Is college choice important?

Cambridge Admissions Tutors
Created: 8 months, 2 weeks ago
Last modified: 8 months, 2 weeks ago

We asked Admissions Tutors about whether college choice is important in the application process. Here's what they had to say:


College choice shouldn’t make a difference to your chances of securing an offer, and it doesn’t make a difference to the quality of the education you receive: it’s Cambridge, so it’s going to be great! However, choosing a college does potentially allow you to shape your student experience in ways that might be important to you: it allows you to opt to live in a large community or a small community, to live in the City Centre or outside it, in a women’s only environment or a mixed environment, in medieval surroundings or very modern surroundings, and so on. So if you do have strong preferences about these things, it makes sense to apply directly to a college rather than submitting an open application.

Having said that, the overwhelming majority of students thrive at Cambridge, even if they end up at a college that wasn’t their original first choice, and most students will tell you that their College is “the best”, regardless of how they came to be there.


College choice depends on your priorities. If your priority is a short journey from your college room to your main Faculty building where lectures are, or to Sainsbury’s, choose the college nearest to that. If your priority is lowest rent, or en-suite rooms, or grounds you can walk on, or a good boathouse, go for whichever provides that.

However I suspect you are asking whether college choice makes a difference to your chances of being offered a place, and the answer to that is largely ‘no’. Whichever college you eventually get into, you will receive the same level of education from qualified experts in their field, for about the same number of hours; you’ll sit in the same lectures and seminars, and of course sit the same exams. It would be broadly true that not all colleges end up with the same results, with some consistently achieving higher numbers of Firsts than others, but this has to do with the quality of their applications cohort than with the teaching and resources they provide. In other words, if a college receives very high numbers of exceptionally high quality applicants, even for Oxbridge, they will of course take the very best for themselves and pool applicants they believe ought to be considered for a place elsewhere. These colleges often find that their top pooled candidates are offered places by other colleges.

So it’s important to remember when choosing a college that it’s not harder or easier to get into one than another, though you may face tougher competition for a place at some because of the people you are up against. Colleges don’t lower their entry expectations because they have fewer applicants – they take according to a high standard which is moderated across colleges, and if they have spaces to spare they will look to the pool.

I suppose you might be drawn by reports of a particularly admired lecturer at one college or another, or a star researcher, though there is no guarantee you will ever be taught by them. If it matters at all to you, apply to a college where you think you’ll fit in, which offers good facilities (library, IT services, accommodation, pastoral support, beautiful grounds, or any number of things that matter to you), but be prepared to adapt quickly to an entirely different college if you get picked out of the pool by them. In my experience, 99.9% of students grow to love their college whether they applied there directly or if they were taken out of the pool. A small and unhappy minority fail to get over being pooled to a different college from where they fantasised about going – I advise against joining them.

With thanks to Dr Emily Tomlinson at Christ's and Dr David Clifford at Homerton