Choosing a Cambridge college “strategically” to improve your chances

At Cambridge University, some universities are known to receive more applications per place than others. Why is this? Well, some universities seem to be more popular than others, and nervous applicants often try to use this to their advantage. By applying to a university with fewer applicants per place, you maximise your chances of getting in, right?

Author: Sidney White

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It’s common knowledge at the University of Cambridge that some colleges receive more applications per place than others.

But why? Well, some colleges simply appear more popular to applicants than others, and nervous candidates often try to work this to their advantage. By applying to a college with fewer applicants per place, you maximise your chances of getting in, right?

Well, theoretically right – but almost always in practice, completely wrong. 

Your application will be measured against several factors

All applicants to Cambridge are measured against various factors during admissions. The other applicants (your competition) to the college are a small and ultimately a minor part of this complex and large-scale comparison project.

There is a minimum standard that candidates need to demonstrate to successfully move across the admissions process – whether this is in formal examinations, Admissions Tests, Personal Statments or Interviews. Even if there’s only one applicant for a subject at a college, they wouldn’t decide to accept the student just because there was no one else. 

There is no shortage of people willing to study at Cambridge, no matter which college they get allocated to. Due to the university’s reputation and quality of teaching, Cambridge will never be in a position where it needs to lower its standards when it comes to admissions.

Cambridge College Sizes

Use the arrows on the table to sort the largest to the smallest. Table data comes from the Cambridge Information Hub.

CollegeUndergraduate Numbers
Clare Hall0
Corpus Christi326
Gonville & Caius632
Hughes Hall179
Jesus 540
Lucy Cavendish169
Murray Edwards398
Sidney Sussex394
St Catherine’s495
St Edmund’s128
St John’s664
Trinity Hall410

The Cambridge ‘Winter Pool’

It’s important to know that when oversubscribed colleges can’t take every qualified applicant, they place the surplus in the “Winter Pool”. Colleges that haven’t filled their places after Interviews will “fish” some of these candidates out, and give them an offer.

However, if you thought the Winter Pool system is the last resort, mostly for colleges that can’t scrape together a healthy applicant to place ratio, and used infrequently, you’d be wrong.


The Winter Pool is responsible for 25% of all offers made – and even colleges that are initially oversubscribed frequently utilise it to bolster their numbers after Interviews conclude.

Annually, hundreds of talented candidates pass through the Winter Pool. You’re not just up against the applicants to your college, but against a number of high standard students that admissions tutors know they’ll find if they peruse the Winter Pool.

Therefore, applying to an under-subscribed college solely because it’s under-subscribed is a fruitless endeavour. It won’t improve your chances of getting in, and you may end up at a college that wouldn’t be your first choice. Moreover, you can in no way second-guess application behaviours year on year, making this tactic even more tentative. 

When picking my college and course, I noticed that one college, for four years running, only had 3-4 applicants for the 2 places it offered. Surely, by applying here, I’d be fighting minimal competition – and therefore, maximising my chances of selection.

Tentatively, I submitted an application and I was invited to Interview. After receiving the invitation, I checked the Admissions Statistics Website and I could see how many people had applied for the place I coveted. My heart dropped as the page refreshed. Bucking the trend of all other years, my subject had received 10 applications – more than double the expectation.

If you’re right for Cambridge and work hard on preparing your application, you’re likely to get in – so have confidence! You deserve to end up wherever you’d like to be, so if you want to go to a particular college, ignore the stats and chase that dream!

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