Are you ready for your interview?

Do you feel nervous about your Cambridge Interview?

Are you worried that your mind will go blank and you won’t know what to say?

Or that the interviewers will ask a question that seems impossible?

It is very clear from our experience that there is a vast discrepancy in the amount of preparation candidates do before their Cambridge interview. Some schools are very experienced with applications to Cambridge and provide a great amount of support to applicants. However the majority of schools are not familiar with the process, leaving their students at a huge disadvantage.

Every year we hear from students that they are most apprehensive about the interview. We specialise in preparing students for their Cambridge interview: improving their confidence, speaking and ability to give strong answers under pressure.

We offer a range of free and premium services to give you the best chance of getting into Cambridge; click below for further details.

General Interview Guide

Subject Interview Guides

Personal Statement and Application Review

Interview Preparation Sessions

Mock Subject Interviews

Cambridge Interview Questions

General Interview Guide

Why are you sitting in this chair?

If you were in my position, would you let yourself in?

What would you do with a million pounds?

With so many applicants with great grades, these questions provide the perfect opportunity for you to demonstrate your personality, creativity and thinking ability.

Every year we hear from students trying to prepare who have no idea where to start with these types of questions and what would sound like a strong answer.

In response a team of Cambridge and Oxford graduates have worked to put together“Cambridge Interview Guide – The General Interview”. Download a sample page here.

Click the button below to receive your Cambridge Interview Guide right now!

CIQ General Interview

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This guide is now available to download: The Cambridge Interview Guide

Subject Interview Guides

Our Subject Interview Guides help you to prepare and go into your interview with confidence.

CIQ Interview Guides

Each guide discusses ten Cambridge Interview Questions in depth with answers and approaches – along with possible points of discussion to further demonstrate your knowledge. They have been specially edited for applicants for each subject by a team of Oxford and Cambridge graduates.

Download a sample page from our Physics Guide here.

Please Note: Other subjects will be available shortly – please enter your email below to receive a notification when your subject guide is available for download.

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The Cambridge Interview Guide – Economics

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 The Cambridge Interview Guide – HSPS

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The Cambridge Interview Guide – Chemistry 

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The Cambridge Interview Guide – Physics 

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The Cambridge Interview Guide – Chemistry AND Physics 

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Special Offer: Get both the Biology and Chemistry guide together for a discounted price!

The Cambridge Interview Guide – Natural Sciences (Biological)


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The Cambridge Interview Guide – Medicine

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“At first I was unsure how this guide could help – but I realised that my school teachers had no idea about what I might be asked and how I could deal with it.
I found the Interview Guide really useful to prepare – I had a much better idea of the way interviewers ask their questions; and the fact that they are more interested in my thought process than the exact answer.
I certainly felt a lot more comfortable going into interview.”

Thomas, 1st Yr Natural Sciences, Trinity College

“As an international student from China, I was very worried for my interview because of my English. The guide is helpful because it is very difficult to find any information in China and I could receive the Physics guide by e-mail. It was very useful to help me think about what I might be asked, and also how I should  answer – to demonstrate how I think rather than be quiet, and to show my enthusiasm and interest. Which is very different to how we are taught in China, so it is certainly very helpful for me!”

Yiang Chen, 3rd Yr Physics, Jesus College

“My grades weren’t all A*s, I went to a bog-standard northern comprehensive and I wasn’t on any sports teams or in any orchestras! Originally I wasn’t going to apply to Cambridge – especially as my teachers had no idea and gave me no help. So I didn’t rate my chances at all. The thing that terrified me most was the idea that I was going to have sit in front of some Einstein professor who asked me totally impossible questions

But I figured I might as well give it a go. I used a few different websites to prepare – and the Cambridge Interview Guide was really helpful in preparing in the weeks leading up to the interview.

It’s true what the guide says – that it didn’t matter about my background or the grades I got in other subjects, and that the interviewers were interested in my interest and passion for Economics.“

Rebecca, 2nd Yr Economics, Downing College

Personal Statement and Application Review

Are you finding it difficult writing a great personal statement? 
Have you run out of ideas of how to telegraph your enthusiasm and passion for your subject?Are you worried that an area of your personal statement might be picked on at interview? 

Getting your Personal Statement right is essential to securing your interview. Our Personal Statement Review will provide an objective and informed opinion of your statement as it currently stands.

