Just found this somewhere:
Does applying to a popular college handicap candidates in the race for a place?
By Judith Judd
27 January 2000
In the splendour of Clough Hall, Newnham, one of Cambridge University's two remaining women's colleges, dons are scurrying between big boxes of files. Newnham's former principals gaze down severely from the walls, puzzled, perhaps, by the intense activity which entrance to this university now involves. If they were to ask their modern counterparts what they were doing, the answer would be that they are "fishing in the pool".
The pool, in early January, is where colleges with the most applications "sell" applicants who are "bought" by those with the fewest. It is a crucial part of the entrance procedure because it aims to ensure that no one suffers because Cambridge's 10,000 applicants apply not to the university but to a college. If the pool does not work, the equity of the admissions system is thrown into question.
The gulf between college application figures is wide and growing wider. This year Clare has 674 while the college with the smallest number of applications (name not disclosed by the university) has 250. In some subjects, at some colleges the odds are phenomenal. At Clare this year, 74 people applied for modern languages and just nine received offers. A small number of applicants may not mean that a college is easy to get into. A few colleges, such as those which regularly top the Tompkins league table of university degree results, such as Christ's, attract comparatively few extremely able sixth formers. Others, including the women's colleges, may rely on the pool to fill up to half their places.
This year, one academic from an undersubscribed college is looking for five history candidates, four for this year and one for next. She has managed to find only three from the applications to her own college.
Last year 2,500 candidates were pooled and 440 offered places. It works like this: colleges such as Clare decide which of the people they have interviewed should be put into the pool. The basic rule for pooling is that your school must back you strongly, you must have very good GCSEs, a prediction of three As at A-level and one interviewer must think you should be at Cambridge.
Candidates do not enter the pool on an equal footing. Some subjects have pre-pool meetings to pick out front-runners. In history, Dr Polly O'Hanlon, Clare's admissions tutor (arts), takes along a list of her 15 poolable candidates and highlights her top six.
When the pool opens for its two-day session, her fellow historians will already have a good idea of which names to look for. The files of every pool candidate, including application, written work, test scores and interviewers' comments, can be found in Clough Hall and proactive admissions tutors such as Dr O'Hanlon and Dr William Foster, the science admissions tutor, will push particular candidates. "You must take Bloggs, who is top of our pool list," says Dr O'Hanlon to a colleague.
A minority of pool candidates will receive an offer immediately from a college but most will be reinterviewed. Because there is competition for the best candidates, only two colleges are allowed to approach each candidate. If Bloggs is on several colleges' lists, hard bargaining takes place to decide which two will reinterview him. Sensibly, the university believes it would be unfair to subject anyone to more than two extra interviews. A second round of interviewing is about to begin and for some undersubscribed colleges, it is as intensive as the main December interviewing period.
For the candidates, it is a disheartening moment. While friends and acquaintances have offers in the bag, they have to undergo another gruelling round of interviews and most will eventually be rejected - again. As the parent of one candidate rejected in last year's pool said: "The process took nearly two months and was demoralising."
Yet the university's advice to candidates is that those in the pool should "in no way" feel inferior to those who are successful in the first round. Experience shows that they do just as well when they arrive at Cambridge. But how can candidates who just missed places at Pembroke, Emmanuel or Clare be certain that they would not now be uncorking the champagne if they had applied to one of the colleges with fewer applications? The difficulty with the pool is that it is voluntary. Despite strenuous efforts to improve it, insiders say that some admissions tutors take their role of salesmen and women for their candidates more seriously than others.
Both Clare and Pembroke are extremely successful in placing rejected candidates elsewhere. This year, 150 of Clare's 674 candidates received offers, but a further 87 (two-thirds of those pooled) win offers through the pool. So, though the chances of getting an offer at Clare are one in 4.5, the overall chances for Clare applicants of a Cambridge offer are 2.8 to one.
Dr Foster says: "Applying to a popular college, like Clare, may mean that it is hard to get into that particular college, but it should not greatly affect your chances of getting into the university somewhere."
But in a university where the college tradition is so strong, there remains the temptation to take someone simply because they have applied. Colleges are supposed to use the pool to check that their bottom line is the same as everyone else's but there can be no hard evidence that everyone does. A few may not even turn up.
For a candidate rejected by a popular college and then in the pool, doubts about the system must remain. One mother of a disappointed Clare applicant wrote to me this week: "If he had been considered along with every other candidate for his subject, he would at least have known if he was up there with the best, or not. But now he will never quite know whether it was just the luck of the draw."
Sue Stobbs, the university's director of admissions, points out that a table in the prospectus shows candidates the relative popularity of colleges. "We are upfront in telling people which are the popular colleges. The polarisation between numbers of applications has got worse and we are looking at that." She is confident that it ensures that no one gets in who is less able than someone else just because the second person has been rejected by their first choice college. But she concedes: "People who are equally able would probably have a slightly better chance in a college with fewer applications. I think it is going to take a few more years of encouraging more active interest in the pool from directors of studies to get it right. A few years ago, some colleges weren't using the pool as they should have been."
Why would it not be possible for all subjects to do as medicine does and leave 20 per cent of their places unfilled until they have seen who is in the pool? That, says Dr Stobbs, would be impractical, unwieldy and unnecessary for the high-flying colleges with a small number of very bright applicants. Another possibility would be an agreement among colleges to use the pool if numbers applying for a subject fell below a certain level.
To an outsider, the fundamental question is why Cambridge cannot handle all their applications centrally, allocating people to colleges once they have been picked by a subject faculty. Unlike other universities, apart from Oxford, Cambridge has to interview thousands of very well-qualified applicants. Faculty-based admissions would require a huge shake-up of the university's collegiate structure. "The collegiate system is the great strength of Cambridge. Keeping it is important. We have to think within that context," says Sue Stobbs.
If you were designing the fairest possible admissions system for one of Britain's two most sought-after universities, you wouldn't start from here. But if the centralisation of admissions is unrealistic, other, less drastic, reforms would give candidates a fairer deal. Candidates can already make an "open" application which does not specify a college and is allocated to a college with only a few applicants in a particular subject, but few do.
Admissions tutors will look this term at ways of encouraging more open applications - a tacit admission, surely, that the pool fails to provide a satisfactory solution to the imbalance of applications. A switch to open applications for all would end many of the difficulties.
Meanwhile, the colleges, though subject to more guidance from the centre than ever before, go their own way. Clare has its own written tests for science. Few other colleges do. Some colleges demand that candidates take the university's own entrance paper in their A-level term. Some worry about state school entrants. The university's defence is that it is searching all the time for ways of improving its selection procedures. But should candidates for one of our leading universities be expected to tolerate a system whose main justification is tradition? Should a student's future depend on a gentleman's agreement? Is it really possible to guarantee better access for state school pupils until all colleges pursue potential, rather than achievement, with the same enthusiasm as Clare?
At Clare no one pretends that they are entirely confident that the rejection letters which may end years of hope and striving for ambitious sixth formers have all gone to the right people. They say only that they have taken immense care and tried to construct a system which reduces the margin for error in an enormously difficult task.
Dr Simon Franklin, the college's senior tutor, says: "Some rejection letters could be completely unjustified. I don't say this cynically but a lot of what we do is done to persuade ourselves that we have grounds for making decisions we don't really have grounds to make. No process of assessment is perfect, but we do our best."