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Jan 12

So you wanna get into Cambridge?

The Guardian reports on the undergrad admissions process for the University of Cambridge:

Then, they get down to business. After the straightforward rejections, and those they have already decided to offer places to, there is a band of candidates who fall in the middle. They might be teenagers who have done well at interview, but whose academic performance seems patchy. There are some with impeccable credentials on paper – but, in a phrase that is repeatedly used, “failed to shine” at interview.

Cambridge has opened up the admissions process to give a clearer picture of the effort that goes into the assessment of each candidate. Competition is intense: around 16,000 candidates are chasing just under 3,400 undergraduate places. Churchill College has 39 places in natural sciences and more than 170 direct applicants. The academics will make about 45 offers, in letters that arrive on candidates’ doormats this week. To help preserve the anonymity of the candidates, most of the academics in the room have asked for their names not to be used.

It’s a really interesting article because the admissions process for things like this is normally such a black box. Based on the numbers above, I was somewhat surprised about the numbers – the admissions rate for Cambridge would be a little over 20%, assuming a 100% yield – which wouldn’t be the case because they would be competing at least with Oxford for candidates. This makes things in the US seem a little crazy for undergrads, with colleges like Harvard having acceptance rates in the single digits.

There’s a measure of luck and arbitrariness with any selective admissions process. I was on an admissions panel for my undergrad program as an alumnus during one year. I sat around a table with other alumni and current students and we would screen each application form through two on the panel. Each application would get graded with a “yes”, “no” or “maybe” for progression to the interview. Academics would sort through “maybes”. Apart from that, there were no real metrics, other than whatever the panelist subjectively thought would make a good fit for the program. But of course panelists are different. A friend looking at one application said that an applicant had “really great marks” but his extracurricular activities showed he might be an introvert so it was a “no” for her. I remember thinking, “Well hang on, if you’re trying to seed the program with some people who would make great technical people, you need that diversity and can’t just think of who you would get along with socially.” However, there’s one part of the Cambridge process which I found really questionable:

It is not just poor teaching – or a lack of teaching – that can wreck a candidate’s chances. Their combination of subjects is also crucial. There is consternation about a candidate who is applying to read natural sciences without having either maths or biology; he is taking physics and chemistry but his third A-level is an arts subject. The lack of maths rules him out for the study of physics. The absence of biology means he will struggle to be accepted as a biologist. The school is a “really ropey” one. One of the academics, a man in a grey fleece, comments: “I feel sorry for him, but I don’t think we can fix the problem.”

Since when does what you study in high school reflect anything about what you end up doing with your life? Or what you’re actually good at? I did a computing degree for undergrad, but I didn’t study comp science. Would I have struggled to be accepted as a computer engineer because of that? And then my law degree. I studied no humanities in high school except for English, which was mandatory. And then for English, despite the protestations of my teachers, I decided to take the second most easiest stream (there were four streams), mainly because I didn’t enjoy reading 18th and 19th century literature. Would that have disqualified me from being accepted as a lawyer?

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