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The TISB student's guide to the Cambridge


2nd Edition

Table of Contents



Preface to the 2


A Little History

Your Grades

Choosing a Course

The Collegiate System of the University

Choosing a College

The Personal Statement

Initiating the Application


The Interview


After the Interview


Further Resources



Preface to the 2nd Edition!

September 2011!

The first edition of this guide was written in September 2009. In the two years
since, my understanding of the Cambridge admissions and application process has
improved, allowing me to reorganise and rewrite much of what is said for the
better. Some of the details of the application process have changed since the first
edition, and I have attempted to amend them to the best of my knowledge.

The guide used to be vaguely applicable to Oxford as well, but this edition is far
more specific to Cambridge. In trying to be more helpful to Cambridge applicants
I have inadvertently ended up being less helpful to the Oxford group. Nevertheless
there are still pockets of information that are relevant to Oxford candidates.

There were a few typographical and grammatical corrigenda in the first edition. I
have attempted to correct them all, but despite my best efforts it is unavoidable
that some will leak back in. I am therefore offering a bounty of 0.151 for any
errors brought to my notice.

Regrettably, much of the first edition was set in the ubiquitous but odious Times
New Roman typeface. The second edition has been set in the far more aesthetic
Baskerville, a transitional serif typeface designed in 1757 by John Baskerville in
Birmingham, England.

At 20, I have significant stylistic differences from my 18 year old self. I have tried to
preserve the youthful tone of the original edition as far as possible, but certain
sections have been overhauled for fear that the writing will come back to haunt me
in the future.

Happy reading!


or approximately 10 Rupees


Hey there! I'm Advait, and I graduated from TISB in April 2009. When I did my
university apps, my primary sources of information were the Internet and my
friends. But after it was done and all the results were in, I couldn't help but wonder
what it would have been like if I'd had a little guidance from someone who had
gone through the same process before. University applications are an
unpredictable affair, and however strong you might believe your application is,
there's always something you can do to improve it!

The aim for this guide is basically to aggregate some of the relevant pieces of
information that one might need along the way, hopefully eliminating hours of
messy reconnaissance that may or may not yield the results you desire. There are
several issues with doing research on the Internet that haven't quite been resolved
yet. For example, outdated information is as easily accessible as up-to-date
information, and there's often no way to distinguish them. There tends to be a lot
of gossip on student forums presenting heavily biased and poorly researched
opinions that may colour your views or wrongfully impact your decision making
process. Accessing the internet in TISB is a limited and time-bound affair, and for
good reasons too, but sometimes you need more. More speed, more access, more
time. As a result, I did much of my university research during the holidays, when I
would have rather spent time chilling.


A Note for Oxford Applicants

This book is tailored specifically toward Cambridge applicants, and if you're
applying to Oxford you may find yourself skipping large sections of the guide.
However some information may be relevant to Oxford applicants as well.

A Little History2

The University of Cambridge (informally Cambridge University), located in the
City of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, is the second oldest
university in the English-speaking world and the fourth oldest in Europe. The
name is sometimes abbreviated as Cantab. in post-nominals, a shortened form
of Cantabrigiensis (an adjective derived from Cantabrigia, the Latinised form of

The university grew out of an association of scholars in the city of Cambridge

that was formed, early records suggest, in 1209 by scholars leaving Oxford after a
dispute with townsfolk there. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are often
jointly referred to as "Oxbridge". In addition to cultural and practical associations
as a historic part of British society, the two universities also have a long history of
rivalry with each other, which is now shared with Imperial College London.

Academically, Cambridge is consistently ranked in the world's top five universities

and as the best university in Europe in the annual ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong
University. Cambridge is also ranked as the best university in both the United
Kingdom and in Europe in the THE-QS World University Rankings. Over the
course of its history, Cambridge University has built up a sizeable number of
alumni who are notable in their fields, both academic, and in the wider world.

As of 2011, depending on criteria, affiliates of the University of Cambridge have

won between 85 and 88 Nobel prizes, more than any other institution. Former
undergraduates of the University have won a grand total of 61 Nobel prizes, 13
more than the undergraduates of any other university.


2 The following section is adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/


Your Grades!

There's a popular urban myth about Cambridge: that you need perfect grades to
get in. This is not true. You do not need to be perfect, but you do need to come
quite close.

