Cambridge Admissions – Dispelling the Myths

Myths abound about admission to Cambridge, despite all attempts to put out some real hard facts (and similarly by Oxford). The interview process itself, which both universities use, seems to be shrouded in particular mystique. Cambridge has recently posted a new video to try to flesh out the reality of what it really is like; Oxford has put out some typical questions for a similar purpose. Fundamentally, interviews are not designed to trip candidates up but to draw them out. But anyhow the interview is not the be-all and end-all of the process and solid numbers and facts – rather than the perhaps slightly subjective feel of the interview or even the text of the personal statement – is at the bottom of decision-making (see a description of the Cambridge process from 2012 here). Objective measures such as AS level marks (particularly important for Cambridge) and comments from the school about the standing of the individual relative to the cohort count for a lot. This is the reason why Cambridge is so concerned about recent government decisions that will mean in the future marks from AS levels will no longer be available to college decision-makers. The background of the school and the average A level scores it gains are also important and admissions tutors will have extensive experience on this front.

People, particularly the media, love to hate Cambridge it seems to me. Whilst simultaneously berating the institutions for not doing enough to broaden access and widen participation, anyone who attends the universities is instantly branded as ‘elite’ or ‘a toff’. If someone from a tough comprehensive is admitted, as soon as they leave and enter the workforce their original pedigree is instantly eradicated, over-written as ‘merely’ Cambridge and therefore in some way suspected of being privileged. Churchill College, my new home, indeed has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, with amongst the highest proportion of such students in the Cambridge colleges. But that isn’t to say it has admissions completely sorted; consequently I have been keen to look into our admissions in some detail.

We, as a college, may do well on the state sector front (admitting ca 70% of our students from such schools) but we have a problem around gender which needs further investigation. To some extent the problem is obvious: by statute we admit 70% of students in the science and engineering disciplines and, as I have frequently written about before, girls are woefully under-represented in subjects like Physics at A level. Churchill cannot admit girls to read engineering, for instance, if they haven’t taken that subject at A level. Superficially, the low numbers of girls we admit (ca 35%) can be explained away like this.

But that is an inadequate explanation overall for the low number of girls, as it turns out our applications are not always in line with the university average. Cambridge overall actually does well in comparison with the average applying through UCAS when it comes to girls reading engineering (nearly twice as well in fact, with 23.2 compared with 12.7%), but Churchill not only doesn’t match this figure it doesn’t see a conversion from applications into girls who go on to meet their offer. So, we have a dispiritingly low number of women studying engineering. We have disappointingly low numbers in maths too, but here Cambridge overall is way below the typical numbers in other universities. This last point is something that the university collectively has to look into, but the former is a problem for my college and we are actively seeking ways to improve the situation, for instance through the information we put out on the web and making sure our open days prove as attractive to girls as to boys.

But there are some other anomalies across the university which many admissions tutors are wrestling with. I have written previously about the challenge in subjects like Veterinary Science. Nationally this is strongly female-dominated with a UCAS percentage of applications of around 75% quoted. At Cambridge this figure is slightly lower, though not significantly so, and in Churchill it is lower still. Does this mean we are doing a good job of encouraging the minority, in this case boys, or does it mean that the college is actually unintentionally disfavouring girls? Questions such as these become very tricky to answer but need to be kept constantly in mind and apply to several different subjects.

Of course gender is not the only facet of diversity and one should be looking at all the other aspects too: amongst others, ethnic origin and socioeconomic background. The latter is hard to get at (socio-economic classifications are often based on out-of-date information and involve value-judgements) and information on it is not included on UCAS forms, but it is clearly central to widening participation (WP) in general. Suffice it to say that all Cambridge colleges put a lot of effort into WP, sending people into traditionally low-attainment schools in order to try to raise aspirations and convince them that, if they’re outstanding students they would enjoy and benefit from what we have to offer. At what age you need to start doing this is a difficult question, but almost certainly aspiration-raising should begin by the start of secondary school. If teachers and parents don’t encourage children to aim high, or worse actively discourage those who do aspire, it is very hard for any university to overturn such attitudes. Organisations such as IntoUniversity do try, as do the college admissions tutors, but it is a big ask.

