Your university experience will be a good one no matter which college you choose, but you will most likely have preferences, depending on a variety of factors. This guide will help you decide which will tip the balance.
Should I submit an open application?
If you don’t have a preference, or you genuinely don’t know where to apply, you might consider an open application.
Here, university staff will make the decision for you; this usually means you’ll be allocated to a college with lower application levels, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be the perfect college for you.
Colleges won’t know whether you have made a direct application, or whether you have come through the open pool, so putting in an open application won’t affect you negatively in any way.
What about college intakes?
It could be that you naturally fall into a category whereby you would choose to apply to a college with a limited intake. For example, colleges such as Newnham only accept women, and for mature students, Clare Hall and Hughes Hall are natural destinations.
It might be that you want to study exclusively under these restrictions, but you might be looking for a greater mix of students.
In addition, some colleges only accept students on certain courses, so check beforehand that your application won’t be rejected for this reason.
Where are my lectures?
Your choice of college may be influenced by where your lectures will be held.
If you’re not great at getting to classes on time, living far away isn’t going to be your best choice. Alternatively, you might be someone who likes to have a life away from their studies, and to switch off the moment they get home from lectures.
Another consideration when choosing to live further away is how you’re going to get to lectures – public transport costs need to be factored into your budget, as does upkeep of a bike or car.
What facilities are available?
Each college has different facilities, so it’s worth finding out what’s available before you make your application. Some will offer sports and leisure facilities, others free printing, or even free internet – this can the helpful in making your decision.
One thing it’s very important to check is whether you will have access to practice rooms, or even be able to practice in your bedroom if you play a musical instrument.
Accommodation provided for first year students can also be different – check which facilities you will have access to here.
What will accommodation be like?
Usually, you will live in a college for the entirety of your course. This is guaranteed for the majority of students for three years, and some colleges provide for students for four years. This can be useful if you don’t want the added stress of finding private accommodation.
Most accommodation is close to the city centre, so walking or cycling is adequate for getting around. Your contracts for accommodation are also shorter than for private student accommodation, sometimes as little as 26 weeks – you are only charged for when you are actually in residence.
Some colleges also have a range of college-owned flats and houses around the city, and within the college precincts, the three mile area around Great St. Mary’s Church. It’s worth noting that you are required to live in this area during term time, either at college, or in college-owned accommodation.
You will have your own room, and access to a shared kitchen (although communal dining is encouraged) and laundry area. If you require an accessible room, check with each college on an individual basis.
Any number of activities will be available to you in a wide range of interests – in short, if you can think of it, a society will exist for it!
Music societies, sporting groups, drama clubs, cookery, politics, history – the benefit of such a wide range of students from all corners of the world is that they bring a huge variety of interests with them.
Take a look at the university's list of registered clubs and societies to get a flavour of what's on offer.
Will attending an Open Day help me to make a decision?
In short, yes – visiting your potential college is very important. You’ll get a feel for the surroundings, and a better idea whether you can live there or not.
You might even find that somewhere you had your heart set on just isn’t right for you after all.
Open days can be your most useful tool in deciding where to study, so check out our other guides on ways to get the most out of an open day, our Open Days FAQs and 10 reasons to go to a university open day for more tips.
You can also check out when the next Cambridge University open day event will be.
This is an important consideration for any student, but it can’t be avoided that student life in Cambridge is costly. Take a look at the financial support currently on offer for undergraduate students at Cambridge.
Music awards are available for those that play or sing at a very high standard, and not necessarily just for those studying music. These include Choral Awards, Organ Scholarships and Instrumental Awards Schemes.
There is also a specific Cambridge support scheme, which you should ask about.
The university takes a cautious view on students working part-time jobs during term time as this doesn’t only potentially affect their studies, but the important work-life balance of being at university too. Notable exceptions to this are “in-college” jobs, such as serving at the college bar, or working in the college library.
Bursaries and grants to look out for particularly are those that apply to your individual circumstances, such as those for low income households, students who have recently left care, have a disability, or otherwise come from a background where they might be the first in the family to attend Cambridge.
What do others think?
There’s nothing like talking to current students to get an idea of what it’s like to live and study somewhere. It's always worth speaking to friends and family to see if they know anyone who went to Cambridge.
If you can’t get to speak to someone face to face, find time to chat over Zoom or FaceTime.
Don’t forget to search for online reviews to see what current and former students have to say – a far more valuable tool than advertorials put out by the university, which might be deceptively flattering.
How NOT to pick your Cambridge college
You might have your heart set on a mediaeval building, or on studying with a particular Fellow. You might even be looking to stick with a particular friend group from school.
In short, don’t.
This is your degree, and your pathway – old buildings might look beautiful, but if they don’t offer the facilities you need because of their age, they’ll be frustrating to live in. Fellows move on, and sadly, so do friend groups. Make your own decisions, and treat this as a fresh start.
Some colleges will require you to sit additional admissions papers, depending on which course you’re planning to study, which may or may not offer you a deciding factor.
Don’t be put off necessarily if there’s no fellow for your subject at what would otherwise be your chosen college; it’s not unusual for fellows to cover more than one college.
Some colleges are unquestionably cheaper than others, but don’t make this your reason for applying to a particular one. Costs – food, laundry, accommodation – vary considerably between colleges, but these tend to even out and come to similar total figures.
Published admissions statistics give a transparent overview of the makeup of each college, and may or may not be useful to you. Don’t be put off by any aspect of these; look for where you’ll be happy, in terms of accommodation, societies, and facilities.
Take your time
Don’t rush your choice – give yourself at least 48 hours to decide what you’re going to do after your open day visit.
You’ll remember all the good things, so a good tip is to note down all the things you don’t like instead. It could be that after you’ve let the excitement die down, one or more of those is a dealbreaker.
Your university years, however, are what you make of them – and where you live is a relatively small factor.
We wish you all the best with your Cambridge application, and hope that these pointers will help you choose the right college for you.
For more tips and advice on applying to Cambridge and university in general, please see: