I’ve recently finished my Cambridge interview and I’ll now make a vague attempt to document my experience, trials and tribulations. For reference, I applied for Computer Science to Churchill College. This’ll probably end up following a similar structure to my MIT Post. This is also specifically for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle, as apparently a few things are changing next year for the Personal Statement as well as the Admissions Tests.

The UK System

The UK System is so very different to the US System, so I’ll begin by giving a not-so-brief explanation of how our admissions processes work. I’ll begin by explaining school years, to eventually get to the important years for this discussion.

GCSEs and Below

In the UK, most people class schools into independent schools and state schools. Independent schools are typically selective and fee-paying, and state schools are paid for by the government and have free enrolment. Then, within state schools there’s the normal ones as well as Grammar Schools, which are more selective but hard to get into due to the high demand. Then, independent schools can be classed in a number of ways - day schools vs boarding schools (all boarding schools are independent as far as I know), public vs private, or even by how expensive the fees are. Quick fun fact - a Public School in the UK is very different to a Public School internationally. Public Schools (as a group noun) refer to a set of schools that were originally open to students regardless of their parents’ jobs. Nowadays, this refers to a set of elite independent schools (like Eton or Harrow) that typically take children very young and continue on until they reach university age. See Wikipedia.

Most children start in reception aged 4 for a single year. Then mandatory school starts for everyone at a primary school for Years 1 through 6 where students are aged 5 through 11. They then go to secondary school for Years 7 through 11 aged 11 through 16. That having been said, the private school system can be different and they often take in children at a variety of ages - I’ve been at my current school since Year 3 and I’ll be leaving at the end of this year at the end of Year 13.

Usually for Year 9 and below, most end-of-year exams don’t contribute to much other than academic streaming for the next year or reports (with the exception of standardised tests at state schools, but I don’t know much about them). Once you get past Year 9, you typically then start directly working on your GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) courses.

There are 3 compulsory subjects - Maths, English & Science. Maths is worth 1 GCSE, Science 2 (double award of 3 sciences), and English 2 (separate qualifications for Language and Literature). Typically though, students take more than just 5 GCSEs and will often take more subjects like languages, more complicated Maths or Science courses and different humanities/creatives1. These are rated 9-1 and theoretically a 9 is supposed to be the equivalent of an A** (with the below grades following like the traditional letters - 8 = A*, 7 = A, 6 = B etc), but grade inflation has impacted that to the point where you’ll hear about independent school students achieving 12 or even more 9s.

Sixth Form

After your GCSEs, there’s no requirement from the government for you to take any further education. You can’t just be unemployed at 17 if you’re filthy rich - you have to work a job, or get an apprenticeship but you don’t need to stay in school. However just over half2 of students go to a Sixth Form3 college (Called either Year 12 & Year 13 or Lower Sixth & Upper Sixth, but always Sixth Form as a collective for ages 16-18).

Most students in the Sixth Form study either A-Levels or IB Exams4. A-Levels are separate examinations by separate boards and typically take around 2 years to complete. Most students take 3 or 4, but in some rare cases at top schools people take 5. There are zero requirements on variety of which exams you have to and don’t have to take, which means that there’s a huge variety so schools will likely offer a subset of the possible exams in common subjects. IB Exams are all set and managed by the International Baccalaureate Organisation, and they set strict requirements on subjects - you have to take at least 1 Science, 1 Mathematical Subject, 1 English Subject, 1 Language & 1 other Humanity. The IB Diploma also has a large emphasis on coursework (internal assessments in every subject, an extended essay, and a Theory of Knowledge exhibition) When you leave Sixth Form, the only things that stay on your record are the grades you achieved - the individual tests you took don’t matter beyond a desire for personal excellence and there’s no concept of a GPA. When I’ve been doing US Applications and been learning more about their admissions system, the concept of a GPA terrifies me - every single test and assignment I do going to a number that goes to university? The stress must be unreal.


Most UK universities have a very similar process for admissions for most subjects. Here I’ll be going over a general overview with a few exceptions that I’ve become familiar with, but for example I won’t be touching Medicine with a 10-foot pole.

All of the UK Universities work through one system for undergraduate applications - the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, commonly known as UCAS. To submit an application through UCAS, you need to register through your school where the following items go onto your application (because they need to submit certain things, which I’ll get onto). Then, you need to submit the following:

  • Admin Details - these are simple details like where you live, your residency status and any widening access points.
  • Banking Details - the UCAS application costs £20 for one choice, or £25 for multiple. I just selected to have my centre pay, which means that it’ll end up on my school bill.
  • Personal Statement (this is one 4000 character essay about why you want to study that subject. You can take this any way you want, and I’m not going to provide advice because there are far better people to do that.)
  • Your 5 Choices. You get to choose up to 5 courses to go to - you could pick 5 courses at one university, 5 courses at 5 universities or any combination. There aren’t too many restrictions beyond the fact that you’re not allowed to simultaneously apply to Oxford & Cambridge (collectively known as Oxbridge), and you’re not allowed to apply to more than 4 medicine courses.
  • Your reference - typically your teachers write & submit this. Typically there’s a small level of collaboration between the reference writer and the student to make sure you the reference doesn’t overlap with the personal statement, although this is strictly at the start and should not influence the writer.
  • Your Predicteds or Achieved Grades. If you’ve already done your exams, then you just submit the actual grades, and if not then you submit your predicted grades.

Choosing Universities

There’s a huge variety of different ways to choose a university. First, you might look at the course you want to do (Computer Science for me) and check which universities offer it. There’s a huge number of different league tables which all prioritise different things. All universities are also required to post their minimum grade offers for all their different courses which can help to see if a university is above or below your standards if you compare that to your predicteds. However, sometimes there are other factors to consider (like the prestige of a university - Edinburgh lists A*A*A* for Computer Science, but is easier to get into than Cambridge which lists A*A*A). Most also offer contextual offers, which are for if you’re disadvantaged in some ways compared to your peers - this could be anything from grief affecting your performance to being underprivileged.

Then, when you’ve narrowed it down to a shortlist you’ll typically go to an Open Day. These are a few days a year that each university offers, where they’ll have lots of talks on about everything from the Student Union5 to your course to accommodation. Most universities also offer individual tours around the year, but the open days typically offer more things as well as conveniences like more bus services between the local rail station and the university. If you know you’d want to visit a specific university, make sure to book their open day early - I think lots of the nicer slots for the St Andrews one were booked out only a few hours after it opened to booking.

Predicted Grades

Some people from outside the UK might’ve been reading this so far somewhat confused - you just apply with one essay and one reference? How do they know about your academic skills apart from GCSEs?

What happens in most schools is that at the end of your Lower Sixth, you take a set of internal exams (as in, not set by any exam board) which your teachers then use (in addition to your performance from the rest of the year, or things like coursework) to provide an estimate of what you’ll get in your final exams. Some schools use AS Levels for this purpose, which are designed to be taken at this point.

If you disagree then you can usually ask your teachers to change your grades, but the school has a vested interest in making sure that your grades are accurate. This is because the universities can see which school you applied from, and if schools consistently overpredict then the universities (theoretically) should remember and then discount those school’s opinions. The problem then occurs when somebody actually deserves the high prediction, but might not get the offer they want because of the traditional overestimations from that school.


Then, you submit your UCAS Application - the deadline6 is the 31st of January, but my school set a far earlier internal deadline. The idea of that was that you’re stressing out about making a deadline that’s months before the actually important one so if you can’t make the deadline an extension isn’t an issue.

Then, the universities must reply to you by the 1st of May. They have 2 options - rejection or offer. If you’re rejected, then you won’t be going to that university. Typically, you can’t ask for feedback. Offers are slightly more complicated - if you’ve applied the year after you did your A-Levels, they’ll give an unconditional offer. If you’ve applied before finishing you’re A-Levels using your predicted grades, then they’ll give a conditional offer which will almost always be at or below your predicted grades and often similar to the minimum grades that they post.

Then, you’ve got 2 weeks to decide on your firm and insurance offers. You’ve got to pick 2 universities from the ones that replied to you - if you meet the grade requirements from your firm and want to go to university that year, then you can only go to that university. If you don’t meet those ones, but do meet the requirements for your insurance then you can only go there. If you meet neither, then you can either give up to apply the next year, or you can enter clearing. I don’t know much about clearing, but it seems to be where all students who want to can enter Clearing as a process, and then universities pick the students they want. Typically, the top universities don’t consider any applicants from clearing.

A brief aside on Accommodation

Almost all UK universities offer some form of accommodation in the first year - often in Halls of Residence, which can be self-catered, catered, co-ed, sharing, single and prices will change accordingly. Most of the time there’ll be a selection of Halls which have different features like what I mentioned above. THe notable exception is Durham with the colleges system (which I’ll elaborate more on later with the Cambridge stuff). Some universities restrict this to only be guaranteed accommodation if you apply with them as your firm choice.

Beyond the first year, you either have to submit an application to the few spaces not taken by first-years7 or take a chance with the rental market which is pretty bad at lots of universities (London is especially bad at this - one of the main reasons I didn’t apply to Imperial8). The notable exception is Oxbridge, where almost all colleges offer accommodation to all undergraduates on-site although there’s nothing stopping you from renting if you see a lovely place or already have property in Cambridge/Oxford.


Here, we get into the incredibly specific. So far, I’ve tried to make sure that this is pretty widely applicable, but here we’re going into detail on my specific application. I’ll go more and more specific as it goes on.

The Colleges

Unlike every other university, you don’t just apply to Oxford or Cambridge - you apply to a specific college in your application. As far as I can tell, your supervisors and some of your professors will be from the college you applied to. There’s sports teams and societies which are college specific and for the whole university. One joked about bonus about going to Oxbridge is that you’ve got a higher chance of getting on University Challenge (a quiz show for British university students), as you’re only competing against the other people in your college rather than against everyone in your whole university 9.

The Application

Firstly, Oxbridge have a way earlier admissions deadline (the 22nd of October this year), and gives you decisions way earlier as well (mid-late January) although the acceptance date is the same. There’s the first difficulty.

The next difficulty comes from the admissions assessments. Since most people applying will have incredibly high grades and impressive personal statements, they need more ways to differentiate candidates.


This takes place in different ways for different courses, but for Computer Science this involves taking the Test of Mathematics for University Admission - the TMUA. This is a really difficult maths paper - 2 papers taken back-to-back, which each have 20 multiple choice questions to be done over 75 minutes. It’s all Maths based, but Paper 1 seems to be more about the foundations, and Paper 2 seems to be more about reasoning & logic.

My school ran preparation sessions, so I slowly worked my way through all of the old past papers (of which there are only 10, because it hasn’t been around for very long10), and prepared thoroughly for the exam. I had my half-term holiday start at the end of the week before the test so I got about 4 or 5 days to do nothing but TMUA preparation. That having been said, I was pretty sick for most of that period so I didn’t get all that much productive work done.

Then, when the day came around I took the exam at my school and then went for Kokoro with my friends11, my lungs doing a seal impression the whole time 😔.

The Interview

From the outside, the cambridge admissions seem to work off a series of successive filters, and I’d just managed to pass the TMUA ones. A few days before I would get my TMUA result back I got an email from my college with my interview time and details.

I signed a very thorough non-disclosure (not sure if a solicitor12 would call it that, but it’s probably close enough), so I’ll be pretty shy about any specific details to avoid invalidating my current application.

My interview ended up being about 30-40 minutes, and I had it over Zoom - this part gets interesting. So, historically most colleges have done in-person interviews at the Cambridge College, and I’ve had friends who’ve been to up to Cambridge recently for in-person interviews. However, over Covid most colleges switched to Zoom, and quite a few have stayed. It make sense when you think about it - I can pretty easily get to Cambridge from London, but someone living in North Scotland might have more troubles. This way, they can get the most skilled applicants regardless of geography getting in the way.

Closing Thoughts

Having now gone through some pretty competitive admissions processes in multiple countries (all I’ve got to do now is wait for results 😬), I’m pretty happy to give my thoughts.

Doing both at the same time has been pretty stressful - I started off the term worrying about my Personal Statement, then I worried about the TMUA, then it was straight into MIT Essays then my MIT Interview then my Cambridge Interview and that was a challenge. During all that I still had lots of commitments to manage, ranging from being Vice-Captain of my school house to writing these blog posts (although this has been a vibey de-stresser) to a musical production where I took the pretty senior role of Stage Manager. That having been said, I wouldn’t change it for the world because of all the knowledge I’ve gained.

I think that the US approach is a lot more work (because of the essays, as well as having to do their admissions test last year), but I kinda feel like MIT’ve got a far better idea of the nebulous concept of Jack Maguire™️ than Cambridge. That having been said, I think Cambridge have a far better idea of my skills and capabilities - the interview was less casual and was with a professor and a supervisor, which was more stressful on my end but I almost feel more like if I get a rejection there wasn’t much more I could do (apart from being less stressed - that was far better in the MIT Interview, but you can’t really replicate coffee shop vibes in a zoom). I guess I’ll see what happens 😉.

  1. I took English (Literature + Language), Maths, Further Maths, the 3 Sciences separately, Design & Engineering, Geography, Latin, French & Russian. ↩︎

  2. This is a holdover from more old fashioned naming systems still kept in place at some schools, where you progress through different forms, but these vary wildly from school to school. ↩︎

  3. At time of writing, see source↩︎

  4. There’s also BTECs, but I’ve not the foggiest on how they work. ↩︎

  5. Most UK Universities have a Students Union. The level of involvement and importance varies, but these typically deal with everything from getting student conditions improved (eg. mental health as a valid excuse for missing an exam) to clubs & societies. Unlike (as far as I’ve seen), lots of US Universities, the senior student union positions cover the entire university and are taken as a sabbatical rather than concurrently with studies. ↩︎

  6. Technically, this is the equal consideration deadline. This means that all universities should consider all applications submitted before here equally and by consequence that they’re allowed to discriminate against late applications. ↩︎

  7. Unlike the US there isn’t a system of Freshman -> Sophomore -> Junior -> Senior, it’s just first-years to second-years etc. ↩︎

  8. Imperial is supposed to be insanely good for Computer Science (and their open day was impressive), and they’re in a lovely part of London in South Kensington, but it’s London. I’ve heard awful things about everyone being spread all over London in accommodation over an hour away from the main campus which then screws with lots of social stuff. ↩︎

  9. I’m just going to politely pretend that I haven’t heard any stories about colleges which only submit postgraduates, or ones where the teams might have median ages of 45 😱. ↩︎

  10. And looks like it won’t be around for much longer↩︎

  11. Those portions are huge ↩︎

  12. British term for a non-court-based lawyer. Court lawyers are called Barristers - Saul Goodman would be a Barrister, but the blood-sucking lawyer from Jurassic Park would probably be a solicitor. ↩︎