Overall there is no evidence that BME (black and minority ethnic) applicants are disadvantaged by the university, but that high level figure may mask large differences between those applying from different backgrounds. (In UCAS ethnicity is self-defined and disclosure is naturally voluntary. This is another area of background information that is not available to universities at point of selection.) As the recent Royal Society diversity report on the scientific workforce indicated, the situation is extremely complicated when it comes to different ethnicities and, for a single college it is all but impossible to disentangle any significant effects because the numbers are so small. This isn’t an excuse not to try, and most certainly everyone is aware of the issues, but it is a challenge to make much sense of the numbers.

As the incoming Master of Churchill, with my prior track record around gender issues, I am very conscious the fellowship is looking to me to help to improve the numbers of girls applying to the college. Currently the figure on applications stands at around 25% girls, so our actual intake shows our focus on ability means we are certainly not disadvantaging them. Nevertheless, we need to increase the applications from girls in the first place. There seems to be a tremendous will to work on all aspects of admissions to translate this goal into effective strategies. The first task was inevitably to gather the evidence; this has already been done. Now we just have to implement actions that translate the will into improvements year by year. This will take longer! But whatever we do, once a candidate applies the college will always stick with the emphasis of looking objectively at the numbers (AS grades, school averages, GCSE scores etc) and not rely significantly on subjective measures as to whether an individual looks ‘right’ for Cambridge. That latter sort of action may be part of the mythology but it is not the reality of Cambridge admissions.


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20 Responses to Cambridge Admissions – Dispelling the Myths

  1. Phil says:

    I would have loved my son to be accepted by Cambridge – I can’t think of a better place to get work done. But as a white boy from a fee-paying school, his success would have contributed to the very failure you (and others) are trying to rectify. (I’m not suggesting that demographic factors would have disfavoured him or others like him within the application process, except perhaps at the very margin of the margin.) His application went into clearing, so it’s not that he wasn’t a good enough candidate for Cambridge; he just wasn’t an *excellent* candidate for Cambridge. Which seems like an awfully high bar to clear!

    He’s now at Durham and having a fine old time, so there’s a happy ending of sorts. I have to say that Durham sounds a lot more Brideshead than I ever remember Cambridge being (apart from a few of the central colleges); perhaps that’s a backhanded testament to Cambridge successes in WP.

  2. Colin G. Finlay says:

    The whole “Oxbridge” (I dislike the word but, like the F – word, I employ it as an intensifier) entrance procedure is redolent of Punch Magazine’s Curate’s Egg.

    Phil’s comments aroused my empathy because our son – in – law (day boy at a home counties public school) was rejected by a Cambridge college ; then, upon completion of a Science First and Masters at a Russell Group establishment, was offered a D.Phil place at Oxford – this after a curt and abbreviated interview gave him cause to believe that admittance seemed unlikely.

    Some emails were exchanged and son – in – law politely declined Oxford’s offer – on grounds of scientific specialisation preference and thinking no more about Oxford , accepted an offer from UCL.

    Back came Oxford with a request to rethink the offer but without a backdown on the question of specialisation.

    He went with UCL but, having no chips on shoulders about anything, was happy to be offered a post doc at Oxford.

  3. Colin G. Finlay says:

    ‘Admission’ should do duty as “admittance”.

  4. Ruth Dixon says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. While there are many myths about Oxbridge admissions, there also seem to be some genuine barriers, and I’d like to draw attention to one which surprised me when I looked at the statistics.

    In my opinion, the STEP (sixth-term examination paper) is a significant barrier for Maths applicants and particularly for women. Cambridge makes Maths offers conditional on STEP performance and about half of these offers are not met. For women offered Maths places at Cambridge, almost two-thirds fail to make their conditional offers.

    For instance, in 2012, 115 women were offered a place to read Maths but only 38 were finally accepted (Figure 6 in the pdf linked below). (For men, the numbers were 388 offers and 208 acceptances). The unsuccessful offer-holder almost all failed to meet the STEP criteria rather than the A-level grades. The Maths Faculty is clearly aware of the problem, but it’s unclear how they plan to address it (see

    I was very surprised to learn of these statistics (on account of my son applying to university this year). In other subjects at Cambridge or Oxford, conditional offers are almost always based on A-level grades or equivalents such as the IB and are met by almost all applicants who receive an offer. In my 20+ year experience of the Oxford admissions process, an Oxford offer is (almost) a guarantee of a place – the failure rates are extremely low (for STEM subjects, at least). Subjects which use aptitude tests set those tests early in the admissions process and the results are taken into account when offer decisions are made. Candidates know whether they have an Oxbridge offer in January and can concentrate on their A-level studies for the rest of the school year.