You should not be discouraged from applying to Cambridge if you aren't getting
scores in the 40s each month. In fact, I should go so far as to say that if you have
been getting more than 35 points each month, you'll be able to mount an
application. This is because life as an IB student in TISB is hectic to say the least,
and we obviously cannot devote as much time as we would like to preparing for
the unit tests each month. The monthly grades actually underrepresent the
capabilities of most TISB students. That said, a 35 will not get you into
Cambridge. Anyone capable of scoring a 35 is capable of scoring a 383. A 38 on
42 is the lowest predicted grade that Cambridge will consider. If you are accepted,
your offer will be conditional on no less than 41 on 45 points, usually more.

Neither do I need to emphasize the importance of good grades, nor is this booklet
the place for that. What I do need to tell you, however, is that the end of 11th grade
exams are probably the most important exams you will ever take. They play a
paramount role in determining your predicted grades. The 11th grade exams will
give teachers a golden opportunity to assess your ability to cope with an
examination-like situation with substantial coverage of the syllabus. Do not slack
off during these exams.

I had a very ambitious plan for these exams: start studying six weeks in advance.
Naturally, that never happened. I did, however, start a week in advance, and that
helped me immensely. I recommend you this: write down lists of all the units/
modules/topics that will be examined from all your subjects, and tape these up on
your desk. Check them off as you revise them. That way, you'll have an idea of
what remains to be covered and helps you get a start on revision, because it now
seems like charted territory rather than a sea of knowledge.


out of 42 that is, not counting the TOK and Extended Essay points.

Remember, these exams are your number one priority. Everything else must fade
into the background during this time. It may seem unfair that so much should
depend on what we do in such a short span of time, but you can also look at it this
way: if you work really hard for that short span, you'll get returns that pay you
back over a lifetime.

This does not mean that you sacrifice your social life in favour of poring over
books; that may even have a detrimental effect. But do ensure that you study
enough that you can explain any topic you will be tested on and that you have no
outstanding doubts when you enter the exam hall. Good luck!

N.B. The only way to study for math is to practice. Reading the textbook alone
doesn't work unless you're SL and extremely smart.



Choosing a Course!

At the undergraduate level, Cambridge delivers the Bachelor's degree through

what is known as the Tripos system. The word Tripos has an obscure etymology
which may be traced to the three-legged stool candidates once used to sit on when
taking oral examinations. An apocryphal legend says that students, in ancient
times, used to receive one leg of a stool in each of their three years of exams,
receiving the whole stool at graduation.

An undergraduate studying mathematics is thus said to be reading for the

Mathematical Tripos, whilst a student of English is reading for the English Tripos.
(In most traditional English universities a student is expected to register to study
one field exclusively rather than having 'majors' or 'minors' as in American
universities. In practice however, English degree fields may be fairly
interdisciplinary in nature, depending on the subject. The multi-part Tripos system
at Cambridge also allows substantial changes in field between parts, and the
Natural Sciences Tripos is especially designed to allow a highly flexible curriculum
across the sciences.)

This is what the University website has to say about the Tripos:

The Tripos system

Our degree courses (called Triposes) are not modular but are divided into 'Parts' lasting
one or two years. In some subjects there is a two-year Part I (which may be divided into
Part IA and Part IB) and a one-year Part II. In others Part I lasts a year and is followed by
a two-year Part II. In Engineering and some science subjects there is a fourth year (Part II
or III) leading to the degree of MEng or Msci.

There are examinations at the end of each Part. In order to achieve the Cambridge
degree, BA Hons, you must pass examinations at both Part I and Part II.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Cambridge courses is that they cover the
subject very broadly in the initial years and then become more specialised and offer a wide
range of options in the later years.

This can be a real advantage for you. When you start the course, you may not have a clear
idea of the options you want to follow indeed you may not be aware that some options
exist, and bright students often have a wider view than most. Our curriculum allows for

this, enabling you to delay specialisation until you have explored the broad scope of the
subject. You will then have an opportunity to focus your interest, especially where there is
a dissertation option. Certain options are also available in more than one course where
some of the subject matter overlaps (for example in History, Classics, and Asian & Middle
Eastern Studies).

Cambridge graduates are expected to achieve the same standard and depth in their final
year as graduates from courses elsewhere which have a narrower or more specialised
scope. This is because:


we start with some of the most able students

we provide them with some of the best teaching and learning facilities
we work them hard

Our courses offer a tough challenge, but one most of our students relish. We demand a
lot, but we give a lot too: expert teachers and lecturers; good library and computing
facilities; superb labs; lots of support.

In some ways the Tripos system is a good compromise between the continuous assessment
favoured by some universities and the emphasis placed on final exams by others. Each Part
of the Tripos is self-contained with a separate result at the end of each year. There is no
averaging out for your final degree result.

