarahAndQuack Wed 04-Mar-20 09:37:07

I would go by feel of the college. It matters a lot that you feel at home there.

I don't know if this is helpful (lots of helpful things already said), but I was reading this question:

How can the “pooling system” work effectively when colleges interview differently and some require you to send in some essays prior to interview, while others don’t. How can it be as standardised as they claim?

Basically, you'll have several people interviewing in each college; they will then discuss with each other what they thought and rank candidates. IME there is not a huge amount of disagreement about anything except the middle of the list. What the pool is for (IMO) is this.

1) Candidate is really good, definitely worth a place, but they're the sixth person in a list of 5. You send details of this to the pool, and one person from college attends the pool meeting, and can discuss in detail what other colleges might need to know. So you know it's fairly standardised because every college has a representative at the pool, whether they're sending people in or fishing people out.

2) Candidate seemed good but somehow the interview didn't take off/interviewers disagreed widely/it wasn't a good fit. These candidates might be pooled in recognition that, to have a standardised system, you have to accept that some people just don't quite spark off you as an interviewer. You're trying to give them a chance with someone else. Basically, the more people examine this candidate, the more sure you can be that you're not just dismissing them because of a quirk on the day/the fact they just didn't spark off you but got on great with Dr Smith down the road.

King's do accept a lot of state school students (in relative terms), but TBH when you are interviewing perhaps 30-40 candidates, you're looking at individuals.

NB, I would challenge the claim King's is liberal. It has a leftie reputation but in many ways it is quite bound in ceremony and formality - very fancy high table; chapel; no walking on the grass, etc. etc. It is not, IME, the most easy-going place. Lovely, but liberal is not the word I would use.

SarahAndQuack Wed 04-Mar-20 09:41:30

Incidentally, I think you/your DS might want to read this piece. I don't think the situation it describes is unique to Trinity Hall, sadly. I do think it is probably worth taking a moment to look at the way his chosen college runs (eg., will all positions of responsibility for/to your DS be filled by the same person wearing multiple hats, in which case conflicts of interest are a bit of a risk).

jaguar67 Wed 04-Mar-20 09:54:12

In addition to all the great advice above:

Does he care whether he's one of 8+ students reading his subject, or the 'only'. DD v keen to have a community around her in college & made her selection on that basis - ironically, she spends most of her time with students reading other subjects, but it can be helpful to have an immediate group around you for sharing resources, work challenges etc.

Absolutely don't over-invest in college choice, think it's something like 25% of offers are to pooled colleges.

A cursory scan of the graph on Cam website shows that every year the 'less popular' colleges reject swathes of direct applicants (in some cases, every single applicant), in favour of making pool offers. Go with where he thinks, at this stage, he'd be most comfortable.

Beware thinking of 'standard offers' - there's no such thing at Cambridge. They refer to them as 'typical' for a reason - A*A*A offers for humanities have not been uncommon in past couple of years (especially for independent school applicants) and we know of at least 2, who were made 3 x A* offers. And these were not for pooled applicants either. To be fair, in the cases we know of, their predicted grades were in excess of the offer terms, bar one. Just to manage expectations - and equally, there will be many, many offered the typical conditions.

Good luck to DS!

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