    It is unique in my experience of Oxbridge admissions to keep candidates hanging on until their last term at school to take such a high-stakes test (far more rigorous than A-levels) on which their place at Cambridge depends, and which about half will ‘fail’. This is not an ordeal that Oxbridge puts most of its offer-holders through. Applying to read Maths at Cambridge requires a degree of resilience on the part of candidates that some may feel is not worth the risk.

  5. Roger Adams says:

    Ruth Dixon’s observations & experience of the STEP exams is exactly that of our daughter who applied to study Maths at Cambridge. She is now happily at Birmingham studying Maths having gained 3A* in Maths, Further Maths & Chemistry, but not scoring highly enough in STEP. She really couldn’t have worked harder, but remains very disappointed.

    Several friends from her state sixth form college are at Oxbridge studying, for example, Natural Sciences, Maths (at Oxford), History and PPE, having gained less good A-levels. This doesn’t feel too fair, though they deserve their places in every way.

    I have to say it is a loss both to her and to Cambridge. She’ll get over it, but it felt cruel at the time. I’m certain our second daughter will take all this into account when she applies for university next year. I hope it won’t put her off considering Oxbridge.

  6. Tony says:

    I concur with your message, Athene. The AS data has been a tremendous tool for social mobility, and the government’s short-sighted decision to decouple it from the A Level has no reasonable justification.

    Working in a sixth form college, I’ve used the AS results in three ways – the prospective students are aware of the hard-core evidence of the value of the UMS in determining their suitability for the Cambridge courses – so it helps the self-selection for applications. Secondly, the AS Level has given students not overly confident in their abilities the confidence to ‘give it a go’. Finally, it’s been a way of finding students who have blossomed at AS Level in ways that they hadn’t at GCSE. Every year, in my role of Oxbridge coordinator, I have students who successfully apply and successfully perform at Cambridge and Oxford, but whose GCSE profiles would suggest that they’d not be appropriate Oxbridge candidates. And most of these students come from students with a high WP rating – not that they are given benefits, as Phil implies above – but their data is contextualised, and they have succeeded because they love their subjects, have impressive ability and have worked hard. The decoupling is a real detriment for future social mobility.

    The supporters of the Gove policy will say that the students can still sit the decoupled AS Level. However, there is the funding – since 2010 we are £610 per head down on students and colleges won’t readily fund an extra exam across the board – a way that we can find those who blossom at sixth form. Secondly, the insistence on the three subjects instead of a standard 4 x AS and 3 x A2 is also stretching budgets – if we teach the four subjects at AS then we have no funding for it. And the four subject (stretching to five for some) has been so fantastic for students from all backgrounds: so many students find that they don’t really know what they want to do at the age of 16, the fourth subject has so often kept options open – for Oxbridge as well as other high achieving students.

    With the new challenges, we will try our best to identify students of talent appropriate for the intensity of the Oxbridge courses. The best strategy for identifying those capable of thriving on these courses may have been closed, but hopefully that will be a temporary situation.

  7. Philippa Moore says:

    I agree with your irritation that ‘Oxbridge’ is seen in the media as a euphemism for ‘priviledge’. It should be seen as meaning ‘academically elite’, and means that those at Oxbridge are their through their own academic merits, and not through financial, social or political influence, which the media seems to imply.

    It is heartbreaking to see the genuine efforts of Cambridge undergraduates from all backgrounds who earnestly give up their own time to visit schools to encourage younger kids to consider applying to Cambridge, only for some old over-paid media hack hawking out the same old cliches in their newspaper and putting any hard-won step in the right direction, right back to square one.

    It is the media’s portrayal of Cambridge which stops it being more diverse, and not the intention or efforts of the university itself.

  8. Ruth and Roger
    I have never been directly involved with maths admissions, but my understanding is that the need for good marks in STEP is down to the fact that experience shows that those who don’t get high marks really struggle with the Cambridge course, which is unlikely to be good (or satisfactory) for them. For better or worse it is very demanding compared with other universities. As I understand the distribution of ability within maths (true at any stage) there is a huge spread across those who get A*s – or 1sts- so that the gap between e.g. the bottom of the 1sts and the top may be much bigger than across all the 2nd class marks. Maths seems to be unusual in this respect, but it does mean an A* is not enough to distinguish between applicants.

    In order to help children at schools which may have a hard time preparing them for STEP, the University runs an Easter course and many applicants are encouraged to attend this, boys and girls.

    • Sara Williams says:

      “for a single college it is all but impossible to disentangle any significant effects because the numbers are so small” – and for a parent the numbers are of course even smaller… however, I will also add a couple of comments on the issue of girls and STEP based on my daughter’s thoughts around uni applications a couple of years ago.

      At school maths was her best subject but she rejected the idea of Cambridge Maths precisely because of the Application process. She hated the uncertainty of the additional very late exam – “I want to get an A level offer so I know exactly what I have to work to achieve”. As Ruth Dixon above suggested, she didn’t want to take the risk.

      And she didn’t want to go a lot of extra work for the STEP course ironically because she felt she needed to work more on her physics and chemistry than on her maths. She would have had no interest in an Easter STEP course because she wanted to be able to spend the holiday on revision for her A level levels. Was this really necessary? Probably not as she walked the A levels, but it is a not uncommon reaction from girls I suspect.

      She was also not dedicated to applying for Maths. So as she wanted to go to Cambridge she applied for NatSci instead and is now very happy in her second year there. Perhaps this is a good result for the STEP process – someone who was not completely dedicated to Maths was put off and so a place went to someone who probably was. But I think girls aged 17 (and indeed women at 27, 37 etc) often have a much wider range of interest than boys the same age. A process that aims to pick people who are fanatical about maths is very likely to end up with few girls.

  9. Roger Adams says:

    Thanks Athene

    I didn’t make clear that I understand the need for Cambridge to sort the good from the very good in Maths admissions. I admit that our daughter will likely be happier and more successful at Birmingham instead of potentially struggling painfully at Cambridge – she already seems to be very happy there. She did attend the Easter school and took advantage of the tutorials online too. She *knew*, with only a week to go, that she wouldn’t succeed, but at that point also realised what she needed to do to ‘get it’! Oh for three more weeks! But perhaps it is better to properly ‘fail’ than to just meet the requirements and struggle thereafter.

    I think that Cambridge would do well to help the schools/colleges themselves to prepare their maths students for STEP, as well as the students themselves.

    It is the painful raising and dashing of hopes, while her friends ‘only’ get their A-levels, that we wish we could change. It is hard to know if there’s a better way of perhaps identifying exceptional mathematicians earlier in the process.

    Another dimension to our frustration with this is that, having put Cambridge as first choice (who wouldn’t?) she lost out on a significant bursary and guarantee of accommodation at Birmingham (and an unconditional offer). This isn’t Cambridge’s fault, or even Birmingham’s I suppose, but means that daughter 2 will treat such incentives more seriously next time, possibly meaning she doesn’t risk Oxbridge. But that’s for us to manage as parents. We’re fortunate that we are in a position to take that financial risk.

    It’s probably time for me to get over it now too!

  10. When I read articles like this one in the Guardian ( I see that whereas students at fee-paying schools make up 15% of sixth formers they constitute 39% of Cambridge undergraduates. Could someone please help me understand this discrepancy?

  11. Thanks for your response, Athene, and to Roger for his.

    I agree that A-levels do not distinguish the top-most students, but that problem is not unique to the mathematics course at Cambridge.

    I don’t have a solution, but most Oxbridge subjects manage to use tests, interviews and AS-marks to make their decisions at an earlier stage. If Cambridge Maths does not wish to move to an earlier testing process, I wonder whether they could make better use of the evidence they have in December (UMS scores, interviews, school references etc) to make fewer offers, so that only the strongest candidates need to take the STEP paper in June.

    You say that “experience shows that those who don’t get high marks [on STEP] really struggle with the Cambridge course”. I assume this experience must have come from the (relatively narrow) range of STEP marks of those candidates who are actually accepted, i.e. even some of those who ‘pass’ STEP struggle with the course. If STEP is that sensitive a predictor of success in the course, it should be possible to detect more of those who will do poorly at STEP (i.e. fail their offers) earlier in the admissions process. It would be very surprising if STEP scores in June bore absolutely no relationship with other achievements available to the university the previous December.