Written examinations are the main form of assessment for our undergraduates. Typically
you would sit between four and eight papers, each paper lasting usually three hours, for
each Part of the Tripos. In addition, in many science subjects you have to do a specified
amount of assessed practical work. Most courses offer the chance to carry out a research
project or dissertation work, which may be in addition to or as a substitute for an
examination paper.


Beginning on the next page is presented a list of the undergraduate courses that
Cambridge offers.



Aerospace and Aerothermal Engineering
Ancient Near East
Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic
Archaeology and Anthropology
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Biomedical Engineering

Chemical Engineering
Chinese Studies
Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
Computer Science


Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Electrical and Information Sciences
Energy and the Environment
English, Old



Geological Sciences
Greek, Classical
Greek, Modern


Hebrew Studies
History and Philosophy of Science

Information and Computer Engineering
Instrumentation and Control
Irish, Medieval
Islamic Studies


Japanese Studies

Land Economy
Latin, Classical
Latin, Insular

Management Studies
Manufacturing Engineering
Materials Science and Metallurgy
Mechanical Engineering
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
Modern and Medieval Languages

Natural Sciences
Norse, Old


Oriental Studies

Physical Sciences
Plant Sciences
Politics, Psychology & Sociology (PPS)

Religious Studies

Social and Political Sciences (SPS)


Theology and Religious Studies

Veterinary Medicine

Welsh, Medieval


Many of these courses fall under the umbrella of a larger tripos. For example, all
the engineering degrees fall under the Engineering tripos. Some courses fall under
multiple triposes. To find out which tripos(es) your course belongs to, visit the
following link:



Fortunately, you needn't really be concerned with which tripos you'll be doing until
you're actually there! However, you need to choose a course before you apply, and
throughout your application you'll need to explain and support that choice.

Perhaps you have already decided the path your education will take. This is good
the universities of the UK are tailored towards people who are passionate about
their subject and are determined to make an impact on the field. If you haven't
quite decided yet, don't fret. There may still be time to consult with your teachers
and parents before you finalise your application. You may also opt to apply for one
of the more generic courses. Be warned, however, that changing courses after
you've been granted admission is a messy and extremely difficult process, so do not
apply to a course for the time being in hopes of being able to change it once you
get in.

If you have absolutely no idea what course to apply for, then it is in your best
interest that I advise you to look at universities on the other side of the Atlantic. If
you want to mount a viable application to Cambridge, you must be decisive,
passionate, and driven about your subject. Or at least appear to be so.


The Collegiate System of the University4

There are 31 Colleges in Cambridge. Three are for women (Murray Edwards [the
current trading name of New Hall], Newnham and Lucy Cavendish) and two
admit only graduates (Clare Hall and Darwin). The remainder house and teach all
students enrolled in courses of study or research at the University.

The role of the Colleges in University life

Each College is an independent institution with its own property and income. The
Colleges appoint their own staff and are responsible for selecting students, in
accordance with University regulations. The teaching of students is shared
between the Colleges and University departments. Degrees are awarded by the

Within each College, staff and students of all disciplines are brought together. This
cross-fertilisation has encouraged the free exchange of ideas which has led to the
creation of a number of new companies. Trinity and St John's have also
established science parks, providing facilities for start-ups, and making a significant
contribution to the identification of Cambridge as a centre of innovation and

The role of the Colleges in student life

A College is the place where students live, eat and socialise. It is also the place
where they receive small group teaching sessions, known as supervisions. The
supervision system is one of the main reasons for the University's success in the
external reviews of learning and teaching.

The Colleges and the University support access initiatives to encourage

applications from able students from both state and independent schools. The most
successful of these is the summer schools programme.


4 The following section is taken from http://www.cam.ac.uk/colleges/


In addition to resources provided by the University, each College has its own
library and sports facilities, and some have their own bar and theatre. Most
Colleges have their own clubs and societies, offering a variety of non-academic
activities for students to take part in.

Benefits of the College system for students

Teaching: The supervision system, where students receive tuition in small groups,
is regarded as one of the best teaching models in the world.

Accommodation: Almost all undergraduates live in College accommodation for

the duration of their time at Cambridge.

Welfare: A variety of support systems ensure that students are treated as

individuals, allowing overseas students in particular to be fully integrated. This is
one of the reasons that Cambridge has one of the lowest drop-out rates.

Financial support: Many Colleges offer awards for their own members, in
addition to funds available from the University.



Choosing a College!

If you are confused about how the collegiate system works, don't worry. It's really
hard to explain; it's one of those things that you have to experience to understand
properly. Don't bother yourself too much about it because an understanding of the
system is not necessary for or even relevant to the application.

