How to choose a Cambridge College

There are many different reasons for choosing a particular Cambridge college, some more valid than others; despite this, the prospect of deciding where to apply can be daunting. This guide aims to help prospective applicants by suggesting good reasons for choosing a college and identifying reasons that are not so good. The information here is just a starting point; for further insight, find out about your prospective college(s) on the rapidly expanding category page. Another good place to check out is the Alternative Prospectus, put together by students.

Open Application or not?Step-by-Step Guide

First, you must decide whether to make an open application. An open application is where you do not choose a college; instead, you are assigned to one by the admissions board. Allocation is often to "less popular" colleges; this does not make them bad colleges, simply colleges which have fewer applicants than others in the current cycle of applications. EU students are assigned to the statistically less-oversubscribed colleges for their subject that year; international students are shared equally between colleges.

You may decide to make an open application if you really don't mind what your college life will be like. However, college life is such a great and unique aspect of Oxbridge that it's well worth using the choice given to you. If there are any colleges you know you really don't want to be at (for example, if you know you don't want to be very far out of the centre of town), you would be advised to choose another college at random rather than risk being assigned to somewhere you would rather avoid. Making an open application will not disadvantage you, so don't be afraid to take this route if you feel it is best for you.

If you decide not to make an open application, the next step is to narrow down the list of thirty-one colleges to a shortlist of 'possibles'. One way to do this would be to write out a list of all the colleges and begin to cross them off according to whatever criteria are important to you.

Eliminate by College Type

A minority of colleges do not admit certain groups of students:

Women only: Murray Edwards, Newnham, Lucy Cavendish

Mature students (over 21 at matriculation) only: Clare Hall, Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish, St Edmund's, Wolfson

Graduates only: Clare Hall, Darwin

All that said, if you are female then don't discount Murray Edwards and Newnham for Undergraduate degrees in particular. Their ethos can best be described as 'women first' rather than 'women only'. They exist because there simply aren't enough women in Cambridge. As a result, neither of them are convents, and guests and friends of any gender are usually welcome to come and go as they please. To talk about the benefits and any downsides of a women's first College, get in touch with the Schools Liaison Officers at Murray Edwards and Newnham - they are usually graduates from the College.

Eliminate by Course Availability

Some colleges do not provide all courses offered by the university; cross off those which do not provide your course.

To find out which colleges offer your course, check out the Cambridge websites and/or prospectus.

Eliminate by Admission Criteria

The colleges may have slightly different admissions criteria for the subjects which they offer. In addition to the information provided by your UCAS application, some colleges will request some sample work and some will require candidates to sit a test at interview (Cambridge tries to interview all candidates whom they feel have a realistic chance of being offered a place). Reading the admission criteria (link below) may help you cross off colleges if there are any admissions criteria you aren't comfortable with, or even highlight colleges whose criteria particularly appeal to you. If you feel that you are right for a place at Cambridge, it makes sense to give the admissions tutors as much evidence for this as possible.

Cambridge Admission Criteria

Visiting Colleges

You may, on visiting a college, have an instinctive feeling that it is or isn't right for you. Visit colleges if you can; it will probably substantially reduce your list. If you are unable to attend an open day, it is still possible to get a feel for a college by visiting at another time, although you may be restricted in terms of which areas you can explore. It can be helpful to get in touch with the Admissions Team of any College that you want to look around as they can often arrange for a current student to take you on a tour, which can give you a much better feel for the College and provides the opportunity to ask lots of questions. The contact details for Admissions Teams can be found on Colleges websites, as well as the main University website.

Each college has its own printed prospectus, which will provide more detailed information than its entry in the University prospectus.

Eliminate by Location

You'd be surprised by how lazy (or energetic) you can become as a student. If walking distances to lectures sounds problematic, you may want to eliminate colleges based on location. Bear in mind a lot of people cycle around Cambridge - so unless you're really unsteady on a bike, consider cycling distance and walking distance

Map of Cambridge

Location is also a good indicator of how old the buildings look. Colleges in the city centres are usually the old looking colleges, whereas more modern colleges are usually a short walk out of town.