  12. Alison Chappell says:

    As a Churchill alumna who is very engaged in getting women involved in STEM careers I was interested to read about the STEP issue. It is my understanding that preparing for STEP usually requires significant additional work outside the curriculum; ideally supported by some extra tuition. Could one issue simply be that many young women feel uncomfortable having one-on-one tuition with (almost inevitably) male maths teachers outside the normal school day – and perhaps even more likely, that male maths teachers are much less likely to offer such support to female pupils than to male pupils, for fear of the situation being misinterpreted?

  13. Phil says:

    not that they are given benefits, as Phil implies above

    Not sure what you mean by this – it’s in the nature of WP to benefit somebody, surely. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that students like the ones you refer to were getting undeserved benefits. I’ve taught at a Russell Group university & a post-92 (my current employer), so I’ve worked with public school products who sail through everything and with kids who never did that well at school and/or were never encouraged to; the incidence of genuinely bright, intellectually curious people in the two groups is pretty similar.

    I know very little about the mechanics of WP, so these may be very ill-informed speculations. But I suppose the suspicion I can’t quite dispel is that, once the top twenty or thirty places have gone to the obvious stars and the haggling over the last few places has begun, if there were a tie between a white male public-school product and another candidate who was identical in every way except for less privileged life experiences and demographic profile, the less privileged candidate would be likely to edge it. And this would be a good thing and entirely predictable – if there’s a finite number of places, you can’t have WP without NP for somebody else. Even if that somebody else is my son.

    If that is how WP works, I’m not complaining (lamenting a little, but not complaining). Having said that, writing the italicised phrase above made me realise how much I was simplifying – how could two candidates possibly be identical, A2 grades apart? The trouble is, it seems to me that, as soon as you say that a group is under-represented, you’re committed to saying that its members are just as good in the same, measurable way(s) as members of the over-represented group – which takes me back to my mental picture of young Rollo from Arundel in a dead heat with Darren from Gorton. Or is WP really about giving a richer picture to admissions tutors, so that they see evidence of ability that isn’t getting captured by GCSE results? But then, do we know that Rollo doesn’t also have a rich hinterland?

  14. Bob says:

    Following recent experience with my daughter’s application, I totally agree with Ruth Dixon and Roger Adams. Cambridge should urgently address the issue of gender bias created by STEP examinations in maths. Equally schools need to be aware of the inherent issues in the current system.

    My daughter had always excelled at maths and physics. Rather than decide between the two she chose to apply for the maths with physics course at Cambridge over the straight maths option at Oxford. She realised STEP would be a hurdle but we did not appreciate quite how high, or that the goalposts would be moved during the process. She was told at open days that 4 good answers on any paper should normally earn grade 1, and following her offer from her first choice college she attended an Easter School. There, she was advised NOT to spread herself too thin by studying extra A-level modules, but to focus her STEP practice on those topics she was studying at school. (She attended a very highly performing rural comprehensive, but had no extra provision for STEP and studied two decision maths modules as part of her maths and further maths course- information Cambridge had been provided with.)

    In the STEP exams she did indeed manage 4 good questions on STEP 2, but this only earned her a poor grade 2, contrary to previous advice. STEP 3 was a disaster as the paper focused heavily on topics she had not covered; she scored a 3. Incidentally on STEP 1 her mark put her in the top 7% of candidates, so presumably we and the school were not over-estimating her ability! Despite achieving A*A*A*A in A2 and making it to the summer pool, she failed to achieve her place, took a gap year (teaching herself the remaining A2 modules to earn another A* in Additional Further Maths) and, having decided she now wanted to pursue maths, was successful in gaining a place at Oxford.

    At the Easter Step School there were 2 male and 2 female offer holders for her college. BOTH boys achieved their places, NEITHER girl did. We were not aware that this gender imbalance was anything more than a fluke at her college; had we known the scale of the bias caused by STEP she would never have wasted a year applying for a course with such a poor chance of success. The experience badly dented her confidence and she wishes she applied to Oxford in the first place where the whole admissions system seems much fairer.

    From discussions with the other offer holders at Cambridge she believes she did very well at interview- the college never provided the requested feedback so we don’t know. Why are so many more offers given than places available (more than double last year) – why bother interviewing at all? I also fail to understand how Cambridge can continue to argue that STEP is such a good predictor of eventual success, when it produces such a large gender bias- are they really arguing that girls are not as good at maths and less likely to succeed on their course? Perhaps girls are more reluctant to sacrifice their other A-level subjects to focus on STEP?

