How (and how not) to choose a college

Picking a college from 31 strange names can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. What should you look for in a college? How are the colleges different? Which college is best for you? We’ll try to answer all of these questions here!

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Picking a college from 31 strange names can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. What should you look for in a college? How are the colleges different? Which college is best for you? We’ll try to answer all of these questions here!

Firstly, why colleges are important. Colleges provide accommodation for the duration of your degree, as well as facilities such as social spaces and catering. They are also responsible for your academic and personal welfare, via your tutor and director of studies. Most importantly, a college is a community of students and staff: you live, eat, study and socialise together for three years (or more), meaning you get to know people on your course and on other courses very well.

Colleges are an integral part of the Cambridge experience, so choosing a college might feel like a very big decision. In truth, the colleges have more similarities than they do differences: that’s why everyone will say their college is the best after a short time living there, whether they applied to that college or not. You don’t need to spend a long time trying to work out which college is the ‘best’, because trying to find out everything about every college is impossible - just try to find one where you think you’ll be happy.

So how do you decide which college to choose?

First off, you can discount those which you may not be eligible to apply to: there are 3 mature colleges (Hughes Hall, St. Edmunds and Wolfson, which are only for over-21s); 2 colleges which only take postgraduates (Darwin and Clare Hall); 2 female-only colleges (Newnham and Murray Edwards); and some colleges which do not take applications for certain courses (for example Land economy at Emmanuel).

Then it’s time to think about the differences between the colleges to narrow down the options. You can find out the information below at and You can also check out the college websites too, via the colleges listing.

The first key difference is the number of undergraduates the college accepts per year. Think about whether you’d like a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, or a larger ‘family’ around you to mix with. Remember that you’re not restricted to making friends within your college: you’ll be able to find friends in societies and on your course.

Closely linked to size is the range of facilities offered by the college. If there’s something particular you want (such as a gym), do check for it - but bear in mind that it is usually possible to use central university facilities regardless of college and many sports facilities are shared between colleges.

The look and feel of the colleges vary hugely, having been built in different styles over the centuries. The accommodation can be varied too: by looking on college websites and going on (virtual) open days you might be able to see some examples of student rooms. Central colleges often have accommodation on multiple different sites, whereas those further out may house all students on the same site.

The location of your accommodation can have a big impact on your daily life: being close to the centre of town is really convenient for the shops and social scene, but be prepared to put up with the tourists! It’s also important to check out the location of your department, because often your course activities (such as lectures and practicals) will mean you spend a fair bit of time there. The university sports centre in West Cambridge, the university library or the ADC theatre might be a

draw for you too, so check out their location before you decide. You can cycle between most colleges and other university site in less than half an hour though, so nothing is too far away.

The final thing that might be worth checking out are the clubs and societies offered by the colleges: most have teams in major sports, but larger colleges tend to be able to support more sports teams and other societies. This doesn’t matter too much though: often if your college has no team in a given sport, you can set one up yourself or join a team at another college. You can also join the university-wide clubs and societies, so you can always find something to get involved with!

Now let’s talk about how not to choose a college.

While it is true that some colleges have cheaper accommodation than others and some offer generous bursaries to students from low income households, it is impossible to identify ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ colleges. The prices of food, laundry, formals, and accommodation all vary between the colleges so that those which appear cheap in one regard are expensive in another; discounting colleges as ‘too expensive’ is a mistake. All of the colleges have funds in place to support students in financial hardship.

All of the fellows (lecturers and researchers) are assigned to a college. Many applicants think that you should choose a college with the most fellows in your subject, but this is not the case. The course activities are all delivered by the department, not the colleges, meaning everyone has the same teaching experience. If your college has no-one to supervise a particular course, you will be supervised by an academic at another college instead. Supervisors vary a lot year-to-year, so don’t apply to a college with the expectation of being supervised by someone in particular: you may be disappointed!

Entry requirements vary between colleges - some have additional tests or require specific subjects at A-level (or equivalent). Though you should make sure that you fulfil the entry requirements for the college you’re applying to, don’t shy away from those with additional tests or a different structure to the interviews. Just because a college requires you to sit another test does not mean they have a higher standard of entry, just that they want an additional piece of information about you before they make a decision – which is no bad thing.

Some colleges have a reputation for accepting a certain ‘type’ of student, but this is nothing more than rumour. None of the colleges are ‘good’ for certain subjects just as none of them are just for posh people or just for sporty people. If you like the feel of a college, go ahead and apply to it: don’t be put off by thinking it’s too posh or too science-y (for example).

Cambridge publishes admissions statistics for each college to help them and others understand the patterns, and so they can be transparent about how they deal with admissions. They should not form part of your decision when you apply to a college. Numbers can fluctuate massively from one year to the next, meaning colleges which seemed easy to get into one year may not be so the following year. More importantly, the pool system irons out any such differences between the colleges: if a high-quality student applies to a college which receives a large number of strong applications, they can be considered by the other colleges who can make them an offer instead. No colleges choose weak applicants who applied directly over strong applicants from the pool.

Knowing someone at a particular college is a bad reason to choose it – all of the good reasons for choosing a college are personal to some extent, so what is perfect for you might not be the best choice for someone else.

So that is how (and how not) to choose a college. Look for somewhere you’ll be happy, considering size, facilities, accommodation options, location and societies offered by the college. Don’t be put off by the statistics, rumours or entry requirements. If you still can’t decide, you can also make an open application, which means you don’t specify a college when you submit your application through UCAS. Your application is then automatically assigned to one of the colleges and treated exactly the same as a direct applicant – in fact the colleges won’t be able to tell if you submitted an open application or not.

The final thing to take away is that while our college is our home, we are all still students at the University of Cambridge. Don’t worry if you don’t get the college you’ve always wanted; you’ll still have an amazing time here.


Sam Holmes



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