There are so many colleges that you might have a hard time choosing between
them. Gentlemen have a slightly narrower choice because of the three womenonly colleges, but that hardly helps.

There is no best college, and there is very little to differentiate them when you are
applying. Still, if you must pick nits, there is a league table of sorts, called the
Tompkins Table, that sorts colleges based on their overall exam performance each
year (i.e; how many candidates for the degree did how well). This table is so
insignificant that I won't even bother providing a link. Google it if you'd like5.

Statistically, applying to a particular college will neither diminish nor improve your
chances of a successful application. It might be tempting to target the college with
the fewest applicants, but doing so is unlikely to have any impact at all on your
chances. This is because of the pooling system. If a college finds that it has more
applicants worthy of a place in Cambridge than it has places, some of the
candidates will be placed in an inter-collegiate pool, and colleges with fewer
worthy applicants can choose students out of the pool. Sometimes students are
pooled multiple times, and pooled students have a moderate chance of acceptance.

No college is under the pressure of filling its places, and Cambridge is publiclyfunded, unlike American ivy-leagues, and therefore it has no compulsion to accept
a fixed minimum of students. If it doesn't feel that there are any applicants worthy
of a seat, it will not accept any. This makes it a more or less level playing field for
all applicants, and ensures that no one is denied a place simply because there were
too many good applicants that year.


I must mention, however, that Emmanuel College consistently tops this chart.

So how do you go about choosing a college? It's up to you. At the undergraduate
level, the decision making factor can be completely arbitrary. I've got a friend who
chose his college because of the ducks, and another because Charles Darwin went
there. There is one who wanted an indoor swimming pool, one who chose her
college because it was close to her department's lecture halls, and one who chose
his college simply because there was a snowman on the brochure, and his girlfriend
liked snowmen.

If you really can't make up your mind, you can apply open. This means you
apply to the University as a whole, not to any specific college. You are then
assigned a college purely at random6 and the rest of your application will proceed
as though you applied to that college from the outset. Applying open will neither
boost nor reduce your chances of getting in. You might encounter some student
forum gossip along the lines of an open application makes you look indecisive,
but I have firsthand information that this is not the case.

Rest assured, whatever college you choose, you will get a warm and friendly
environment steeped in years of culture and tradition, with the same amazing
education you'll get at any other college, because the teaching is unified. Everyone
loves their college, and at the end of the course, everyone thinks that their college
is the best.

The University has some excellent material that might help you make a decision:



If you are applying as a resident of the EU, which at TISB you probably aren't, you will be
assigned to the college with the fewest applicants instead of being randomly assigned.

The Personal Statement!

So you know your subject for sure. Now's the time to start writing your personal
statement. Besides your grades and recommendations, the UCAS personal
statement is the only information that Cambridge uses to decide whether to invite
you to an interview or not, so it is of critical importance.

Spending too much time on your personal statement will leave it overbaked and
artificial. There needs to be an element of conversational spontaneity that the
admissions officers can appreciate. I don't recommend spending more than a
month writing your personal statement, and ideally, you should go through no
more than five drafts. Naturally, you must be leery of obvious pitfalls like
grammatical and typographical errors.

The personal statement should contain the following things:

Why you chose your subject
What makes you fit the course/the course fit you (your qualities)
Your other qualifications, if any
Your other hobbies/extracurricular activities

Why you want to study in the UK (very briefly)

This is by no means a definitive list. But you'll find that if you write a couple of
paragraphs on each of the above, you'll have a solid foundation for your personal
statement. Remember, what Cambridge is most keen on seeing is intellectual
vitality and a passion for the subject. Anything that you've done or been awarded
for that significantly supports those two must go on your application. In fact, I
would even recommend engaging in activities simply to put them on your
statement. Are you applying for computer science? Take up an internship at a
software development company. Are you applying for engineering? Build a robot
over the summer. English literature? Write a book and have it published by an
independent publisher! The possibilities are endless. The only thing that can harm
your statement is not having anything to put on it.



About 50-60% of your essay needs to be subject-centric. You need to really give
them a reason why you are more deserving of private tutoring by an expert
involved in active research in your subject (because that is what you'll get) than any
other applicant.

You have only 4,000 characters to work with, so make sure you get the most out of
them. Use contractions like isn't, don't, etc. and remove line breaks from
between paragraphs if necessary. Write numerals like 27 instead of twenty
seven. I found that removing spaces from after commas and periods and around
other punctuation saved me a whole bunch of characters while taking absolutely
nothing from the meaning. Would you rather present a well formatted but
insubstantial essay or an elaborate essay with a few missing spaces?