    I would also like to know how many girls achieve maths places from non-selective state schools. Whilst she was lucky to attend a superb school, she did not have other peers working at the same level, making STEP preparation a lonely experience. I strongly suspect that girls at highly selective schools will form the majority of successful maths offer holders, but this information is not available. Perhaps Athene could investigate?

    • Thanks to all for engaging with this debate and sharing thoughts and ideas. Although anecdote can only take one so far, I can assure you people in my college and beyond have been reading your responses and debating the issues raised, some of which (but not all) are familiar even if their solutions are not obvious. Likewise the issues you raise about STEP are being discussed within the Maths Faculty. Again many of them are well-known and are kept under constant review. I am optimistic someone from that Faculty will respond with more facts and figures than I have, to move the dialogue forward.

  15. Stephen Siklos says:

    I am the Faculty of Mathematics (Cambridge) coordinator for the STEP exams. I have followed this discussion with interest. I am going to make a few points of a factual nature, mainly in response to Bob’s contribution but I hope they will be of more general use.

    First let me say that no one, certainly not anyone here, believes that we get all our admissions decisions right. We may have made the wrong decision for Bob’s daughter (which would be Oxford’s gain and our loss – annoying!). Another possibility is that Cambridge, Oxford and Bob’s daughter (in reapplying, to Oxford, a year later) all made good decisions; after all the Oxford course is quite a bit different from the Cambridge course. We probably can’t know.

    **STEP as a predictor of success**
    Bob says “I also fail to understand how Cambridge can continue to argue that STEP is such a good predictor of eventual success.” This is just a matter of data analysis over 6 years of data: the correlation between Tripos and STEP results is exceptional – far higher than any other predictor for maths and far higher than any predictor in any other subject. The data can be divided by gender and school type and the correlation within each group is still exceptional. Of course, we can’t know how those who took STEP but didn’t make it to Cambridge would have fared.

    **Advice about not trying to learn new modules close to the exams**
    This was advice given to Bob’s daughter at our STEP Easter School (in the April before the June STEP exams) and it seems sound advice to me. STEP is all about depth. The STEP syllabus is widely available (it has hardly changed in 10 years) and the time to check that you will have covered enough material for Paper III is long before Easter. However, when setting Paper III we are very aware that candidates will have different mathematical backgrounds and we do try to ensure that a good number of questions and parts of questions are based on material that everyone takes.

    **Criteria for a grade 1**
    We often say, as a rule of thumb, that usually 4 good questions is sufficient. But it is not easy when examining at this level to judge how difficult the paper will prove to be. Therefore, we provide details of previous border lines (in our admissions information and on the website) so that candidates can see that they vary. In our Guide to Admissions, we say (together with a range of borderlines in terms of marks): “In most years, good answers to four questions are sufficient for a grade 1. As you see, the exact borderlines vary from year to year, since the marks are not scaled to fit pre-stated borderlines (such as UMS marks at A-level).” To complete Bob’s footballing analogy: the goal posts move, but the area of the goal mouth does not.

    **STEP and gender**
    This is a matter of great concern for us, and one we are investigating vigorously. Bob says “had we known the scale of the bias caused by STEP…”. I don’t know where this comes from. I’ve not seen evidence that STEP causes a gender bias, though I have heard anecdotes (and there is some interesting discussion earlier in this blog). You have to remember that we have been using STEP as the basis for almost all of our conditional offers for 28 years, during which time our gender ratios have changed up and down, A-levels have changed, schools have changed, Minsters for Education have come and gone, and the digital age has had a huge impact on school children . The number of female students taking our undergraduate course is very low, but the number of female students taking Part III (our fourth year course, on which fewer than half the students come from Cambridge) is also low, and that has nothing to do with STEP. In general, distinguishing causation from correlation from our large data base is very hard; but we are trying to make sense of it. I think we would be reluctant to revert to fourth-term entrance examinations (cf the Oxford MAT) – it just seems too early to be useful as far as our course is concerned (I don’t know how good a preictor the Oxford Mat is though). And anyway, STEP serves the dual function, welcomed by many other universities, of preparing students for university mathematics (besides acting as a hurdle for those who want to use it). I note that Sara Williams makes some interesting remarks about Maths and gender further up this blog.

