Before applying, the applicant needs to check that they have, or are likely to achieve, the right grades at the right level and in the right subjects for the course they have chosen. We welcome applicants studying a range of qualifications.
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With the exception of Medicine (including the Graduate Course) and Veterinary Medicine, there are no GCSE/IGCSE requirements for entry to Cambridge.
An applicant's GCSE/IGCSE results are looked at as a performance indicator, but within the context of the school/college performance. Applicants are generally expected to have achieved high grades in subjects relevant to their chosen course; and most students who apply have at least four or five As or A*s at GCSE/IGCSE. However, there are always exceptions: for example, a brilliant mathematician whose only A* at GCSE/IGCSE is in Mathematics. One of the strengths of the Cambridge admissions system is its ability to assess all applicants individually.
Predicting A* at A Level
We recognise that making accurate A* predictions will be difficult for schools/colleges. We will therefore not be placing any weight on whether or not a school/college predicts an A* and applicants will not be rejected just because they are not predicted to achieve any A* grades by their school/college. Those applicants whose AS performance make the achievement of an A* look a remote possibility, however, are unlikely to be successful unless there are mitigating circumstances that explain why their AS performance does not properly reflect their true potential. Such circumstances should be highlighted in the UCAS reference or, where appropriate, through the Extenuating Circumstances Form.
Qualifications taken early
We are, of course, in favour of stretching and challenging learners, but not at the expense of levels of achievement. Thus, we would discourage schools and colleges from entering their students early for public examinations unless they are very confident that top grades will be obtained. A grade B in an AS Level taken in Year 11 is still a B in our eyes; it is not equivalent to an A in the same qualification taken in Year 12. Where students are successfully taking qualifications early, we would still want to see evidence that they can cope with a workload equivalent to three A Levels taken simultaneously.
We must also highlight the potential disadvantages of taking A Levels early in subjects where the knowledge and understanding will be required at university. Students who have not studied a key subject in a structured way the year before they arrive at university can find that their knowledge, all-important to some undergraduate courses, has atrophied. A good example of this would be a student studying a maths-based course like Mathematics or Engineering whose maths has become rusty during a pre-university year in which maths has not been systematically done.
If a school is looking for ways to stretch its most able students in Year 11, we would strongly recommend that they encourage students to read widely around the subjects that interest them. This might be facilitated by the provision of appropriate reading lists or even material; and appropriate follow-up, for instance via a discussion group, should help develop the sort of analytical thinking and intellectual flexibility that we look for in applicants - and which is central to success at university.
Another way in which they might consider stretching their most able students in Year 11 is via Critical Thinking AS Level. This may develop students' thinking in a way GCSEs do not, and, as we do not include Critical Thinking in conditional offers, there is no risk associated with taking this qualification early: a lower grade will not damage an applicant's profile.
Applicants not taking modular AS Levels
Applicants taking modular AS and A Levels are asked to provide details of their Uniform Mark Scheme (UMS) performance in all units taken by the point of application in the SAQ. This has proved to be a very valuable Year 12 progress check and a better predictor of success at Cambridge than GCSE results.
Where the school/college has chosen to deliver A Levels in a more linear fashion (without external assessment in Year 12) and this AS UMS information (or equivalent) will be absent from an applicant's profile, more weight will inevitably be placed on the UCAS reference, performance at interview and in tests, and on submitted written work. Occasionally an applicant without this indicator might not get the benefit of the doubt in comparison to an applicant who has a very high AS UMS average; alternatively doubt might be resolved by making a stiffer than usual offer, eg A*A*A.
Schools and colleges can to some extent compensate for the absence of AS UMS information by providing details of Year 12 internal assessments in their references or by sending a detailed transcript to the appropriate College (or to Cambridge Admissions Office in the case of open applicants).
Once at the University, students are regularly assessed by examination and there is no opportunity to resit any exams (with the exception of professional qualifying examinations in Medicine and Veterinary Medicine). Therefore, applicants should recognise the importance of being able to cope with the pressures associated with taking exams and use them as an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and progress by achieving as highly as possible first time in any form of assessment.
However, we appreciate that even very capable students may have 'bad days' when an exam does not go quite to plan. As such, a student's application is unlikely to be adversely affected by their resitting one or two modules. However, there would be concern about an applicant's potential to be successful at Cambridge if they need to resit numerous exams, particularly where only a marginal improvement is achieved.
Applicants should indicate their intention to resit any exams in their SAQ. Where there are particular reasons for underperformance in qualifications it is useful if these can be outlined in the school/college reference.