If writing isn't your strongest point, find someone who is and badger them to help
you until they cave. I've had this done to me, I don't know, maybe
32274929874502739472903 times during the course of my study at TISB. But I
didn't mind. I can type a lot faster now.

It's always important to go through multiple drafts and to show your essay to many
people. These people must include (but are not limited to) the teacher of the
subject closest to your chosen course, your english teacher and of course, our
principal. It is probable that from these different sources you may get conflicting
opinions regarding how you will modify a part of your essay. In this case you must
share everyone's views with all the people you're consulting with.

The write-wait-write method

This is a technique I discovered while doing my IB and which I use on many
pieces of writing. When doing a large piece of writing in one go, the vocabulary
and grammar often reflects the author's mental state at that specific point in time.
If you want your statement to read rich and varied, this is not a desirable effect.
The solution is to write your personal statement completely from scratch a couple
of times. Write two or three separate versions, days apart from each other so that
you don't remember what you wrote the previous times, then take the best lines out
of each for your final work. The teachers you consult with can assist you at this

Open with a hook. Most people tend to open their personal statements with
something as drab as:

When I was a young child of 4 I was always looking for new

ways to play with my lego blocks and it was only later that I
realized that this was an early reflection of my love for


There are several issues with an opening like this. It is a long sentence comprised
of several awkwardly strung together clauses. The level of sophistication of the
vocabulary is inconsistent. The very content of the sentence presents a weak
assertion. Perhaps if the anecdote had been better elaborated (for example, did the
author finally build something interesting with the lego blocks?), this introduction
could have been salvaged. As it stands, however, this sentence is decidedly boring.

You must grab the reader by their collar from the first line, compelling them to
read on. Here's the opening from the personal statement I wrote in 2008:

Computer science is founded on the basic idea that everything

a computer deals with from processing to storage boils down
to two states: On, and Off.

Now imagine for a moment that a computer is built that

recognizes three states: On, Off, and Mid, and such a
computer is far more powerful than any extant technology.
Most traditional computer theory would have to be rewritten.
George Booles algebra would be obsolete. The paradigm that
computer scientists have built for themselves would be
shattered and replaced with a new one.

Such is the volatility of a science created completely by man.

No laws are concrete, and the possibilities of the field extend
as much as human imagination does. It is this immense
flexibility that draws me to Computer Science. Relentless
experimentation and the drive to fabricate algorithms of

greater elegance is a transcendental thrill.


A few years after writing this essay, and having scratched a little more of the
surface of Computer Science, I realise that there are some fairly important
technical inaccuracies with what I claim in this introduction7.

My personal statement was only one week and two drafts old, but it worked. You
need to be able to push the limits of your knowledge a little bit in order to get the
effect you require. Be a bit outrageous. In fact, be as outrageous as you want to in
order to grab the reader's attention. If you go too far, it'll be moderated by the
teachers you consult with, so don't worry about that when you're writing.

Write the personal statement yourself. This might seem obvious to some of you,
but the unfortunate truth is that there exists an industry of private college
counsellors, who among other things, will also write your essays and statements
for you. Needless to say, as professional, paid adults they can write great essays in
well-polished prose, and I have seen friends succumb to this practice. What they
were not aware of was that it is extraordinarily easy to tell these fabricated personal
statements apart from the real deal. Even an exceptionally gifted 17 year old has
limitations as far as writing is concerned. These pumped up essays are always
detrimental to your application and people who use them usually end up going to
their third or fourth choice universities.

When you finalise your personal statement, make sure that it's a good piece of
work and that you're satisfied with it. You must believe that it's good enough to get
you into Cambridge, otherwise it probably won't. Dr Sullivan likes to say that it
ought to be the best thing you have ever written in your life. Mine certainly wasn't,
but you cannot fault the reasoning behind aiming for best, ever.


As it turns out, most traditional computer theory would not have to be rewritten. No, George
Boole's algebra would not be obsolete. And such a computer would not even cause a dent on
the paradigm that computer scientists have built, let alone shatter it.
I didn't know back then what I know now, and it is easy to look upon one's past self with
condescension. However, the admissions officers understand that the breadth and depth of a
high schooler's knowledge is limited, and are able to see past this limitation to assess intellectual
vitality. The phrase in the personal statement where the most astute observation is made, an
observation that will remain true even when I can run circles around every other claim there is
this one: the possibilities of the field extend as much as human imagination does. The loud,
gimmicky introduction steps aside, and this more unassuming sentence brings some relief.

Initiating the Application!

So you know your subject, have written a spectacular personal statement, and have
chosen a college. How do you get started with the application?

Be warned: applications to Cambridge begin far earlier than other universities,

and it is likely that you will have your decision before some of the US applications
are even due for submission. It is a good idea to finalise your application towards
the end of August.

Visit this page for comprehensive instructions on applying:


To apply to Cambridge, you will need to submit an application to the Universities

and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Once received, your application will be
forwarded to your Cambridge College for consideration.

If you are applying from outside the EU (which at TISB you almost certainly are),
you will need to submit a Cambridge Online Preliminary Application, or COPA8.
The COPA is long, dull and horribly cumbersome. It is possible to plough through
it in one morning, but you will likely make a mess of it if you do. I recommend
that you keep at least two preps on separate days for you to finish it neatly and for
you to research any questions that you may not be able to readily answer. It has a
few interesting features, such as the opportunity to submit an optional additional
personal statement, so it is well worth your while to take your time and think your
answers through. If you have all the required information to hand and have
thought about your answers to those questions requiring a comment or statement,
I estimate that you could complete the COPA in two hours. If you wish, you can
save your work and log back in at a later date to complete the rest of your COPA.
You will also need to pay an overseas application fee of 25 which is paid by debit
or credit card when you complete the questionnaire. There is also a provision for
this to be paid by cheque or postal order, but that will need to be discussed with the
Admissions Office as soon as possible to make special arrangements.

Formerly known as the Cambridge Overseas Application Form (COAF). This used to be
completely on paper and considerably more expensive than it is now.

After submitting your UCAS application, you will be asked to complete the
Supplementary Action Questionnaire, or SAQ. All of the SAQ will have already
been answered in the COPA. To complete the SAQ , all you need to do is enter the
COPA Reference Number you received on completion of the COPA and your
UCAS ID. The deadline is generally only a few of days after your UCAS app is

If you are successful in the first round of the application, you will be invited for an
interview in December at Cambridge. If you know that you cannot make it to
Cambridge at that time for any reason, you may apply earlier and request to be
interviewed in India. In the past the University has conducted admissions
interviews in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, PR China, and India.

If you would like to be interviewed in India9, your COPA must be submitted

before the 9th of September, and your UCAS app must be submitted as early as
possible in the first half of September.

If you are selected for an interview outside the UK, you must also pay an interview
fee of 100 at a later date. Further information on this payment will be provided
in the correspondence inviting you to attend an interview.

I do not recommend being interviewed in India. Request an interview outside of

Cambridge only as a last resort (for example, if it is not financially viable). This is
because you will be interviewed by an admissions officer or an overseas
representative, or sometimes even by video phone. Your ability to make a good,
direct impression is then fettered. By stark contrast, at Cambridge, your interviews
will be conducted by professors of your subject, and you can charm them with
your winning smile.10

If you dig around for long enough on Cambridge's website, you might find a
paragraph stating that in some cases candidates are evaluated without interviews.

The deadlines for your application if you wish to be interviewed in Malaysia, Singapore, PR
China, Canada, Hong Kong and Pakistan are all different. Please make sure you look these up
on the Cambridge website.


Or, as I did, gift them a copy of your first album and a book of poetry.

While this may be true, candidates who are evaluated without an interview never
get in. Although there are protocols in place for Cambridge to accept students
without interview, there are far too many worthy applicants who have appeared for
the interview to even consider a student who is merely faceless paper. Unless you've
invented free energy or solved the hunger crisis in Africa, there's virtually no
chance of being admitted without being interviewed.

You can get extensive and helpful information about applying through UCAS
from the college counsellors, who have been helping hundreds of students through
their applications for several years.

An 800 in an SAT says nothing about your intellectual capabilities, which is why
Cambridge does not bother with the SATs. You may, however, have to take an
additional test like the BMAT or the LNAT depending upon the course you've
chosen. You may need to start making arrangements for any extra tests as early as
August, so make sure you know what the requirements are.

Many courses also require a logic test known as the TSA, or Thinking Skills
Assessment. This test will likely be conducted on the same day as your interview11,
if you are invited to one. There's no need to register in advance for the TSA and
there's no charge associated with the test. The College dealing with your
application will contact you about the arrangements if they're using it.

To find out if you're going to need to take an additional test, visit this page:


I cannot stress how important finding out this stuff is. You must know your
additional requirements because you may need to make arrangements to take the
required tests as early as August. Sometimes what you've learnt in the IB so far is
enough for the tests. Sometimes it is not, and you'll need to acquire some
preparatory textbooks and learn new things.