    On a more positive note, the Maths Faculty has a grant from DoE to produce a pilot for a STEP ‘correspondence course’, which will engage with sixth formers much earlier (in fact, at the beginning of their second term in the sixth form) than our Easter School. If this is successful, it may make a big difference from both access and gender perspectives.

  16. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    I am sure that if anyone can get to the bottom of the gender disparity in the numbers of Cambridge maths undergraduates then Stephen will. I always found his dedication to the quality of undergraduate teaching inspirational.

    Thinking back to the time when I applied to Cambridge from a non-selective state school, being a girl with many interests besides maths, I was enormously put off by the then 4th term entrance exams, precisely because I would have little help in preparation and was somewhat risk-averse. I imagine I would have been put off by STEP too. I applied for NatSci, got in and switched to maths. I can’t imagine they would actually have admitted me for maths directly. As it turns out, now I am a maths professor working on interdisciplinary applications, so my wide interests have in the end served me well. And I came to love all that tricksy STEP-style stuff they teach at Cambridge. Perhaps Cambridge maths needs a slightly more inviting way in for people like me. I turned out ok in the end, after all.

  17. Bob says:

    First I would like to say how grateful I am to both Athene and Stephen for their contributions to this discussion; it is very reassuring to know that such influential figures within the university are investigating these issues.

    We would like to stress that in our daughter’s case, and no doubt in many others, she found Stephen’s online STEP materials extremely useful and her mathematical skills and understanding developed enormously as a result. In fact it was through doing the STEP questions that she realised she wanted to pursue maths rather than physics. She was very grateful for the STEP Easter course and the online follow-up provided by Cambridge, although I will address the issue of the STEP 3 syllabus in a later paragraph. However, with the exception of the Easter course, STEP preparation was, as previously mentioned, a lonely experience and made terribly stressful by the knowledge of what was at stake.

    We do feel aggrieved that it was not made clearer before application that such a high offer-to-place ratio existed, and that effectively the STEP boundaries are altered to ensure that only the top 240 or so candidates are successful, no matter how well they do on the day. We now accept that this information can be found by digging around on the internet, but the offer to place ratio has increased markedly in recent years and we did not find this out until after application. Schools with a strong history of Cambridge maths applications would already be aware of this information, and it would be very simple to spell out this fact at open days and on the website so that those pupils and schools with less experience knew what was ahead of them.

    Our daughter’s STEP 2 score was lower than she hoped largely due to a silly mistake at the beginning of one question and she fully accepts that was just unfortunate; I have already discussed the movement of the boundaries. Our biggest issue with STEP itself is the breadth of the syllabus for paper 3, and the effective lottery that this creates for candidates. Possibly 2013 was an atypical paper and she was simply unlucky. Perhaps the structure of the paper could be changed to reassure candidates that at least some of their chosen topics would come up.

    Our daughter began preparing for STEP as soon as she received her offer and self-studied many topics beyond her exam modules, including differential equations, collisions, projectiles and more advanced statistics. She obviously needed to maintain her exam grades, so she was reassured by the advice at the Easter course that she did not need to cover every topic and was satisfied that she could score enough marks on STEP 3 from those she had already studied. She had tackled many past papers and was reliably solving four or five problems per paper. In the event, her actual STEP 3 paper had none of her favoured mechanics and statistics topics, and the pure maths was very biased towards vectors and complex numbers; not areas she had concentrated on. It seems all the applied maths was from the M 3/4 and S 3/4 modules, rather than more challenging questions from the earlier modules. However much potential an applicant has, they cannot solve problems requiring prior knowledge if they do not have that knowledge. Previous STEP 3 papers had contained a few questions (e.g. number theory and probability) which relied on ability rather than knowledge; she was banking on a couple of these but they were largely absent from that year’s paper. She realised within the first few minutes that she would not be able to gain the required marks, battled her way through a dispiriting three hours, and left the exam in floods of tears and totally demoralised. We suspect that in her year many successful candidates were simply ‘lucky’ to have studied complex numbers, PDFs and moments of inertia! That does not seem to be the best way of gauging potential so it will be interesting to see whether Tripos results correlate with STEP as well as normal.

    The advice given to applicants is that given a choice by their school, they should choose mechanics and statistics modules. This should be changed to stress to both schools and candidates much earlier in the sixth form that they should not waste time on decision maths (chosen by schools to maximise results), but should if necessary self-study extra mechanics and statistics. The schools of offer holders whose SAQ indicates that they are studying unsuitable modules could be reminded of the need to modify their plans.

