One of our tutors posted a question on his Facebook page for his friends and acquaintances to consider. We thought the thoughts and opinions expressed were fascinating and the tutor has agreed that we can use some of them on our blog today.

This was the question:

‘For any of you in the know: a very bright student of mine at an independent girls’ school in London has been told categorically by her careers guidance counsellor that she should not apply to Cambridge for languages – even though she is predicted all As for A level – because she got 3 A*s, 2 As 3 Bs and a C at GCSE. A*s in English and languages. She is told that they won’t give her a second look. Can this be right?’

And this is a selection of the responses he received:

* No. She should apply. The whole application is looked at, not just the GCSEs. For different reasons I was once told I wouldn’t get in by a history teacher at my school. I also have friends who were great at maths and didn’t have great GCSEs in modern languages. And surprisingly admissions cared not a jot about their modern languages. There are a lot of myths about the application process…

* Seriously! So they are factoring GCSE results into the application equation? (She) wants to study medicine at Cambridge … Might get her some extra tutoring … More pressure  !

* Objectively, the guidance is harsh, but not unqualified. With regard to her GCSEs, they can be the first cut off for interview. The best information can be found on this page – scroll down to the GCSE bit to see why:

How do we assess applicants for Cambridge?

Admission to Cambridge is highly competitive and selectors are required to make very difficult decisions between applicants, based on each applicant’s potential to benefit from and flourish in studying the Cambridge course for which they have applied.

* With regard to A Level results, 3 A grade predictions is also below the usual predictions for Cambridge – module scores matter a great deal and they place weight on 90% and beyond at AS and A2 and therefore, she should be predicted at least one A* grade to realistically be considered. In addition, her AS module scores will be taken into account for the application. The vast majority of our students who apply have 3 A* predictions which are realistic – not all achieve them but for the 60-70 applications we process each year, it is fairly representative…

* Tell her not to worry, go to Leeds instead, have a fabulous time, get a degree, get a job that has nothing to do with said degree, enjoy life safe in the knowledge that no one will ever ask to look at your degree certificate.

* When I’ve interviewed, we’ve been given a spreadsheet that tells us how many A* GCSEs the candidate has, how many A, and how many ‘other’. (We also get a whole heap of other information, both academic and contextual: it’s ridiculously/brilliantly detailed.) I’ve interviewed people with a wide range of results, from people with no A*s, to people with 10 or 11. It’s true that an admissions tutor might be a bit concerned about an uninspiring GCSE performance at an independent school: they’d want to know whether there were unusual circumstances that kept the rest of the results down. Still, that’s what the rest of the application is for. Also, as a rule I’m deeply suspicious of careers guidance people who try to put any motivated and bright kids off applying to Oxbridge. So worth a shot, I reckon.

* My guidance counselor at school laughed at me for considering to apply to Cambridge. And then they let me in. Both were wrong.

* I say fiddlesticks to it. She should apply. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! I applied to Cambridge back in the day, even though I was probably never going to get in. I interviewed and it was a great experience. Also meant that when I interviewed at Warwick (from whence I eventually graduated) I knew as soon as I set foot on campus there that Cambridge wasn’t for me anyway!

* GCSE results are looked at as part of the application, but I think it’s the lack of an A* prediction that would potentially be more of an issue, as lowest offer is usually A*AA. Having been on both sides (applicant and interviewer) I think it’s got a lot harsher in terms of grades required at GCSE than when we applied, and the extent to which they are used as a screening factor will depend on the individual college and how many applicants they have per place in a particular year. I think contacting admissions tutors at each college is probably a decent idea. She should also try to negotiate her predicted grade up in at least one subject if possible.

* (Yes, the bigger issue is the prediction: it’d be unusual to get an offer below A*AA, so the AAA prediction may not cut much ice.)

* There’s also a lot of variation between colleges, so she/her parents/teachers should get on the phone to admissions offices and ask them what they think. If they find one that says “no problem, we’ll still take her application seriously” then bingo.

* Nothing ventured nothing gained. Tell her she should apply. You shouldn’t let other people sway you if she wants to apply to Cambridge then she should apply to Cambridge.

* Also, might be worth reaching out to specific admissions tutors/directors of study in the college(s) she’s thinking of applying for. I screwed up my A-levels first time round and missed my initial offer, then managed to retake and get back in the next year, but it involved contacting various people at various colleges until one said they’d have me for an interview. They’re quite approachable, and mostly upfront about your chances.

* (He) got into Oxford to do English with 1A and 2Bs at a-level. Surely if you can get yourself an interview you can overcome grades there if you’re good.


3 thoughts on “To apply or not to apply to Cambridge University?

  1. If the applicant for Cambridge has not got A stars at IGCSE, I would not apply – even in the event that the students gets “pooled”, the chances are that they won’t get in. And it goes without saying at least five A levels with some A stars in the count are needed to get a look in. After all, Oxbridge is there to safeguard standards – why is it these days that everyone thinks you just get in for doing your homework on time ? You have to offer MORE than just linguistic skills.


  2. Agree – the student’s grades aren’t good enough, especially considering that she has had the advantages of a private education and extra tuition. If you really feel that she is super bright and that her grades do not do her justice, you could consider the possibility of a learning difficulty however. With A*s in languages, dyslexia doesn’t seem very likely, but dyspraxia would be possible. Otherwise, both she and her parents need to accept the school’s point of view and move on.


  3. Beyond (or perhaps before) considerations of grades and brightness, two important concerns should be addressed first on advising students on university/Oxbridge applications.

    1. How resilient are they (mentally, intellectually and emotionally)?
    2. Do they have strong interests outside their subject?

    Cambridge (and Oxford) for so many can be a difficult environment to live and work in – whilst people expect it to be intellectually demanding, for the majority of students it is also mentally and emotionally exhausting (8 week terms are tough). In my view, interests and involvement in activities like theatre, music, journalism or sport (etc.) are essential to create a balance against and perspective about the demands of the academic work.

    Sadly I fear in this student’s case the results would not be sufficient, unless she has an exceptional talent elsewhere (virtuoso musician?) particularly considering that the student comes from an independent and therefore in theory *more* supportive/stimulating school. That said, a little failure now will only strengthen her for future challenges. Really either way it boils down to resilience and interests beyond her subject.


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