Skip to main content
St Catharine's College, Cambridge Search

How we make our decisions

See what information we use when making our admissions decisions

There is no single criterion on which we base our admissions decisions. We make an overall assessment of (1) your academic performance at school in public exams, (2) information on your UCAS form, (3) your performance in any admissions assessments we may ask you to sit, and (4) how you perform at interview - your ability to discuss topics raised in your personal statement, and your ability to apply academic skills you have learnt at school to novel information, concepts and tasks. We also look closely at (5) contextual information about your previous educational opportunities and support.

Although applying to Cambridge is competitive - we have approximately four/five applicants for each place - there are few hard-and-fast rules to applying to St Catharine's. The occasional low GCSE grade, aberrant A Level module score, or hasty interview response is unlikely to adversely affect your chances. Also, depending on the circumstances, we are sometimes able to accept candidates who have not quite made the terms of their offer.

At St Catharine's we use all the information available to us at each stage of the academic selection process, so there is no single overriding criterion which 'trumps' all the others.

 

1. Public examinations

Attainment in public exams, such as A levels or the IB, remains the cornerstone of our admissions system. That said, most candidates apply before they have finished their school exams, so usually receive offers conditional on them reaching a certain level in those exams.

GCSEs

Not all applicants to Cambridge have perfect GCSE scores - indeed, many successful applicants do not. As a general rule of thumb, if you have been entered for the GCSE higher tier exams, and have gained at least a few A/A*/7/8/9 grades, and are now comfortably expecting to attain A grades at A Level then you should feel confident about making an application. We are also happy with IGCSEs - indeed, these can be slightly more demanding than their GCSE counterparts, so we often find that applicants have taken slightly fewer of them.

A-Levels

At present the University's typical conditional offer is as follows:

  • most science courses: A*A*A
  • most arts and humanities subjects: A*AA
  • Economics: A*A*A
  • Psychological and Behavioural Sciences: A*AA
  • Veterinary Medicine: A*AA

We may tailor offers to match the individual applicant, and you should also read the St Catharine's webpage about the subject for which you wish to apply, for details of any specific requirements. We may, or may not, specify in which subjects we would like you to achieve an A or an A*, or exclude certain subjects (General Studies or Critical Thinking are always excluded). Most of our conditional offers are based on A2 exams which candidates sit in one go at the end of year 13 (the end of the 'Upper Sixth').

We may take into account certificated AS results, where available, along with all other relevant information, when assessing candidates' applications and deciding on offers. At present, we require attainment in particular STEP papers as a part of our offer only for Mathematics or Maths with Physics (not Physics as part of Natural Sciences).

We encourage potential applicants to tailor their choice of school subjects to optimise their chances of gaining admission to the courses they wish to study at university. If you read the specific page for your subject on this website, and indeed on the websites of other universities, you will get an idea of what subject choices may help. Some subjects, such as Medicine, have very specific requirements, whereas others, such as Law, do not.

If after choosing subjects to increase your chances of gaining a place to read your chosen university subject, you are left free to select additional A Level subjects, then St Catharine's particularly values traditional academic subjects. These include English, all non-native languages, History, Geography, Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Many of our applicants are studying three such subjects at A Level, but obviously there are A-level subjects not on that list which may be very relevant to your proposed course of study - Music, Sociology, Government and Politics, or Psychology, for example. Do contact us if you would like any further advice.

International Baccalaureate

A typical offer would be 40-42 overall and 7,7,6 in higher level subjects.

We often find that applicants to science courses have not been permitted to take three science/maths subjects at Higher Level of the IB - and if this is so, we recommend taking two science/maths subjects at Higher Level and one at Standard Level. In this case, we may set conditional offers which include a requirement for the Standard Level science/maths subject in addition to, or instead of, the Higher Level 'non-science' subject.

Scottish qualifications (Advanced Highers)

The University's typical conditional offer for students taking Advanced Highers may change from autumn 2019 onwards, and St Catharine's will, in general, use the new typical offer. More information will be posted here as it becomes available. At present, the typical offer is AAA.

Pre-U system

We set offers based on the equivalence between pre-U grades and A-levels stated in the pre-U website. For example, D2, D3, D3 is equivalent to an A*AA offer. Successful candidates taking a mixture of pre-U and A Level qualifications will often be given an offer which is equivalent to A*A*A for most sciences, or A*AA for most arts and humanities, although it may require complex phrasing.

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)

The EPQ would not normally form part of a Cambridge conditional offer, and we do not expect you to do one. However, if you are doing an EPQ you may be asked about it at interview, and also, do bear in mind that your other university choices may indeed include it in an offer, or reduce your conditional offer if you do well in your EPQ.

