Guidance for teachers

Tips and myth-busting for teachers of potential applicants.

Teachers are one of the most important assets to the Cambridge admissions process.

St Catharine’s is looking for the best and brightest students each year. We aren’t interested in whether that student comes from an 'old Cambridge' family, or whether they live in a mansion or a council house. We want to provide a dynamic and challenging learning environment to students with academic potential and academic ability.

Often, all it takes is a single teacher in a school – any school – keeping their ear to the ground and finding out which sixth formers are doing particularly well in their school subjects, and then seeking them out and encouraging them to apply. This key person can be any teacher – there is no reason why they cannot encourage students who are studying subjects with which they themselves are unfamiliar. Usually, all it takes is the initial suggestion that the student might consider applying to Cambridge.

Our greatest problem is people who tell school students that they are ‘not up to’ going to Cambridge, or that they will not ‘fit in’ there. Teachers might say this with the best of intentions, but it can have a terrible impact on students’ self-confidence. For one thing, Cambridge is just one of the five Universities you can apply to via UCAS. Applicants who are academically strong enough to get a shot at Cambridge are also in a position to get a place at other top UK Universities. The various myths about Cambridge – and they are myths – shouldn’t put off students, or put off teachers from encouraging students from applying.

For a school student to consider applying to St Catharine’s, they should be in a good position to achieve A*AA or A*A*A at ‘A’-level in subjects relevant to the course they want to study. (See elsewhere on this site for details about qualifications other than ‘A’-levels.) Some subjects have very specific requirements whereas others have almost no requirements – you can find out about the requirements for each subject on this page. Most applicants will often have some A*’s at GCSE, and be achieving more than 80% in three of their relevant ‘A’-level subjects, and more than 90% in one or two of those three. Our requirements are not absolute, however, and any disruption to their education may entitle them to apply under the Extenuating Circumstances Scheme – see the University admissions website for details.

Most of all, applicants should have an enthusiasm for and intellectual flexibility with the academic subjects they are studying, as well as the subject they intend to study at university (it may, of course, be the same subject).

You can certainly encourage applicants to attend our open days (details on this page), where they will find out more about what we do here, get a chance to meet current students, as well as simply get a ‘feel’ for what St Catharine’s is like. However, if they cannot come to an open day, it is important to emphasise that coming to an open day does not place applicants at an advantage during the applications process.

There is a great deal of information on this admissions section of the St Catharine’s website, and potential applicants should be encouraged to read it. There are details of the courses available at this college, what we look for, college life, and the process of application. We do produce a small printed brochure, but this is really just a general ‘taster’ – it is far less detailed, specific and up-to-date than what is on the website. Everything an applicant might need is, hopefully, on the website, and if any questions remain, you or they should feel free to contact our admissions office – e-mail is often the most efficient route.

It is important to stress that there is no further, additional, ‘inside’ information available to potential applicants at particular schools, nor from companies which claim to offer it. We simply want the most able applicants, so it is not in our interests to give anyone preferential treatment!

Careful choice of post-16 qualifications is crucial so that students keep doors open at university level. For advice relevant to the Russell Group, have a look at their Informed Choices publication, which has useful advice on key facilitating subjects. For advice specific to Cambridge, see Subject Matters and be aware that individual colleges may have particular requirements. On the subjects section of St Catharine’s College website, you can find advice for the Directors of Studies in the subjects about recommend and preferred subjects for each course.

In general, prospective applicants should be encouraged to take three academic subjects. For scientists, these should be three science/maths subjects. For arts and humanities, these should include any directly relevant subjects (if there are any - e.g. History for History!), 'topped up' with any strong academic subjects.

There are many myths about Cambridge interviews – and like the myths about the University in general, they are largely false.

Here are some of the facts: most applicants are called for interview, and receive two interviews – maybe one general interview and one with a subject specialist, or two interviews with specialists. We aren’t fussed about what the students wear, and we aren’t looking for pre-prepared answers.

Instead, the purpose of an interview is to assess applicants’ potential and enthusiasm for their subject. They will be asked directly about what they have done, what they do with their spare time, and they will probably be asked to solve problems, analyse texts, and so on. We will provide help as necessary, but we try to ask everyone about things ‘outside their comfort zone’ to see how flexibly they deal with novel concepts. Thus, you should tell your students not to panic if they get asked something to which they do not immediately know the answer – this is supposed to happen to everyone. Applicants who perform well will often be asked ever-harder things, and so a ‘tough’ interview may be a good sign!

The first thing to be said about practice interviews is that you should definitely avoid any private companies that promise to tutor students for Oxbridge interviews. None of these have been endorsed by Cambridge or Oxford.

If you decide to offer interview practice, then it should be quite general. The whole point of St Catharine’s interviews is that we will ask about ideas which students have not thought about before, so it is impossible to prepare for them specifically. However, applicants should be ready for the obvious ('Why do you want to study History?') and also get used to tackling problems and concepts in a one-to-one situation.

One specific point that should be made is that some schools worry about sending more than one applicant to a single college in the same year. At St Catharine’s we simply want to offer to the most academically able applicants, and if they come from the same school, then this is of no concern to us.

Finally, it is important to stress that entry to St Catharine’s is essentially competitive. We receive roughly 550 applications each year, and we try to take 136 students. This is not an overwhelming applicants-to-places ratio, but it does mean that many good applicants will be disappointed. Obviously this can be frustrating for teachers who are trying to encourage Cambridge applications, especially if your school has not had a history of Cambridge applications in the past. However, be reassured that we do carefully assess every application we receive. Every applicant can also apply to several other great universities in the UK, and they should value that opportunity.

Most of all, we worry about the bright school students who think they are not good enough for Cambridge, or are put off before they have even had a chance to have a look at our website. Please seek them out and encourage them – they may soon be eternally grateful to you!

If you'd like to find out more about the Oxbridge application process, you can catch up with our Teachers' and Advisers' Oxbridge Webinar below: