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Overseas university spotlight: University of Cambridge (UK)

If you're interested in studying overseas at the University of Cambridge, there is one thing to know: it is special.


Maybe it's because of all the notable people it has educated in its 800+ years of history, such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing and more recently, King Charles III.


Maybe it's the 31 semi-autonomous colleges within the university, whose grounds, collections, stunning facilities and libraries are mostly off-limits to the general public.


Or maybe it's because of the beautiful, green and quaint city in which it resides, with the lovely River Cam running through it.


Either way, there are many reasons why the University of Cambridge is one of the most highly sought after institutions in the UK -- with about 20,000 students from around the world applying for undergraduate programs there every year.


Here are some of the highlights from my visit to Cambridge in August 2023!


King's College
King's College

College system


The university is the second oldest English-speaking university in the world, founded in 1209 by a group of scholars who left its now-rival, University of Oxford.


That said, it employs a very similar structure to Oxford whereby all students apply to and belong to one college throughout their degrees.


King's College Chapel
King's College Chapel
King's College Chapel
King's College Chapel

Overall, there are 31 colleges (29 for undergraduates), and they are essentially mini campuses, each with their own dining facilities, libraries, gyms, chapels, clubs and societies.


Jerwood Library, Trinity Hall
Jerwood Library, Trinity Hall
Lutyens Building, Magdalene College
Lutyens Building, Magdalene College

They vary in size, location, personality, amenities, etc., and are where students live, socialise and study.


'Formal Halls' within the colleges are also fun for students; these are fancy 3-course meals where students must dress up.


Colleges offer them weekly, but it would be unusual for students to attend every week (they normally go to celebrate a birthday or special occasion, etc.).


King's College
King's College

The colleges are also where students undertake their 'supervisions' -- the small-group teaching for which Cambridge is famous.


Supervisions are basically one-on-one (or with a max of three students) and an academic (who is likely the world's leading researcher for the subject area), taking place weekly or fortnightly.

It's worth noting that supervisions are in addition to lectures, which are taught centrally and in larger groups.


But this model of teaching is considered one of the best in the world and is one of the university's key selling points.


It also means students have to be comfortable discussing and debating their subject area with the world's leading experts in that field.


Academic experience


Studying at Cambridge means you'll be having a study experience unlike students at most other UK universities.


Area outside King's College
Area outside King's College

For one, in 'Freshers Week', all students go through a matriculation ceremony in gowns, where they are officially sworn in and sign their names in the college books.


They can then 'get married' or 'be adopted' by others in the college, to create a 'college family' (basically just a support network of friends).


The academic year at Cambridge is split into three intense 8-week terms (known as Michaelmas, Lent and Easter) with about a month break in between.


Arts School

Terminology is also different; at Cambridge, courses are often called Triposes and are divided into 'Parts', with each part lasting one or two years.


And in each Part, students then take 3-4 'Papers' (topics).


But students aren't left to their own devices to figure this out on their own; each student has a Director of Studies who assists with module choice, etc., and a Personal Tutor to help with personal issues -- both of whom are academics.


Student Support
Student Support
Arts School & Careers Service building
Arts School & Careers Service building

Also uniquely, matriculated students are entitled to attend any lectures of any degree course -- not just the one in which they're enrolled!


So if you're a bit of an overachiever, you can really fill your timetable!


Lecture theatre in the arts school
Lecture theatre in the arts school

Whilst college life and supervisions make up a large part of the student experience, it's not the only way students spend their time.


There are also university-wide clubs, societies and sports teams, as well as plenty of events, such as an amazing tradition of welcoming influential guest speakers to the Cambridge Union (the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major).


Cambridge Union
Cambridge Union

Cambridge admissions


Applying to an undergraduate program at Cambridge is quite different and way more involved of a process than almost all other UK universities, apart from Oxford.


Firstly, Cambridge has high minimum academic requirements (i.e., five Advanced Placement courses with scores of 5), but that alone isn't usually enough.


Also important is a strong personal reference detailing the 'supercurricular' (how did you engage with the subject outside of your studies), reference letter, interview and sometimes writing samples or additional subject-specific admissions tests.


Students can also choose to apply to a specific college or make an open application; either way is fine and won't impact on admissions chances; students are often pooled to another college anyway.


Colleges are then in charge of their own admissions and can choose who they interview.


This isn't a typical 'where do you see yourself in five years' type of interview though, but rather, it's designed to mirror the supervisions.


Depending on their subject area, students may be asked to solve an equation, reflect on an ethical dilemma, interpret a poem, etc.


Whilst the interviews are designed to be challenging and aimed to stretch your mind, tutors are not trying to trip students up; they just want to see how they think and come to solutions (so best to vocalize your approach and ask for clarification if need be!).


For context, in 2020 a little more than 20,000 students applied for 4,000 undergraduates places at Cambridge, which means its general acceptance rate is around 20 percent.

Although this is actually quite high compared to U.S. universities nowadays, the intensity of studies at Cambridge isn't for everyone, and if you haven't surpassed the above minimum academic requirements, that 20 percent acceptance rate is a moot point anyway.


Cambridge students hanging out by the river

Currently, the community of undergraduate students from the U.S. at Cambridge is quite small (about 100), but at the graduate level, it's more like 1,000 American students.


At the graduate level, the application process is much more straightforward.


Graduate students apply to the specific department (not the college) and also need about a 3.5 GPA or higher, two academic references and to pass an interview.


Punting boats

Cambridge city


Perhaps one of the best aspects of studying at Cambridge is its location in one of the UK's most charming cities.


With a population of around 150,000, the city is an absolute gem.


Jesus Green
Jesus Green
Road in Cambridge

It's a convenient 1-hour train from London and is exactly what you might imagine a historical, picturesque English city to be like.


Wedding photos on a regular Thursday evening
Wedding photos on a regular Thursday evening
Street in Cambridge

In addition to its really cute coffee shops (Espresso Library and Bould Brothers being my favorites), I loved walking along the River Cam.


The best avo toast I have ever tasted (Espresso Library)
The best avo toast I have ever tasted (Espresso Library)
Espresso Library
Espresso Library
River Cam
The Anchor Pub, a hidden, nice non-touristy place by the river
The Anchor Pub, a hidden, nice non-touristy place by the river

I highly recommend going punting down the river, too -- riding in a small boat with a guide -- as you'll be taken along the backsides of the colleges, which are absolutely stunning buildings.


This bridge is how the city got its name; the bridge over the River Cam!
This bridge is how the city got its name; the bridge over the River Cam!
River Cam
River Cam
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
St John's College
St John's College
Mathematical Bridge
Mathematical Bridge
King's College
King's College
Wren Library, Trinity College
Wren Library, Trinity College

When back on land, do be careful though.


Sure, you can walk everywhere, but there are certainly a lot of cyclists!


Trinity College
Bikes in an alley
More bikes in an alley
St John's College
St John's College
Parker's Piece
Parker's Piece
The Corpus Clock, designed to remind viewers of the inevitable passing of time
The Corpus Clock, designed to remind viewers of the inevitable passing of time
Filming in Cambridge

It's also worth climbing up the tower of Great St Mary's for 360-degree views of Cambridge.


Great St Mary's
Great St Mary's
Gonville & Caius College
Gonville & Caius College
The market stalls are fun to visitOn a sunny day, the market stalls are fun to visit
On a sunny day, the market stalls are fun to visit
View of Cambridge
King's College
King's College
Round Church, the heart of cityRound Church
Round Church, the heart of city

University of Cambridge: Summary


Whether you're looking for an undergraduate or graduate program, the University of Cambridge is an incredible place to study, with a distinguished history and tradition of educating some of the world's brightest minds: 121 Nobel Prize Laureates, 47 Heads of State and 210 Olympic medallists to date.


King's College Chapel
King's College Chapel

Nowadays, however, it is made up of about 22,000 students overall, a figure that is almost evenly split between undergraduate and graduate students.


Its colleges and academic buildings are integrated well within the beautiful city of Cambridge, where you can walk or cycle anywhere.


And it provides a community within a community; the college system accounting for a well-supported and connected academic and social student environment.


For the right student, it would truly be the academic experience of a lifetime.


 

Interested in applying for college or grad school abroad?


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G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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