Let our Cambridge experts review your personal statement for 24 hours before providing constructive feedback and valuable improvements via a 45 minute Skype consultation – allowing you to discuss your application and have your questions answered, as well as a written report.

The written report will provide pointers on areas where you can improve your statement, as well as providing a list of potential Interview questions which could arise based on your personal statement.

Contact us now to schedule your Personal Statement Review and consultation.

Interview Preparation Sessions

Do you feel that you aren’t ready for your interview? Do you have no idea what to expect?

Our Interview Preparation session prepares students to talk about and discuss their subjects with confidence – as well as suggesting questions and readings beyond the syllabus. These sessions work on the skills required for a successful interview.

This service is available both in person and online via Skype.

Contact us now to schedule your Interview Preparation Session.

Mock Interviews

Our Mock Interview service gives you an opportunity to experience what to expect from your subject or general interview, as well as to receive objective feedback.

The session lasts one hour, the first 30 minutes of which takes the form of a one-to-one, subject specific mock interview, followed by a 30 minutes of feedback and discussion.

The feedback will give you a better idea of your strengths. We will discuss your application with you, and how best to prepare for your interview – including reading suggestions. The discussion session also gives you an opportunity to ask any questions about the course and life at Cambridge.

The Mock Interview session is available both in person and online via Skype.

Contact us now to schedule your Mock Interview session.

Applying to Cambridge

Prepare for your Cambridge Interview

It is important to spend some time preparing for your Cambridge interview. The page “Helping You Get Into Cambridge” provides a list of areas where Cambridge Interview Questions can assist you with your application.

These mock interview videos from Emmanuel College are really very useful for familiarising yourself with the interview process and we highly recommend these:

Oxbridge applications: a don’s guide

The following article featured in The Daily Telegraph is entitled “Oxbridge applications: a don’s guide”.
Oxbridge dons describe the admissions process as ‘exhaustive and exhausting’. Cambridge admissions tutor Mike Sewell and Oxford college access don Peter Claus take us through it.

Many aspects of your Oxbridge application – not just the notorious interview – will determine whether or not you secure a place at these world-class institutions.

We asked Mike Sewell, the new director of admissions at Cambridge, and Peter Claus, the first full-time access don at an Oxford college, what students need to know to maximise their chances. Here is their step-by-step guide:

Choosing a college

MS: Students need to remember that subject matter and exam regime will be identical across the colleges. Colleges also trade teachers – it’s a myth that needs busting that you will always be taught by teachers from your own college. The academic experience is the same. One-fifth of our applicants submit open applications.

The college is home. Some considerations students should make are whether they want to live next door or half a mile from their department; and whether they want to live in an old, beautiful base but which attracts tourists, or further out from the centre. Those are legitimate considerations. Something like one quarter of students are at colleges they didn’t choose.

One question we forbid all our interviewers from asking is “why did you choose this college?” It would disadvantage open applicants – but also, we’re not sure we could glean any helpful information from the answer. In contrast, motivation for choosing the subject is very important.

Personal statement

PC: Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond, and are aware of the culture of their subject.

Admissions tests

MS: The extra tests give a fuller sense of the type of academic, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills the students will need for the course itself. It’s not a barrier – it allows a reduced emphasis on other aspects of the application process such as the personal statement.

The tests are designed not to be susceptible to higher performance due to preparation. They are not like the SATs in the US, which preparation and extra sittings clearly help. They are designed to work from what students would know from their curriculum and general knowledge, and to test how they solve problems and think critically.

Submitted essays

PC: I would be less impressed by their best mark. I’m not impressed by a big A. They should submit the essay they are most confidant talking about and going further with. If they think “I got a B but I still found it fascinating” I would much rather see that one. It’s more of a discussion point for the interview – it’s not a deal-maker or a deal-breaker. It absolutely won’t prevent you getting an interview.


MS: The most important thing is that the interview is not the be-all and end-all.

One thing that dies very hard is the idea that weird questions are asked. If I took any given question you might ask me outside of the context of our conversation it could be made to seem weird. All these stories usually come from specific questions taken out of their context of a subject-focused discussion.

A history interviewer might conceivably ask a question about burnt cakes – but only in the context of talking about King Alfred! Likewise in a chemical engineering interview, “what happens when I boil an egg” might be a reasonable question. Taken out of its context it sounds crazy.

…even the famous “tell me about a banana?”