Don't be put off by "out of the way" colleges. Just because you can't see King's College chapel from the grounds doesn't mean it doesn't have advantages such as being near a supermarket, which can end up being a huge bonus! For example, Sidney Sussex has an advantage when it comes to this, being across the road from Sainsbury's. There are also branches of Tesco, Asda and Aldi (near Murray Edwards & Fitzwilliam) slightly outside the town centre for those who want to save a few quid! Being a little way out for the centre also tends to mean less tourists.

Eliminate by Facilities

At this stage it becomes useful to point out the Alternative Prospectus provided by students of each college. Just go to the college websites and search for "Alternative Prospectus" and you'll find students' takes on their own colleges (good and bad points). This allows you to eliminate colleges which don't have a particular facility (such as provision for sports or music). If you're unsure, contact the college directly for clarification.

If you have a disability then take time to choose your college carefully, as some of them are better equipped than others. Cambridge streets are not designed for wheelchairs and a lot of the colleges have gravel - which doesn't make things easy! There is however, the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) which is very good at helping you out.

One facility that is increasingly important for all students is internet access.

Most, if not all, student accommodation in college have RJ45 CAT5 wired access in each room connected to Cambridge University Data Network (CUDN) and the Internet. All colleges provide Ethernet cables for a nominal fee. Also many colleges have, or are implementing, Wi-Fi in communal areas and in some student rooms. Offsite student properties may have wired or wireless connections.

However, Internet access costs vary greatly between colleges:

• Many colleges include “free” internet in their termly facility fees/rent; Churchill, Corpus, Downing, Emmanuel, Fitzwilliam (up to 100GB, then £0.33 per Gb), Girton, Gonville and Caius, Homerton, Hughes Hall, Jesus, Pembroke, Peterhouse, Queens', Robinson, St Catharine's, Trinity, Trinity Hall.

• Others have a fixed charge per term; Christ's (£15 per term), Clare (£33), Murray Edwards (£24.54), Selwyn (£35.00), Sidney Sussex (£10), St Edmund's (£13.33), St John's (£20), Wolfson (£15).

• Magdalene charges £2.75 per week, while Darwin and Christ’s charge £45 per year.

• Clare Hall charges for all data used: £1.00 per Gb .

• King’s, Lucy Cavendish and Newnham have not published their network charge method.

Network access policies are broadly similar across colleges. Most P2P sites are banned except for a few approved applications such as Skype. Churchill permits Steam, Xbox Live and Spotify – with other applications by prior negotiation with your Senior Tutor.

Colleges implement speed limits (throttling) and/or summary disconnection (with reconnection fees) if you breach bandwidth limits. Churchill is notable for its generous 25Gb daily bandwidth limit. Pembroke have a 10 GB daily bandwidth limit. Others have much more restrictive limits: for example Sidney Sussex (just 500Mb per day), Christ’s (1Gb per day). Robinson allows up to 1.5Gb per day from their free “Basic” service, or “Gold” Service allows up to 5Gb per day at a cost of £25 per term.

College printers: colleges provide shared printers and photocopiers usually located in the library computer room. Printing costs are charged per page and vary by college although 5p per A4 mono sheet is typical. Some colleges provide students with a small allowance towards printing costs – Newnham is notable for its generous £150 per term printing allowance.

Pick the One You Like Most

By this point, most people should have a shortlist of no more than five colleges. I cannot stress enough how important it is now to just pick the one you like most. Stop thinking about other factors such as reputation for courses or what other students think of the college; just pick the college you like most. If your gut feeling about a college is that you'd fit in there, you are probably right.

Remember that it doesn't matter what your college reputation is for a particular subject; in the end you're lectured by the university, not the college. It's far more important to enjoy the company and surroundings than to worry about being at "the best college for....".

Tactical College choice

Lots of people look at the statistics and try to make a tactical college choice based on which ones look the easiest to get into. THIS APPROACH DOESN'T WORK.

