Behind the scenes of the admissions process

Vicky Mills, Admissions Officer at her desk facing the camera

I am now in my 15th admissions round at Trinity Hall, and each one feels as exciting as the last. Every year I look forward with anticipation to the first applications arriving. Each new application to Trinity Hall (of which there are about 500 each year on average) represents an individual with so much potential, embarking on their journey toward university education and an experience that will shape their young adult years.

The Collegiate system allows us to give personal attention to each one – by the end of the admissions round an individual application may have been pored over by an Admissions Tutor, four interviewers and, if pooled, a number of other academics as well.

The principle aim of the University and Colleges at Cambridge is to offer admission to students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations. In order to judge intellectual potential fairly, we work hard to ensure that an applicant’s educational background is taken into account. For example, those applicants whose education may have been seriously disrupted or disadvantaged through health, disability, difficulties with schooling, or challenging personal or family circumstances are invited to submit, via their school, an ‘Extenuating Circumstances Form’. This ensures that we are made aware of any disadvantage and can assess an applicant’s previous examination performance in that context. Similarly, each UK application is supplemented by data on school background and performance relative to the national average, and by nationally available data on socio-economic factors and progression to higher education according to geographical area. All of these factors are taken into account when assessing the relative academic performance of an individual applicant.

Every year, the standard of applications is very high and a range of factors is taken into consideration when identifying candidates who appear to have the best academic potential in their chosen subject. In addition to educational background, we look at achieved/predicted grades in school exams, UCAS personal statements, school references and, should the application progress to this stage, performance at interview. For some subjects, usually in the arts and humanities, we require candidates to submit a couple of pieces of work they have done at school. This gives us a useful snapshot of their writing style and critical ability. In most subjects, we are now also piloting new admissions assessments, which are designed to gather more consistent data on candidates’ academic performance relevant to the gathered field. These written assessments are taken either at school in November or on the same day as an interview.

In the last admissions round, 85% of our applicants were invited to be interviewed. The Admissions Office arranged a total of 778 admissions interviews at Trinity Hall, which took place over a period of nine days in December, and involved 77 different interviewers. We also had 36 of our current undergraduates on hand, who were recruited to show interview candidates to the correct location in College. Our undergraduates are a great asset, as they spend time chatting to nervous candidates and putting them at their ease. They remember their own interviews and are always keen to show the same friendliness that they themselves received from undergraduates on their interview day.

One of the peculiarities of the Collegiate admissions system is that there may be statistical fluctuations each year in the numbers of candidates applying for particular courses at particular colleges. To ensure that applicants are not disadvantaged by this, there are moderation processes across the Colleges, such as the intercollegiate Winter Pool. Subject moderation such as this is designed to ensure that the best applicants have an equal chance of getting a place at Cambridge. This year, Trinity Hall ‘pooled’ 119 candidates, 35 of whom ended up with an offer at one of the Cambridge Colleges. We also made offers to 23 candidates who had originally applied to a different College. At the end of the recent admissions round, Trinity Hall made offers to 132 applicants.

Throughout the admissions process, we aim to communicate helpfully and clearly to each and every applicant. One important aspect of communication is the feedback we provide to unsuccessful candidates and their schools. The Admissions Tutors wrote individual letters of feedback to 177 applicants who requested it after the last admissions round.

Personally, I am always encouraged to hear from unsuccessful candidates that their experience of the admissions process was a positive one. This year, one such candidate wrote, “Even though I was unsuccessful, I very much enjoyed my stay at the College and the day(s) I spent there will be of great value to me for years to come.”

Vicky Mills, Admissions Officer

This article was first published in the spring 2018 issue of Front Court