For Oxford applicants, the test will be conducted at TISB and the written exams will be
submitted for evaluation along with the rest of your application. You will then await their
decision regarding whether to invite you for an interview.

For a detailed listing of all important deadlines, visit this page:




The Interview!

Roughly a quarter of all applicants are invited to an interview. This figure varies
from course to course. It is not recommended to apply for a less popular course
just because you want to get in, because you will not be able to change once you've

If you've been invited to an interview, congratulations. Around one in every five

interviewed candidates are successful.

If you need detailed information on acceptance rates, follow this link:


Be warned that the numbers are different if you consider only international
students. International students have an acceptance rate of 2-5% at the
undergraduate level. Usually, around 20 of these are from India.

In the six to eight weeks after your initial application, it is of critical importance
that you closely monitor your email inbox. You must give them an email ID and a
postal address that you will have access to. If you're a boarder this means your
school email ID and the school address for post. Sometimes you might be
expecting post to arrive at TISB over the holidays. Make sure you are in touch
with the reception and call every day if you have to. Figure out how to access your
school email from outside TISB this is a valuable skill worthy of learning and
takes just a few moments with a tech-savvy friend or the networks administrator.

The Visa
Check your email daily12 without fail, including your spam or junk mail folders
because if you are offered an interview, you will only be notified via email, and
every day after you receive this email counts. Interviews are held in mid-december.
If you haven't made a special request to be interviewed in India, you'll be called to
the UK. More often than not, invitations are only sent a couple of weeks before
the actual date of the interview, which creates a uniquely uncontrollable quandary:

If you can, check twice daily or have someone at home check on your behalf.

obtaining a visa in two weeks. Fortunately for me, we were able to quickly put
together a tourist visa application and we received the visa in four days. This is not
always the case. Even as I was leaving for Cambridge to begin my degree in
September 2009, my visa arrived mere days before my departure, a whole three
weeks after the application was submitted13. What you need to do is prepare your
application, along with the application(s) of anyone you'd want to accompany you
(like a parent or a guardian) well in advance, as soon as possible after you submit
your UCAS.

For the purpose of the interview, it is most appropriate and affordable to apply for
a 6-month general visa, as a tourist.
Further details can be found here:


You will apply for the UK visa through a private company called VFS. Make sure
you and your parents submit all the documents exactly as they ask, or your
application will be refused. Your parents will need additional documents from their
employer, etc. If they want original documents, submit them; you will get them
back intact.



and after writing a letter to the British High Commission in Chennai requesting that they speed
up their act a bit.

Preparing for the Interview

Interviews vary wildly between colleges and courses, and even within colleges and
courses the interviewers change moods very quickly and so your interview may be
completely different from the person who went before you.

Most people have two interviews with two people each. Some subjects have only
one interview, some have three. For most people, all the interviews will fall on the
same day. You'll get full details of the time, date and venue of your interviews and
interviewers in the email invitation.

You have to have your wits about you during the interviews. Be alert and ready for
any type of question they might throw at you. Science subjects will require a math
interview. There's always calculus and freehand curve sketching14 in these
interviews so brush those topics up. Arts and humanities commonly have a case
study: you will be presented with a short piece to think about for a half hour
before you're called in and drilled about it.

Interviews aren't as scary as you might think. The interviewers are aware that
you're nervous, and will actually coax you and help you out with the questions and
problems they pose. Their primary aim is not so see how much you know, but
rather how well you respond to the teaching that they offer. If you don't know
much, they can fix that. If you just can't learn from them, it doesn't matter how
savvy you are at the interview.

Try to think of answers to obvious questions such as why you chose your subject.
Think of how you'll go about answering these questions. Read up on the current
state of affairs of your subject. There is no excuse for applying for economics, say,
and having only a plebeian understanding of a recession. If you apply for
computer science and waltz into the interview oblivious to cloud computing, you
are unlikely to impress anyone.

Our principal is an invaluable resource when it comes to interview practice. Let

him know that you've been invited to Cambridge as soon as possible, and arrange

In the curve sketching questions, they will give you a nontrivial equation and you will be asked
to sketch the graph without the aid of a calculator.

at least two mock interviews with him. You will be astounded at the amount you
learn about yourself and the art of interviewing. Take a notebook so that you can
jot down things you don't want to forget. Do not be timid, I warn you you are
missing out heavily if you think you can get by without this practice. I felt
extremely confident that I could handle myself at the interview after I had my set
of mock interviews with Dr. Sullivan in December 2008. He has the most uncanny
ability to predict interview questions after conversing with you for an hour or so.
Case in point: the latter half of my math interview at Cambridge, in which we put
away the pens and just talked about me and my passion for computers, was like an
action replay of the first mock interview I had with Dr. Sullivan. This time,
however, I knew the pitfalls to avoid.