It is equally difficult to get into Cambridge no matter which college you apply to. Take the case of Murray Edwards. They don't get as many applications as many colleges and they often get weaker candidates because people apply there thinking it will be easier to get in. However they're not obliged to take anybody who applies to them directly. They can take as many as they like out of the pool - good candidates who applied to other colleges but were squeezed out by the competition there. So in practice, the people who apply directly to Murray Edwards that aren't strong enough still don't get offers even if the statistics look favourable.

So lets have a look at some statistics to show how this works.

Trinity is a popular college. In the 2008 admissions cycle, they got 961 applications (of which 5 were open applications allocated to Trinity) and made 225 offers, of which 7 were to people who had applied to other colleges and were taken out of the pool by Trinity. However, and this is important, a further 66 people who applied to Trinity got offers from other colleges (having been pooled by Trinity). So 30.3% of Trinity applicants were successful in getting into Cambridge.

Compare this with Murray Edwards. They got 362 applications (of which 236 were open application people allocated to Murray Edwards) and made 136 offers. However 94 of those offers were to people who had applied to other colleges and got fished out of the pool by Murray Edwards. So only 42 of the 362 applicants actually got offers from them. Furthermore, nobody got an offer from another college having been pooled by Murray Edwards. So only 11.6% of Murray Edwards applicants were successful in getting into Cambridge.

The difference between the 30.3% of successful applicants at Trinity and the 11.6% at Murray Edwards is explained by the fact that Trinity tends to attract a higher quality of applicant than Murray Edwards. So this shows that those applying to Murray Edwards thinking that 136 offers from 362 applications (37.6%) were good odds against the 225 offers from 961 applications (23.4%) at Trinity had it all wrong.

A long but hopefully useful way of saying that playing the statistics game doesn't work.

Reasons for choosing a college

The good...

"The accommodation there is superb!" You'll be spending many years at Cambridge. That's a significant proportion of your life - and by far the largest part of that will be spent in your room. Which college you choose will partly determine whether this time is spent in something akin to a mansion or a closet in which you couldn't swing a textbook, let alone a cat. What's more, some colleges offer accommodation for the whole of your course, whereas at others you may find yourself competing against everyone else in the private housing market after your first year. All undergraduate colleges in Cambridge, however, guarantee accommodation for the duration of at least three years.

"I like the look of the place." When you leave, it will be the visual memories that stay with you the longest. Make sure they're memories of a place you loved to be, whether it's because the architecture is to your taste, or you thought the gardens were pretty, or you want to be near the river so that you can easily jump in on Suicide Sunday (or you just like the river view).

"It's a good location." Consider the college's location generally - what facilities are nearby, and whether you'd rather be right in the middle of it all or somewhere with more space to yourself. Some people love being next door to their departments, but equally some people prefer to put some physical distance between their academic and home/social life. It's all to do with what you prefer.

"They've got a good reputation for my favourite sport/hobby." No matter how workaholic you are, everyone's got to have some hobbies - and while there are university clubs for a lot of them, it can be preferable to have the option of playing your sport or following your hobby in college. Consider also the facilities available. Table tennis tables and badminton courts are rare, for example, and having your own sports grounds right next to college is a real plus for sporty types. Nonetheless, even if there isn't a College club or society for something that you're interested in, you can always set one up!

"It's got an academic ethos that will suit me." Of course, it's all about your own study and making your own choices to strive for whatever level of academic achievement you feel comfortable with - everyone at Cambridge, no matter what college, will be passionate about their subject, but colleges with well-stocked, 24-hour libraries for example might help you through that study. But remember, this works both ways. If you're the kind of person that would rather come out with a 2:1 and have captained a sports team or run student societies than strive for a first class degree (not that you can't try to do both), then you may want to pick somewhere that's a little more relaxed. The Tompkins table, which ranks the academic success of colleges, can give a rough idea of this - however bear in mind that colleges change positions significantly each year (due to the small sample sizes in particular) so you should look over several years and take it with a pinch of salt.

...the bad...

"It's got an excellent supervisor for one of the options I want to take." Chances are, a considerable amount of your teaching over the course of your degree will be by a supervisor in another college. This is especially the case with optional courses, where supervisors specialise and only one or two supervisors in the university may teach a given option. What's more, you can ask to be taught by a specific supervisor if you so wish. So the college you choose will not necessarily determine who teaches you. That said, some Directors of Studies in colleges are better than others at helping you get the supervisor you want.

