Cambridge is already cold enough... don't make the applicants suffer more with assessments Lucas Maddalena with permission for Varsity

The Cambridge University undergraduate admissions policy states that “every applicant is considered in a holistic assessment using all the information available”. For the most part, this is upheld across our institution. Yet one part of the admissions process still stands, belligerently, in the way of this pursuit of egalitarianism: the at-interview admissions assessment.

Most pointedly, they cause immense levels of stress amongst applicants. The desire to make a good impression on a potential future DoS brings with it a lot of pressure that can wreak havoc on an applicant’s wellbeing in the run up to, and during, the test. Some people are just naturally more confident, more easy-going and better at handling pressure. This doesn’t mean they’re automatically better students, though, just better at taking traditional exams.

“an assessment doesn’t give anything near to a rounded picture of you as a potential student.”

Colleges will stress that the admissions assessment only makes up part of their decision. Regardless of how true this is, they feel like empty words. Assessments feel totally make-or-break. My history at-interview assessment consisted of one single source response exercise. One sole essay, it seemed like, to make my case for admission. At no point did it feel particularly “holistic”. And on top of all this, just look at what happened during this year’s admissions tests at the Other Place. Now that almost all colleges are hosting at-interview assessments online, the omnipresent fear your work will crash or delete itself in front of your eyes is not particularly reassuring.

A negative assessment experience can also go on to have detrimental consequences for the rest of the admissions process. It would be very easy to have a bad at-interview admissions assessment experience, and go to the interview itself feeling as if your back was firmly against the wall and you had already fallen behind other prospective students. Interviews, while being a vital part of the admissions cycle, are already stressful for applicants as is. No one should have to prepare for one feeling already defeated.

Further, an assessment doesn’t give anything near to a rounded picture of you as a potential student. There’s very little space to express personal creativity or academic quirks within the rigid guidelines of the test. Surely the whole point of the admissions process is to weigh up how well an applicant would fit into the college and the wider University? The narrowness and strictness of assessments flies directly in the face of this.

They hark back to a time when the University was far more elitist and inaccessible than it is today. The University abolished its standardised entrance exam back in the 1980s, yet even subject-specific assessments run the risk of deterring students from underrepresented backgrounds from applying. Those with the financial means and available support can put far more time into preparing for these assessments, thus giving themselves a leg-up on the competition. This, ‘if you don’t do well on this one test, you shouldn’t come to Cambridge’ mindset is a hangover from the time when Oxbridge was nothing more than a finishing school for the privately educated, and it doesn’t sit right when viewed alongside the University’s increasing emphasis on widening participation.

So what should be done instead?

“Even a face-to-face interview is a far better gauge of an applicant than a faceless essay or workbook.”

A far greater emphasis should be placed on other ways of assessing candidates. Work produced in the classroom, or longer-form projects give a far greater impression of an applicant’s academic style and potential. It also gives applicants the chance to demonstrate areas of study they’re genuinely interested in, not topics thrust upon them by the faculty. Research has found that time-limited tests are “less valid”, “less reliable”, “less inclusive”, and “less equitable” than untimed alternatives. Departments should take heed of this. Work that students have had the opportunity to fully plan, create, and then alter sufficiently is a far greater indicator of whether they will succeed at Cambridge than one or two timed assessments. Weekly supervision work is, after all, completed in your own time. And with more and more subjects moving to online and open book day-long or half-day examinations, the ability to write or answer questions against an unforgiving clock is becoming more and more irrelevant to student life.

Even a face-to-face interview is a far better gauge of an applicant than a faceless essay or workbook. Academics and admission staff have the opportunity to get to know an applicant properly, seeing how they tackle problems and being challenged on their ideas. With no admissions assessments to organise or administer, more time could be allotted for each interview, making them more engaging and less intimidating.

Applicants to Cambridge are already being asked for impeccable references, near flawlessly high grades and a great face-to-face interview. They shouldn’t, then, be also asked to partake in the unrepresentative and uneven at-interview admissions assessment.


Mountain View

Head-to-head: in person interviews