    A major issue for most UK state schools is that five hours a week of maths from the ages of 4 to sixteen leads to one GCSE at sixteen, whereas the syllabus for many other GCSE subjects can be taught in two hours a week for two years. This means that for a gifted pupil, maths before sixteen is often tedious and lacking in challenge. It also leaves a huge amount of more interesting advanced maths to be rushed in the sixth form, when much could have covered earlier. This is not Cambridge’s fault, but they need to recognise that government pressure on schools results in the need to maximise grades for all their pupils, both at GCSE and A-level. There are simply not the resources to provide individual tuition to one or two outstanding pupils.

    In contrast, those pupils at very selective schools (whether state or private) will have other very able mathematicians to work with and are likely to have been pushed to work at a high level throughout their school career. These schools are more likely to have the resources to teach advanced maths to pupils earlier in their school careers, complete the core A2 modules early in year 12, and by the time pupils are in the sixth form they are able to provide teaching for the more obscure DE, FP3, M 3/4 and S 3/4 modules which we have since discovered are so vital to STEP success. Their pupils are generally provided with intense STEP coaching throughout the sixth form.

    We appreciate there are many excellent materials available online, but these are not a substitute for the challenge and excitement of working collaboratively with other able students. There needs to be more focus on non-selective schools pooling resources and working together to identify and teach exceptional mathematicians as a group if WP is to be effective in maths. Universities in general are in a good position to help with this but current provision is very patchy. Stephen mentions the development of a correspondence course earlier in the sixth form, which I am sure will be very welcome.

    Our other major concern is the issue of girls’ under-performance in STEP relative to that of boys, and the seemingly huge gender disparity in converting offers to places, which we found quite shocking. It was this information from Ruth Dixon that initially prompted me to contribute to this blog. We are reassured to be told that the department are actively pursuing this issue, but the current data is not readily available to applicants. We would very much like to know what proportion of girls from non-selective state schools achieve a place for maths and wonder whether Stephen could find this out?

    I wonder whether the Cambridge maths department fully appreciate how high the hurdle is for pupils from a non-selective school, and for girls in general. I suspect that under the current system the probability of success for a girl at a comprehensive is disproportionately small and arguably not worth the risk!

  18. Stephen Cowley says:

    For the next 42 days I am Chair of the Faculty of Mathematics. However, what follows are my own personal views. I apologise but, by necessity, this reply is short because we are in the middle of term. There is much more that I would have liked to have added.

    For background, I was state educated (a grammar school) and I have just finished a 4-year term as the governor of a state primary school. I am male. A more complete declaration of interests can be read at

    A number of us have been following this thread. It has provoked [yet more] discussion. As you might guess, Cambridge does track success rates by gender, by school, and by gender & school. The figures indicate that the success-rate of female offer-holders from state schools is lower than, say, male offer-holders from independent schools. There are probably multiple reasons for this. The Faculty at Cambridge would very much like to understand what they are, and we are working to that end. STEP might be one component, but personally I do not believe that it is the only component.

    However, the point I wish to emphasise in this post, is that contextual data is taken into account. So in making offers and deciding on acceptances, many of us take into account that students from well-resourced independent schools have had more opportunities than students from, say, some (but not all) comprehensives, e.g. at the College that I am most familiar with, of the 13 that have matriculated in Mathematics this year, 10 were state educated, 2 were educated in the independent sector (but one counts as an overseas student) and the other is an overseas student (3 are women). The Faculty in Cambridge want to teach the best students; period. So it is in our interest to admit the most talented, as opposed to the best trained, students. So, for instance, I expect students from the independent sector to achieve a 1,1 offer in STEP. However, if Cambridge only took students who achieved 1,1, then there would only be about 170 students in the first year. About 70 students who do not make their formal offer are taken each year, and many aspects are taken into account when relaxing the offer (not in the least, life opportunities).

    Finally might I comment on “I suspect that under the current system the probability of success for a girl at a comprehensive is disproportionately small and arguably not worth the risk”. I have been interviewing students off and on since 1990. I have only ever award one 10/10 in interview. That was to a female student from a state comprehensive, and my interview assessment proved to be correct. So if you are a female student from a state comprehensive, please read all the above, please weigh it in the balance, but please still apply to Cambridge.

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