Finally, the University has produced a lot of material to help prepare for the
interviews and help debunk some of the myths associated with them. There's even
half a dozen or so videos of mock interviews to help you get a feel of what they're
like. I recommend you go through all of them and picture yourself in the place of
the mock candidate; it really helps to deal with the anxiety.

The material can be accessed using this link:


The Cambridge University Students' Union, or CUSU, has their own guide to the
application and is a good alternative student's perspective resource. The link to
their material may be found at the end of this guide.

Coming to Cambridge
You will likely catch a bus (known as a coach) or taxi from the airport to
Cambridge, and from there you'll walk or take a cab to wherever you've booked
accommodation. If you're travelling alone, you'll be able to stay for free at your
college, which might be fun because you'll be with the other applicants for your
course. I do not recommend travelling alone, however, because you have preparing
for your interview to worry about, and it's just too much of a bother to have to also
take care of yourself in that stressful time. Take your mum or dad along. They'll
manage the food and make your bed for you, and wake you up in the morning!

Be warned: the weather at this time of year is nasty. You'll encounter subzero
temperatures coupled with intermittent showers. It's good to wear at least three
layers. You'll need more than just jeans for your legs, get yourself some thermal
inner-wear or wear two pairs of track suits.

You should be able to strip off some of your layers before entering an interview
room, though, because you really don't want to stumble in looking like a frosted
cupcake. Don't under-do it, either. I made the mistake of removing all my warm
clothing before my computer science interview, leaving me with only a shirt and a
suit on la Thursday morning assembly wear. Fortunately for me, it was a warm
three degrees that morning, so my shivers weren't that noticeable. Or perhaps they
were, because halfway through the interview one of my interviewers looked at me
kindly and said Don't worry, it's usually not this cold here.



After the Interview!

So you've completed the interview and all other tests you needed to complete your

Now you can relax.

You'll get a decision very, very quickly. It takes them three weeks at most to get
back to you after the interview. In this time, it's best to keep busy with other things
and not worry too much. The bulk of this waiting period will likely fall during the
christmas holidays, and for year 12 students, this is valuable time to get up to speed
with your curriculum, your TOK essay and your extended essay. Do not squander
it; you will regret it later.

They will not send decisions via email, only by post. I recommend you give them
TISB's address because by post I mean regular post, not private courier. TISB is a
prominent and well-known site for university correspondence and so there will be
minimum delays in processing. I live in a suburban neighbourhood with an
intricate and labyrinthine network of roads and crossings, and it's a postman's
nightmare to single out my house from the slew of illogical addresses. Save
yourself a headache, put down TISB's address.

If all else fails, email your admissions officer and request the decision letter to be
faxed over. Because of the pooling system, you will not be notified of the decision
through UCAS until much, much later.

If your application has been unsuccessful

There is no objective scale by which universities are ranked, and therefore there's
no implication that you weren't good enough for Cambridge. They were not
necessarily looking for someone better, just someone different15.

University is not the zenith or pinnacle of life. Some people have this unfounded
notion that the university you go to will be singularly responsible for how successful

Case in point: I failed to mount a successful application to Stanford and Princeton. One of my
friends at Stanford failed to mount a successful application to Cambridge.

your career (and life, in general) is. That's not true. The only things that are
responsible for your success are the choices you make.

If you have been pooled

Do not dismiss your application as unsuccessful; there's a reasonable chance that
you'll be picked off the pool. Just remember that you may have to reappear for
further interviews.

If your application has been successful

That's brilliant, pour yourself a chilled one. Send me an email. Refocus on the IB
examinations with a vengeance; your conditions are likely to be rather nasty. As
you'll soon discover, getting in was only the first hurdle.



Further Resources:!

Have a look at each of these sites. They'll help you through the application

Cambridge website:

A history of the university:


Cambridge wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/


Contact information for Cambridge Admissions: http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/


A list of Cambridge Colleges along with contact information:


Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU):


Great little guide from CUSU on the application: http://www.cusu.cam.ac.uk/


Contact information for the CUSU access officer, a student officer who will gladly
answer your queries:

Main contact information page for CUSU:


UK border agency (for the visa):





I hope I've been somewhat useful to you during your application process.
I'm aware that fewer than fifteen students apply to Cambridge from TISB each
year. You are a motley crew, but you are among the best young minds in the
country and no matter what you end up doing, you'll likely be very successful at it.

Good luck!

Advait Sarkar
TISB class of '09