That was not an anomaly. The student’s personal statement had mentioned doing some work with plantains. That’s a very good example.


MS: The most important element of the application is what you’ve done in exams, particularly in sixth-form exams. The interview is a piece of the jigsaw – it doesn’t overrule it.


Five things you should know about Oxbridge applications

The following article featured in The Daily Telegraph outlines “5 Things You Should Know about Oxbridge Applications”.

Daily Telegraph – Five things you should know about Oxbridge applications

1. Apply early

The deadline for Oxbridge – as well as medicine, dentistry and veterinary sciences – is October 15. Don’t miss it. Many candidates will have applied already.

2. Pick a college

You apply to a college, not just a university. You can file an open application, but more and more people are applying to a specific college. Pick a place where you will enjoy living and working. Remember, some colleges don’t offer certain subjects. Go to open days if you can, though tutors are often more than happy to see you on an ad hoc basis during informal visits. Consider whether you want a central location, a smaller community, or are interested in a thriving sport or music scene. You can also look at the published statistics to see which are more academic – or competitive – but remember, it’s a very personal choice.

3. Prepare to be tested

Admissions tests are increasingly common for many subjects, and you are more likely to have to take one at Oxbridge than elsewhere. The approach is different between the two universities. Oxford will require you to take a test before offering you an interview, while at Cambridge tests are sat at the same time as interviews by those who have made it that far. Cambridge tests are also less centralised – not all colleges set tests, and those that do (which depends on the staff’s preference, not how competitive or prestigious they are) often set their own.

4. Show your best work

Some subjects and colleges will require you to submit written work along with your application. This should be work produced in the course of your A-levels, and should be your best and most interesting work.

5. Expect to be interviewed

Universities such as Durham and UCL are beginning to interview candidates more again, but at Oxbridge you won’t get an offer without going through two or three interviews. These are not formulaic – they differ massively college to college – but around 75 per cent of candidates will be given unseen material, such as a poem to analyse for English students. At Oxford you may be “pooled” during your interview visit and meet tutors from various colleges, whereas Cambridge will only enter you into the pool after your initial interviews.

What it takes to make it to Oxbridge

The following article recently featured in The Daily Telegraph discusses “What it takes to make it to Oxbridge”.
If you have excellent GCSE results and a brace of A grades at AS level, you may be thinking about applying to Oxbridge. For many people, the very word conjures up images of Sebastians and Julias in boaters and gowns, punting and drinking champagne. But as the deadline for applications approaches (October 15) don’t be put off by the Brideshead stereotypes. Oxford and Cambridge are consistently ranked among the top five universities in the world and attract students from any background.

That said, an Oxbridge application should not be taken lightly. If you’re offered an interview you will need to prepare for it, which could detract from your A-level studies. And if you are rejected, either before or after interview, you will have to cope with the disappointment and move on.

But if you have good grades and feel able to take a pragmatic approach to your Oxbridge application, why not give it a go?

Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for their research and high-quality teaching. In the latest QS global survey of universities, the top-ranking universities in the world were Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Yale and Oxford.

Given the calibre of students that the two universities attract, it is also not surprising that so many of our leading politicians, scientists and businessmen are Oxbridge educated. David Cameron, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher are all Oxford graduates.

Two features of the universities make them especially attractive: the first is that students are primarily taught individually or in small groups (called “tutorials” in Oxford and “supervisions” in Cambridge), rather than through lectures and large seminars. These sessions are conducted by leading experts in their field, rather than by postgraduates, allowing students to discuss their work and ideas with some of the key thinkers in the world today.

The second unusual feature of an Oxbridge education is its “collegiate” nature. Students are members of colleges, which are small communities where friendships are easy to form. Undergraduates can get involved in college-based sport, music or drama.

What profile do you need?

To have a serious chance, you will need to have secured at least six A* grades at GCSE and all As at AS level. Cambridge will also ask to see individual module scores, which should be above 90 per cent on average.

You should also enjoy reading around your subject in your own time and relish the chance to discuss ideas with your peers. If not, Oxbridge probably isn’t for you.

Who applies?

Anyone with a strong academic background, a genuine interest in their subject and a self-motivated and enthusiastic approach should consider applying to Oxbridge. There is no “type” of person who will get in. Oxbridge is the exciting and vibrant option it is precisely because of the diverse nature of its student body.

How do I write an Oxbridge-geared Ucas form – and when do I send it?

As for all other universities, you need to submit a Ucas form (including a personal statement), but by the earlier deadline of October 15. By December students will know whether they have been offered a place (either conditionally or unconditionally depending on whether they’re applying before or after A-levels).

Do not refer directly to Oxbridge in your personal statement, as it will be sent to all the universities to which you are applying.

At least 80 per cent of your personal statement should relate to your academic studies, with only a small paragraph devoted to extra-curricular activities. This isn’t because Oxbridge students do nothing but work; it is because tutors pick their students from a large number of very high-achieving applicants and are concerned with how successfully you will cope with the demanding courses. Use your personal statement with this aim in mind: to impress upon the admissions tutor that you are academically able, intellectually curious, enthusiastic and hardworking.

In recent years, the interview has become just one element in a selection process that includes written assessments and the submission of written work. Oxford will use these tests to decide whom to call for interview, so it’s worth looking at some sample papers to get a sense of what is required. Certain courses at both universities require students to take the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). Cambridge will also ask you to fill out a Supplementary Application Form, which will include details of your module scores and an “additional information” section. More details about this are available on the universities’ websites.

A survivor’s guide to the Oxbridge interview

The following article recently featured in The Daily Telegraph discusses “A survivor’s guide to the Oxbridge interview”.


Twenty-four years after I took the coach up the M40 for my Oxford interview, I can still recall the terror. At Merton College, Thomas Braun, an ancient history fellow who specialised in Herodotus, tied me up in agonisingly tight knots. He asked me to imagine a parallel world where short people went to war with tall people.

I rambled on about the tyranny of small differences, before Braun interrupted.

“But Dr Richardson’s taller than me,” he said, gesturing towards the rangy Homer expert next to him, “And I get on with him very well. Are you saying I hate him?”

A silence descended over the dimly lit, oak-panelled study overlooking Merton’s crenellated, medieval walls; a silence occasionally punctuated by my scrambled attempts to remain in a fantasy shortist world, while not insulting either tutor.

I didn’t get into Merton but I did make it into Magdalen, my first choice. Applicants have two to four interviews and may well be interviewed at other colleges than their first choice. I don’t remember much about the Magdalen interview, except how nice Dr Robin Osborne, an expert in fifth-century Athens, was. You remember the miseries of life better than the good times, don’t you?

These days, the interview really isn’t that scary. Gone are the legendary encounters when dons hurled rugby balls at you to see if you’d make the First XV. Was there really ever an interviewee who, when the don said “Surprise me!”, set fire to his newspaper?

“There are many untrue myths about Oxford interviews,” says Professor David Clary, president of Magdalen College, Oxford. “There are no trick questions and the interviews are arranged to be as fair as possible to all candidates. They aim to assess academic potential and give students the opportunity to demonstrate a genuine interest in the course they have applied for.”

Dr Julia Paolitto, an Oxford University press officer, says: “The interview is a chance for the tutor and prospective student to have a relatively brief but intense academic conversation. Sometimes interviewees think it’s gone badly because they were forced to think so hard, but in fact that’s a useful thing. An interviewee will be taken beyond what they’re expected to know, to their intellectual limits. Quite often, the questions will be out of left field, not to throw the students off, but to probe the way they think.”

Oxford released some of those questions last year: questions such as: “Would it matter if tigers became extinct?” “Why do lions have manes?” and “Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?” The questions are designed to make you stretch your brain in your subject area. So Stephen Goddard, a French don at St Catherine’s College, asked: “In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?” Steve Roberts, a materials science academic at St Edmund Hall, asked: “How hot does the air have to be in a hot-air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?”

The position is much the same at Cambridge.

“Speaking for myself, the basic rule is that I am trying to get the candidate to show me how good they are,” says Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, fellow of Newnham College and presenter of the BBC series Meet the Romans. “I’m not trying to trip them up. What would be the point?

“What you have to remember, though, is that getting the kids to do their best can sometimes involve surprising them. If someone is just coming out with a long speech on the wonders of Virgil they have learnt in advance, you do sometimes have to throw a googly – the ‘What did the Romans wear under their togas?’ style question – just to rescue them. Unsettling as it might seem, it’s helping them out.”

Interviewers are not necessarily looking for a right answer, but one that shows inquisitive and dynamic on-the-spot thinking. Norman Stone, former professor of modern history at Oxford and a former director of studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, says of successful interviewees: “You could always judge them by the flash of the eyes.”

A popular technique for biological sciences applicants is to give them an unrecognisable animal skeleton. Recent favourites include a porcupine spine and an otter’s skull. You look at the bones for half an hour, before trying to identify them. You are not expected to get it right — but you will be rewarded for, say, working out that the skull belongs to an aquatic mammal, that the porcupine spine is a backbone.

The terror may have now been extracted from the interview. But there is still quite a lot of insider knowledge about the process that you will find worth ingesting.

“Places like Eton and Westminster will tell you the buttons to press but you can learn them elsewhere,” says Woody Webster.

“If you do lots of mock interviews with recent graduates, it insures you against melting down and your brain turning to mush on the day.”

Bear in mind, too, that there is still a big academic difference between the different colleges. The best way to work out the difference at Oxford is to look at the league table of finals results, the Norrington Table. In 2012, Magdalen came top and Lady Margaret Hall bottom of the 30 Oxford colleges.

“If you want to go to a particular university, don’t apply to the hardest college,” says Woody Webster. “It’s easier to fly to the moon than read history at Magdalen.”

Oxbridge interview dos and don’ts

Do arrive in plenty of time and as relaxed as possible. Make sure you know where the college is and, if possible, where your interview will be.

Don’t rely on public transport. Drive there or stay in a hotel the night before if possible.

Do feel confident. You are there because you — specifically you — have been invited for interview.

Don’t let the competition intimidate you. You deserve to be there every bit as much as they do.

Do keep calm and carry on, even if you stumble over an answer. They know you are nervous and make allowances for the odd slip-up.

Don’t admit defeat. Remember that Oxbridge colleges also consider exam results and personal statements. The interview doesn’t account for 100 per cent of the final decision.

Do practice. Ask a teacher or tutor to set up a mock interview.

Don’t worry about your accent or pronunciation — unless of course you’re applying for modern languages.

Do take your time and consider your answers.

Don’t fire out the first thing that comes into your head. Speed of response won’t impress.

Record Oxbridge applications as students seek good value

The following article recently featured in The Daily Telegraph discusses “Record Oxbridge applications as students seek good value ”.


Almost 57,000 people had lodged applications by mid-October for university courses starting next year, an increase of more than 1,100 or 2 per cent from last year. Demand among English students, who will pay the highest fees, also rose after a fall at the same point in 2011.

Yesterday’s figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service cover applications to Oxford and Cambridge, which must be submitted by Oct 15. It also includes medicine, dentistry and veterinary science degree courses at all other British universities.

Students starting courses next year will be only the second cohort to pay annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 — almost three times the previous limit. It led to a sharp drop in applications this year but the latest figures suggest that opposition to the higher fees regime is now beginning to soften.

The data is also likely to reflect a “flight to quality” as students target universities and degree subjects that are more likely to lead to a well-paid career.

Mary Curnock Cook, the UCAS chief executive, said the figures were “encouraging”, adding that she was “optimistic about overall demand.” Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the increase was welcome, but warned that the data were set against the sharp drop in applications last year, when “students rushed to avoid the new pernicious fees regime”.

Demand was also up by 1.8 per cent among European students, who pay the same fees as their British counterparts.

Students from outside Europe are often required to pay far higher fees, but demand was still strong from them, with numbers up by 5.1 per cent to more than 10,000. This appears to contradict claims by universities that foreign students would be put off applying to British universities by tough new visa regulations.

Oxbridge best in the world for seven subjects

The following article recently featured in The Independent discusses “Oxbridge best in the world for seven subjects”.

Budding philosophers, linguists, mathematicians and historians can do no better than head to Oxbridge to study, new research suggests.

Between them, Oxford and Cambridge are the top universities in the world for seven disciplines, according to a new league table.

Oxford – the UK’s best performing institution in the latest QS World University Rankings by subject – took first place for four subjects; philosophy, modern languages, geography and English language and literature, while Cambridge was ranked first in the world for three – maths, linguistics and history.

The rankings also put Imperial College London first for civil engineering.

In total, the third QS Rankings rated universities worldwide in 30 different disciplines, with 65 UK institutions appearing in the lists.

The rankings are based on the opinions of academics and employers.

QS head of research Ben Sowter said the chances of gaining a job are becoming increasingly important to students who are often now paying more to study for a degree.

“As the UK and governments around the world move towards the ‘student pays’ model on higher education funding, employability is increasingly crucial to graduates,” he said.

He insisted that the QS rankings are the only ones that take into account employers’ views of degree courses.

The tables show that in certain subjects, the UK’s top universities saw off competition from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale.

In English language and literature Oxford and Cambridge took first and second place respectively, the only two UK universities in the top 10 for the subject. The other eight were all US institutions.

Oxford and Cambridge also took the top two places for geography, in a top 10 for the subject that included four other UK universities – the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Durham, University College London (UCL) and Manchester.

In history, Oxford was second behind Cambridge, with both institutions ahead of overseas universities including Princeton, the University of Chicago, Yale and Australian National University (ANU).

For linguistics, Cambridge took first place ahead of MIT and the University of California, Los Angeles, with Oxford in fourth. Edinburgh and Lancaster also made the top 10 for this subject.

Cambridge was also ahead of MIT for maths, with Harvard in third place, University of California, Berkeley fourth and Oxford in fifth place.

Oxford and Cambridge came first and second respectively for modern languages, ahead of Harvard, Berkeley and Yale.

The two UK institutions also took the same two spots for philosophy, with Princeton third, New York University fourth and Berkeley in fifth place.

So who is good enough to get into Cambridge?

The following article recently featured in The Guardian discusses “So who is good enough to get into Cambridge?”.

It’s a life-changing roll call. As the admissions tutor reads out names, the men and women gathered around the table reply crisply to each one: “Yep … yep … yep.” Each “yep” is actually a no. It’s a rejection of a candidate who has applied for a place at the University of Cambridge.

The weakest of the field have already been sifted out; up to a fifth of applications are declined before the interview stage. Now the tutors are gathered to consider the results of those interviews. Five women and seven men are gathered at a table, in a light-filled, rectangular room at Churchill College to discuss admissions to study natural sciences.

The easy ones go first. These are the candidates whose academic track record is – by Cambridge standards – marginal, and whose performance at interview has been disappointing. As one candidate’s name is read out, one of the academics notes that he got an interview score of two, out of a possible 10. “Oh dear,” says Richard Partington, the senior admissions tutor, who sits at the head of the table. Next to Partington is a steel trolley with the applicants’ files.

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.

As the wind shakes the bare branches of trees outside, the academics discuss an interviewee from a sixth-form college. One notes: “He was extremely careful with everything he was doing, but not exactly engaging in the discussion. I think mathematics is something he does quite well, but he doesn’t shine.”

The boy is an unusual case – he has won a scholarship to study in the UK after going to school overseas. His home country is a poor one, not known for its education system. One of the women says: “I would take him and keep a close eye on his progress. He might need a boost in confidence.”

“Let’s take him,” Partington agrees. “Everyone content?”

Next up is a girl from a leading private school, who was strong on paper but stumbled at interview. “She seemed surprised by quite a lot of the things we were talking about – [she would say] ‘Oh right’ as if she hadn’t seen it before,” one of the academics, in a wine-coloured sweater, says.

“Had she not revised?” Partington asks.

“We asked them what they’d done recently, and based the questions on that, so it was starting with something familiar, but seeing it in a different context,” the academic replies.

Partington suggests: “One possibility is that she’s someone who’s learned in a compartmentalised way.”

Another tutor says: “The comment I’ve put down is: ‘Needed help with next steps.'”

Partington wonders aloud if tutors can lead a student through an entire degree. “We could,” one of the men responds dryly.

Both Oxford and Cambridge are regularly accused of bias against state school applicants – most famously, in the case of Laura Spence, the girl from Tyneside who was refused a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, more than a decade ago. The tutors gathered at this table are aware that Cambridge is committed to admitting between 61% and 63% of its UK students from state-sector schools and colleges. At present, that proportion is 59.3%. The university has also agreed with the Office for Fair Access – an official watchdog set up when the Blair government brought in top-up fees – to increase the share of students from neighbourhoods where few people have gone to university.

Churchill College is a low-rise modernist stack on the edge of the city centre, a series of interlocking brick cubes. It does better on state-school intake than Cambridge as a whole. This is partly because of its reputation for science, which attracts more state school pupils. The split at Churchill is 70/30 in favour of the state sector. That is still out of kilter with the school system as a whole – just 7% of pupils in England attend private schools. But it is a bit closer to the split at sixth form, where private schools account for around 13% of the total number of A-level exam entries.

