Downing Outreach Blog

Choosing a College

19 Sep 2017 | Jess Lister | Admissions

 Choosing a college? Don’t play the numbers game

This is taken from a guest post written for ‘Think Cambridge Law’, the outreach blog for the Faculty of Law in Cambridge 

Applying to any university is complicated — choosing a course, writing personal statements, UCAS, and tracking down teachers for those ever elusive references. At Cambridge, we like to add one more decision into the mix by asking you to choose a College.

The Downing College Crest

A personal choice

Your college becomes your home for the three (or more) years at university- it’s where your accommodation will be, where you’ll eat, and each college has its own sports teams and societies. The college will also handle your admissions — it will be the admissions tutors and fellows of a particular college that look over your application and organise your interviews. Your Director of Studies at the college will be in charge of organising your supervision teaching, and a tutor will help with any issues that arise- be that pastoral, financial, or just a chat and a cup of tea when exam term gets stressful.It’s always worth remembering that regardless of which college you attend, you’ll have the same teaching same course, same lectures and seminars and same exams as everyone else across the university. Choosing a college is a personal decision — different people look for different things. If you want somewhere central and don’t mind the tourists then King’s fits the bill. Emmanuel is renowned for its ducks, and has grass you can walk on. Churchill has amazing sports facilities on site, and Girton has its own heated indoor swimming pool. At Downing we have some great accommodation (double beds!) and our own theatre space. The choice is yours. Some such as Newnham and Murray Edwards are all-female colleges, and others like Wolfson are for mature students (21+)

The famous Emmanuel College ducks.


Open applications

Of course, you don’t have to choose. Each year some students make an open application, where a college is allocated to your by a computer programme. For equally well qualified students, making an open application vs. specifying a preference college makes no different to your chance of being made an offer. Once allocated, your application is treated exactly the same as any other application.

The numbers game

There’s no right way to choose a college- but each year there are myths and rumours about making choices based on application statistics. Choosing a college that attracted ‘fewer’ applicants in the previous admissions round might seem like a smart choice- but the numbers fluctuate each year, for each subject, making it impossible to predict where the ‘popular’ college will be. Regardless, the winter pool exists to ensure the best applicants received an offer regardless of the college to which they applied.

Choosing a college based on it being renowned for a certain subject is also a mistake. While Downing might be known as the ‘law college’ because of the high number of law students it admits, your chances of entry aren’t any higher or lower than any of the other 31 Cambridge colleges- nor will your teaching experience be any different. The research and specialisms of a College’s fellow won’t dictate what you can study, or guarantee you’ll be supervised by them.

Want to find out more?

College pride from the Downing Mixed Netball Team

You can get a feel for the college by visiting on open days, or by emailing the admissions team at a college, who are usually on hand to provide tours and visits. If you’re at a UK state school, the area link scheme means your school will work with a particular college- it’s always worth keeping an eye out for residentials and subject masterclasses that run throughout the year! The Downing South West Residentialfor example runs in June for students from Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. There’s also charities such as the Sutton Trust that work with the university to put on subject residential each year. Coming to visit is the best way to get a ‘feel’ for the college- though most people are convinced that theirs is the best within the week.


You can find further information on choosing a collegeopen applications, and the Winter Pool on the University’s website. If you’re looking for more specific information about a particular college, check out their website, Facebook, or Twitter feed.

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Jess Lister

Former history student at Emmanuel College, and Downing College Schools Liaison Officer My role involves organising outreach work primarily in the South West, advising both students and teachers in all things related to Cambridge and Higher Education more generally