"I've heard it's a friendly place, and I'm worried about making friends." They're all friendly places, trust us. When this many people are thrown together into so close an environment, you cannot help but find people with similar interests. It's pretty much guaranteed that you'll make friends wherever you go. However, it's worth thinking about things like whether you'd prefer a big or a small college, and if you're a graduate, whether you'd rather be in a graduate-only college or one with an undergraduate body.

"The food's meant to be good." True - the average standard of food varies quite considerably between colleges. But the standard of food varies quite considerably between different days at any given college, too! It's not going to kill you at any of the colleges, and if you don't like it, you don't have to eat it. This may be a good criterion, however, if the college doesn't provide self-catering facilities.

"My best friend's decided to apply there." It's great to stay in touch with your old friends - but you'll definitely be making new ones too, so don't feel you have to be in the same college as your best mate to keep in touch with them. In fact it would probably put you at a social disadvantage if you felt tied to one friend from home in the first few weeks of uni. If being near to your friend is your number one priority, apply to the college next door.

"It organises fantastic entertainment!" Okay, so your college will probably be a big part of your social life. But note the "probably". If your college isn't known for its bops and may balls, go to someone else's.

...and the ugly.

"I've heard it's good for state schoolers." Once you're in, it doesn't matter. Really, it doesn't. You'll probably go through your whole course without finding out whether some of your friends are from a state or independent school - and if it does come up, only as a curiosity.

"My role model/teacher/careers adviser went there in the Sixties..." Your achievements in life will be your own, and you won't emulate someone else's by following them physically. Be wary of taking advice from Cantabrigians - not only has Cambridge changed a lot since they were here, but they'll have a biased view anyway.

"It's much more famous." There are two sides to this coin. Most of the traditional Cambridge colleges (those founded up to, and including, Downing) are well-known among intellectuals and others; generally, though, fame will not be the ultimate reason for choosing your college. It is inadvisable to choose a more well-known college if other points working against it outweigh the enjoyment value. Some of these colleges (generally, the larger, more architecturally impressive ones) will be frequently visited by tourists, and this may prove a distraction.

"The reputation fits with me." The fact is that judging by college reputation is an ugly method of choosing to begin with. The stereotypes, however, are engraved not only in popular consciousness, but also in the group consciousness of other colleges. Choosing by academic reputation may hold water for extremely competitive students: reputation and statistics bear out Homerton's link to Education, Downing's to Law, Caius' to Medicine, and Peterhouse's to Engineering. Performance in Tompkins tables is not a yardstick for the quality of teaching a particular subject at a particular College. On the other hand, social reputations are more fluid and oftentimes simply wrong: there are students of all political orientations and financial fortune at Caius and Peterhouse, although the truth is that a very significant number are Conservative and/or middle class. Social reputation, then, may help a college stand out, but it should never be the sole reason for your choice.

"It's high on the Tompkins table this year." The Tompkins table is acceptable for use as one of a number of ways of judging a college's academic standing. In conjunction with the academic facilities, standard of supervisions and general attitude to work, it can be worth looking at the Tompkins table over a number of years to see whether a college is generally high or low. Given its problems of measurement and its variability, however, it would be folly to use the table as the sole measure, or to look only at a single year. If in doubt, stay well away. And remember that it is you that does the work; no matter how high your College may be in the Tompkins tables, they will not be sat in the library writing your Supervision essays for you, and they will not sit the exams for you. If you're driven to succeed academically then you will do so at whichever College you attend.

and finally

Many people have more specific criteria - finance and grants, for example - so this is far from an exhaustive list. If you're still stuck after using the resources in this guide, try contacting students from the colleges you're most interested in - JCR/MCR Presidents, for example, are often happy to help. But of course, there is no real substitute for a visit. So if it's feasible, do try to go to the college physically and get a feel for what it's like there. At the end of the day, try to remember that in many ways your choice of college doesn't actually matter all that much. Happy hunting!