In its prospectus, the college is described as having a “friendly, unpretentious social atmosphere”. It is certainly not as physically daunting as some of the grand and ancient buildings in the city centre. But even here, the surroundings speak of wealth and intimacy with power; the sketches on the walls are by Winston Churchill, the floor is teak and the room is panelled with another glossy tropical hardwood.

The phrase “a good school” comes up repeatedly in the tutors’ discussions. It is used most frequently about private and grammar schools, but also some comprehensive schools, and has a double meaning. “A good school” is a high-performing one. It is a school that knows what Cambridge requires, where the school reference is delivered in the terms the university is looking for – the key phrases are ones that emphasise superlative performance compared with their age group: “He [or she] is best in … he is top of …” But when a candidate comes from “a good school” they are also cut less slack. Of one applicant from “a good school”, a bemused tutor says: “The thing that didn’t sit with me is, his [predicted] A* is in further maths, but he couldn’t do his arithmetic.”

The Sutton Trust, the charity that aims to promote social mobility through education, blames the unequal outcomes between state and private candidates at university level on the poor exam performance of some schools. That failure at school level becomes painfully apparent in the case of one of the Churchill candidates. She has had “unimaginable teaching difficulties”, the tutors hear. She has taken her A-levels at a school that has had a spectacularly high turnover of teachers.

Peering at his laptop when her name is announced, Nick Cutler, an admissions tutor at Churchill, says there are “multiple flags”. The flags are used to indicate factors such as poverty, or a school that performs very poorly at GCSE. There are six categories in all – including whether an applicant has spent time in care. There is evidence that a strong candidate from a bad school is likely to perform well when they come to Cambridge. But the academics are concerned that in this case, the school has been so turbulent that she simply lacks essential knowledge. Her examination and interview marks are low.

The rapid pace of Cambridge would “kill her”, one of the academics says. Another agrees: “I would really like to give her a place, but for her own sanity, she’s much better going to one of the other redbrick, Russell Group universities, and just taking her time.”

Partington says: “If we gave her a chance she would do what everybody else would do, and think: ‘I’ll probably be all right’ and she will probably be wrong.”
The Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, Cambridge The Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, Cambridge.
There is a despairing consensus around the table that the university cannot repair the gaps in this candidate’s knowledge. A damning line from the school’s reference – which lays bare its inability to teach the candidate – is read aloud by a tutor who raises outstretched hands in exasperation. The candidate’s file goes back into the trolley with a clang.

Another candidate from a comprehensive school has four contextual data flags by her name. There is a note too about “teaching difficulties” – a physics teacher who left during the sixth form and a stand-in for chemistry. This is an easier case – her interview scores are high, an eight and a seven out of 10. She has a 92% mark in her chemistry A-level. One of the academics reviews her “flags”: “She’s got low socio-economic, low-performing GCSE, low Oxbridge – she’s nearly got the full set.”

Partington says: “Take her.”

There is another girl from a comprehensive school who got an eight at interview, but one academic exclaims: “Blooming heck, her GCSE score was terrible.”

“The school doesn’t know how to write a reference,” another comments.

Partington decides to make an offer but to set the hurdle high because of the doubts. “We’re going to A* the chemistry,” he says firmly.

“I would A* the maths,” one of the others suggests. “The other thing I would do is write to her separately, encourage her to do further maths through the Further Maths Network.”

The tutors are divided about this – there is a feeling she has already been stretched thin in a “school that’s not great”. But they decide this will not be an entrance requirement. She just needs a little more fluency in maths to cope at university.

On the table are white china cups of tea and coffee, two barely touched water jugs and a single slightly blackened banana. The academics leaf through coloured spreadsheets with the candidates’ names, their exam performance to date, predicted grades, interview scores, contextual flags and ranking – based on exam performance – compared with all of the university’s applicants this year.

The pace is swift, despite the meeting lasting five hours. It is occasionally leavened with a touch of humour, or avuncular kindness. One of the academics, looking at a file photo, sighs: “Oh he’s young – he looks like one of the Bash Street kids.” Another remarks, of a different candidate: “You could conduct a biology study in his hair.” Recalling an over-caffeinated and under-dressed teenager, one says: “The T-shirt, oh yes, the T-shirt …”

Although a candidate’s ethnicity is generally evident from his or her name and the photograph in their file, there is never any overt discussion of race. This seems surprising when both Oxford  and Cambridge have been accused of being racially as well as socially exclusive.

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, says later: “Race doesn’t come up in its own right. It’s inseparable from socio-economic factors. Cambridge admits a proportion of BME [ethnic minority] students that is above the proportion of the teenage population, [but] with ‘low-participation’ neighbourhoods we feel we’re not meeting a relatively low target. Many people who are first-generation British might also be living in low-participation neighbourhoods.”

At times, the procedure seems brusque; a life-changing decision made in a second. In fact, it is the end point of a long, intensive process of evaluating candidates. Most of those who apply are interviewed. And the interviews are designed to probe their knowledge deeply. For natural sciences, the interview has a practical bent, with candidates tackling problems under the gaze of the tutor. Confidence is appreciated. Of one candidate, a boy from an academy school in Norfolk, a tutor says: “He managed to strike a balance between not being fazed by what’s going on, and not being cocky either. The sort of person …”

Someone else finishes: “You’d like to teach.”

Great emphasis is placed on exam performance, and the academics are keen to drill down into performance in individual modules. One notes approvingly of a candidate who has “done some hard units”. There is far less interest than is popularly thought in extra-curricular activity. An academic remarks with bafflement that a candidate has “got his violin grades on there”.

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.”
Discussing the winter pool in Clough Hall, Newnham College Academics considering applicants from the winter pool in Clough Hall, Newnham College. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

The consensus is that they will “stick him in the pool”. The “winter pool” is a third option – neither a straightforward offer nor an outright rejection. It means the application is forwarded for consideration by other colleges. Strong candidates who are at risk of being squeezed out because they have applied to an over-subscribed college also get a second chance this way. The pool takes place in early January, around three weeks after the college decision meetings. Admissions tutors from all the Cambridge colleges gather in two rooms at Newnham College, and examine the pooled candidates’ folders again.

The main room in which the pool takes place is Clough Hall, an elegant banqueting room with a minstrels’ gallery and a ceiling decorated with plaster mouldings of flowers and heraldic beasts. There is very little conversation. Tutors go through bundles of files making lists of candidates they would like to pull out for their college. Anglepoise lamps spill yellow light on to the desks. Outside, it is overcast.

Andy Bell, admissions tutor at Gonville and Caius College, has spotted three potential candidates for places in an arts subject at his college. One of the files that has caught his eye is a boy whose educational background is not that of a “straightforward, standard Cambridge applicant”. He is applying from a “perfectly decent” sixth-form college, but before that he had attended a poor comprehensive school. Bell notes: “His GCSE performance is really quite strong, getting a lot of A*s at GCSE. This is someone who’s been working far above the level of his cohort from an early age.” Outside school, he has displayed an interest in the subject he is applying for – it is such a small course that naming it risks identifying him – through work experience at a university in London, and extensive reading. “This is somebody who’s worked really hard for a number of years, who’s really serious about making something of his academic ability,” Bell says.

Seated at a table by one of the tall, arched windows, James Keeler, the admissions tutor at Selwyn College, has perhaps the most dreaded job – reviewing candidates for medicine, a course so competitive that excellent applicants are routinely turned down.

Keeler opens the folder of a candidate who is applying after taking his A-levels. The school reference describes him as a “strong applicant” and underlines the adjective. This is borne out by his results – he has four A*s.

For medicine, the tutors look for both a strong aptitude for science and the beginnings of a bedside manner. This candidate has divided his interviewers. While the clinicians thought highly of him, there is a question mark over his scientific ability. Keeler seems inclined to attach greater weight to his exam performance than the interview. “The interview is just part of the picture – his four A*s is the summation of many years of work,” he says.

He carries on leafing through the folder, looking for evidence of what the candidate is doing now. “Looking at the personal statement for medicine, it’s important that they have a range of activities and, particularly, that they have done a serious level of volunteering – handing out teas in a hospice, working with disabled children. Something where they have to take on a caring role and think about why doctors can’t cure everybody.

“He’s been on a gap year,” Keeler notes.

“If he’s been sitting on a beach for a year, I’ll put him in the bin …”

He turns a page of the folder and reads the candidate’s statement: “He’s been volunteering with St John Ambulance. And also training to be a special constable – that’s something I’ve never seen before. He’s clearly doing something worthwhile. He’s currently volunteering at a care home.” The admissions tutor smiles. “That’s a tick for me.”