Students following other examination systems - especially outside the UK

We receive large numbers of applications from candidates following alternative examination routes. Since our offers are all tailored to the individual, this poses no problem to us whatsoever, and we welcome applications from all bright and motivated students. We usually follow the University's list of recommended requirements for all these qualifications - follow this link.

 

2. Information on your UCAS form and Cambridge Supplementary Applications Questionnaire

Personal Statement

We do not assess the 'quality' of your personal statement, partly because applicants receive widely differing amounts of help with their statements. For example, it will not usually be used to decide who we interview. We may select things on your statement - especially 'supercurricular' academic interests and activities beyond your school curriculum - and discuss them with you at interview, but that is the only contribution it makes to your application to us. 'Extracurricular' recreational activities are not considered by Cambridge, but please be aware that the personal statement can be extremely important in your application to other universities, so we advise you to tailor it to what they want, not us. Simply be ready to discuss it at your Cambridge interview, if asked. There is a helpful guide to writing your personal statement on the UCAS website.

School Reference

Understandably, most of our applicants' school references are good - explaining how well they are performing at school, and that they are expected to do well at university. As a result, school references often do not form a large part of our selection process. However, if you or your school have faced any particular challenges, then this is a good place for this to be mentioned, and we will certainly take such information into account.

Predictions.

If you are applying while still at school, as part of the UCAS process your teachers will be asked to make predictions of your eventual exam results. However, these predictions are not an important part of the admissions process at St Catharine's. This is because (1) predictions are very difficult to make accurately, and (2) some schools and teachers tend to 'underpredict' or 'overpredict' for various entirely understandable reasons. As long as your predictions approach the general range of our conditional offers, then they will play little role in our decision whether or not to interview or make an offer. Also, we do not usually consider your predictions when setting your conditional offer level.

 

3. Cambridge Admissions Assessments, and other additional assessments

Applicants in most subjects will be asked to complete a written admissions assessment for which they must be entered when they apply to Cambridge - please make sure you discuss this with your school in advance of the mid-October application deadline. These assessments are sat either:

  • (all sciences and some art/humanities subjects): 'before-interview' assessments are taken in local examination centres - usually applicants' own schools, usually late in October or early in November, or
  • (some art/humanities subjects): on the day of interview in the college in which each applicant is to be interviewed

The aims of these assessments are to provide a measure of how applicants are progressing in their academic studies, and indicate their future academic potential. Details and sample papers may be obtained on the University' admissions website here and its individual subject pages here. Please note, the assessments are meant to be difficult, so don't worry if they look difficult to you! The aim is to provide a wide spread of marks to help us distinguish among a very able applicant field, so candidates often receive offers having achieved scores which might seem low compared to their achievement in school and public exams. Please note:

  • In Medicine applicants to all Cambridge colleges must sit the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT), as this is the pre-interview written assessment for these subjects. However, unlike other subjects, applicants must register for the BMAT separately. See this subject's pages for details about this test.
  • In Mathematics and Maths with Physics there is no admissions assessment, but the STEP exam is a requirement, and forms part of conditional offers. Some candidates apply to us after they have already sat the STEP exam.
  • Is Music no admissions assessment is set.

It is very important that no one should be disadvantaged by the use of written assessments. It is for this reason that no preparation should be required to take these assessments, other than diligent participation in A-level (or equivalent) courses, and familiarising yourself with the sample papers. Also, the assessments received an enthusiastic reception at focus groups including teachers from a variety of school types. In addition, Cambridge has many years’ experience conducting pre-interview assessments for Medicine, specifically designed to treat all applicants fairly.

If you are a student for whom English is not your first language, then any offer of an academic place may include an additional requirement that you pass an English proficiency exam - click the 'International Students' menu tab for information.

 

4. The interview

The interview is the other piece of academic information we use when deciding to whom to make our offers. See the separate menu tab for more information about this.

In some arts/humanities subjects you may be asked to submit written work you have done as part of your normal school studies, and which has been marked - this is as much to assess the level of feedback and guidance you have received as to allow us to read what you have written. However, it may be one of the things we discuss at interview. If we need written work to be submitted, we will provide full guidance. You so not need to write anything especially for your application.

 

5. Contextual information about your previous educational opportunities and support

This information is very important in allowing us to make our admissions decisions. See our webpage giving more detail about what information we use.

 

Next page: Preparing for interviews

If after reading this website you still have questions about applying to St Catharine's for an undergraduate degree, please email us at undergraduate.admissions@caths.cam.ac.uk