University of Cambridge – Acceptance Rate, Tuition, Notable Alumni, and More

Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the second-oldest English-speaking university in the world, second only to its rival University of Oxford. In many ways, Cambridge is the mother of all universities, as it’s the place where John Harvard gained his education, before later establishing the school that carries his name, which itself served as a model for most institutions in the U.S. 

While most modern universities have their own schools and even satellite campuses, Cambridge consists of 31 constituent colleges, many of which have quite a bit of autonomy. So while they carry the Cambridge name and the prestige that comes with it, these colleges are self-governed and have their own goals and constitutions. Furthermore, there is no central campus. Instead, the school is spread across the city of Cambridge, with various buildings and centers. 

The school earns its reputation in part from its intensive approach, which emphasizes small group instruction, in which cohorts of one to four students work together under the supervision of instructors. 

Beyond its teaching and age, several other factors keep Cambridge among the elite of the world. Cambridge University Press is not only the oldest such press in the world, but it is still the second largest. More than eight million students across the globe take exams through Cambridge Assessment. Eight cultural and scientific museums operate through Cambridge, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, as do over 100 libraries. All of this comes backed by a £2.192 billion endowment

University of Cambridge Acceptance Rate 

University of Cambridge
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent application year, just over 17,000 people applied to study in a college of Cambridge. Only 3,497 were accepted. That’s a mere 21% acceptance rate, which means only one out of five applicants will get into the school. 

University of Cambridge has approximately 21,650 enrolled this year. That’s a lot of people, but as you might expect from a very old and highly respected university, they are quite selective when it comes to sending offers of admission to students. 

But hopefuls can help improve their chances by focusing their interests. As much as schools such as Cambridge value a well-rounded individual, academics themselves emphasize specialization. By specialization, scholars mean that strong academics have their areas of expertise, where they know not only the most important elements of their field but also the lesser-known and foundational parts. 

For example, anyone in a liberal arts program will read important works of American literature, such as The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. But someone who focuses on American literature doesn’t read just those famous books; they’ll also read lesser-known books by those authors, as well as important foundational books that most people don’t know.

As this description demonstrates, a strong focus means that you’re an expert. The knowledge shows to an admissions committee that you know what you’re talking about and have something to offer the community. With this knowledge – and more importantly, achievements such as awards – your application will show Cambridge that you will contribute to the community. 

University of Cambridge Tuition

As we’ve already discussed, the University of Cambridge has some of the most impressive resources of any institution in the world. For that reason, it’s not cheap to attend Cambridge. 

For Home students, which is what the school calls those from the United Kingdom, families starting in 2021 will pay £9,250 per year. 

Furthermore, there are a number of factors that could change the rates over the next few years. Each year, the UK government determines the rates for studying at national schools such as Cambridge; thus, future tuition rates have not yet been determined. Furthermore, because the UK only recently left the European Union, the government has not yet decided upon tuition rates for European citizens. 

For students from the rest of the world, tuition fees vary according to degree. These can range from £22,227/year for an international student to earn a degree in Archeology to £58,038/ year for international students to earn a Veterinary Medicine degree. 

Additionally, international students (or home students working toward a second degree) will need to pay an annual fee to the specific Cambridge College where they are studying. These fees range from £9300 to study at Trinity College to Pounds 10,470 annually to earn a degree at King’s College. 

That’s a lot of money. But fortunately, home and international students can apply for financial aid and scholarships. This aid can run the gamut from work-study assistance to outright scholarships. Of course, these aids change according to several factors, including citizenship, course of study, and college. So be sure to check often at the financial aid offices to make sure you have everything you need. 

University of Cambridge Requirements

All schools screen their applicants to make sure everyone can succeed in their programs, but the University of Cambridge takes it more seriously than most. With a wide range of colleges and programs in its system, Cambridge works to put the right students in the right programs. And, unsurprisingly, the requirements change according to the applicant’s home country. 

For students coming from the UK, Cambridge expects that students in Year 12 and Year 13 take three to four AS and or A-Level classes, especially in their major subjects. The grades should be high overall, A*AA or A*A*A, but most colleges allow for variety when needed. By taking three or four A-level courses, students demonstrate the breadth of their knowledge, but they can focus on their central area of study. 

Although the University recognizes that all students may have bad testing days and does not hold re-tests against those who need to redo an exam to replace a poor grade, it does express concern in students who have several re-tests on their record. Because programs in the Cambridge Colleges rarely offer resits on exams, they prefer students who do well on their first exams. 

Although Cambridge indeed accepts students from all over the world, they tend to make these decisions on an individual basis. There is no one set of requirements for all non-UK applicants. For those applying from the United States, Cambridge recommends students take five or more AP tests throughout high school and earn high grades on the ACT and SAT standardized tests. To be competitive, Cambridge recommends that students earn a cumulative score of SAT between 1460-1500 and an ACT score between 32-36.

All of that said, Cambridge takes an individual approach, which means that a particular college or program can modify requirement standards to the needs of a specific student.

University of Cambridge Notable Alumni

As one of the premier institutions in the entire world, it’s no surprise that Cambridge has trained people who have gone on to be leaders in their field, including comedian and actor Sasha Baron Cohen, illustrator Quentin Blake, and physicist Neils Bohr. 

In fact, Cambridge has taught 121 Nobel laurates, 11 recipients of the Fields Medal, 7 winners of the Turing Award, and 14 British prime ministers

Some of these Nobel laurates include Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who advanced understanding of the structure of DNA, philosopher and public intellectual Bertrand Russell, and astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Cambridge trained prime ministers Robert Walpole, William Lamb, and Stanley Baldwin. 

But Cambridge Alumni aren’t limited to only “serious” fields. Some of the brightest names in arts and entertainment were educated in a Cambridge college. Comedians John Oliver and Richard Ayoade are Cambridge alums, as are Monty Python members John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle. 

Cambridge colleges produced movie stars such as Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Tilda Swinton, and Thandie Newton. Literary figures from Cambridge include J.G. Ballard, E.M Forester, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jin Yon, and visual artists include Lord Antony Armstrong-Jones, Sir Roy Yorke Caine, and Wuon-Gean Ho. 

The school hasn’t been a slouch when it comes to athletics. Olympians Harold Abrahams, Stephanie Cook, and Peter Jacobs played for Cambridge colleges. The school produced professional footballers, including Steve Palmer, William Leslie Poole, Alfred Lyttelton, and cricketers Peter May, Ted Dexter, and Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji II.

This list is just a small sample of the excellence produced by the University of Cambridge. For every one person named here, there are hundreds who have used their education to impact the world in any number of ways.

University of Cambridge Ranking

As you would expect from that impressive list of alumni, the University of Cambridge is considered by all to be one of the best institutions in the world. With over 800 years of experience, the Cambridge Colleges have established themselves as leaders on the world stage. 

On the highly esteemed U.S. News & World Report list, Cambridge falls in the top ten of nearly every category. It sits at #8 on the list of Global Universities, but at #2 in Best Global Universities in Europe and Best Global Universities in the United Kingdom. The magazine puts Cambridge within the top five in a variety of subjects, including Arts and Humanities, Biology and Chemistry, Space Science, and Chemistry. 

Nearly every other observing body gives Cambridge the same accolades. According to, Cambridge is tied with Stanford University for the third-best in the world, falling only behind number one Massachusetts Institute of Technology and number two University of Oxford. 

For the Times World University Rankings, Cambridge sits at number six overall, with special recognition for its excellent research, citations by academics and professionals, and international outlook. The organization placed Cambridge within the top five in the categories of World Reputation, Arts & Humanities, Life Sciences, and Business & Economics. 

Finally, the Center for World University Rankings gives Cambridge an overall score of 94.1, the fourth-highest in the world. The Center ranks Cambridge number one in the UK, fourth in the world for quality of education, and fifth in the world for quality of faculty. 

While there might be some disagreement about specific placements, these lists show that all international organizations agree that the University of Cambridge belongs among the best schools in the world. 

What Are the Colleges of the University of Cambridge?

University of Cambridge
Steve Cadman, The Chapel Emmanuel College, CC BY-SA 2.0

As we mentioned earlier, the University of Cambridge is not a centralized school, but a collection of smaller Colleges. In fact, the school consists of 31 colleges. Although these colleges are all part of the University of Cambridge and share in the larger school’s reputation and structure, they each operate semi-autonomously, with their own administrations, standards, and policymakers. For that reason, the various Colleges can differ significantly from one another. 

The Cambridge Colleges fall into two categories, simply labeled “old” and “new.” The old colleges were all founded between 1284, which is when Peterhouse College was formed, and 1584, the year that Emmanuel College was established. The other Colleges among the old schools include King’s Hall (1317), Michaelhouse (1324), Clare College (1326), Pembroke (1347), Gonville and Caius (1348), Trinity Hall (1350), Corpus Christi College (1352), College of St. Mary Magdeline (1428), Christ’s College (1437), King’s College (1437), Queen’s College (1441), St. Catherine’s College (1478), Jesus College (1496), St. John’s College (1511), and Trinity College (1546). 

After a break of over two and a half centuries, Cambridge began adding colleges with the establishment of Downing College in 1800. Homerton College was founded in 1796 but did not move to Cambridge until 1894 and did not become a proper College until 2010, making it fairly old, despite falling into the new category. 

The other new Colleges include the first women’s school Girton College (1869), Fitzwilliam College (1869), Newnham College (1871), Selwyn College (1882), Hughes Hall (1885), St. Edmunds College (1896) Murray Edwards College (1958), Churchill College (1958), Darwin College (1964), Wolfson (1965), Lucy Cavendish (1965), Clare Hall (1966), Cambridge College, Robinson (1977). 

Cavendish College was founded in 1873 but shuttered its doors in 1992. 

History of the University of Cambridge – When Was It Founded?

Although it’s already been stated, this bears repeating: the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, over 800 years ago, when a group of scholars left the University of Oxford to start a new academic institution.

Thanks to the work of monks serving in the church of Ely, Cambridge had developed a reputation for academic rigor, making it an ideal area to found a new university. Even as some of the scholars moved on to Paris and Reading, the University of Cambridge continued to grow, eventually gaining a charter from King John (which allowed the institution to discipline its own members and be exempt from some taxes) in 1231. 

The next major accreditation occurred in 1233 when Pope Gregory IX granted Cambridge graduates the right to teach throughout Europe. Later Popes Nicholas IV and John XXII continued to lend credibility to the school, raising its reputation for research and teaching. 

Peterhouse, the first Cambridge College, was founded in 1284 by Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely. Like Peterhouse, several other Colleges were formed over the following centuries by members who wanted to pray for the souls of their founders.

However, over the years, the University moved away from its Catholic roots, thanks in part to the rise of Protestantism and the adoption of scientific methods. The modern era of Cambridge began with the Cambridge University Act of 1856, which introduced a new formal structure to the University and introduced new subjects of study. From that lead, the University has grown to add Colleges devoted to women and mature students (over the age of 21). 

University of Cambridge Acceptance Rate for International Students

Although the University of Cambridge primarily consists of students from the UK, it is a globally recognized school and thus accepts students worldwide. However, because of its unique structure, those rates differ according to many factors. Not only does the University apply different standards to applicants from different countries, taking into account the individual applicant’s situation and educational experience, it also leaves final decisions up to the Colleges. 

The Colleges often take each international applicant one at a time, looking at the applicant’s experience, the demands of the program to which they are applying, and the College’s goals. 

Overall, approximately 6,159 students from overseas applied to study at Cambridge in 2020. 1008 applicants received an offer of admission to study at a Cambridge College, for an international acceptance rate of 21.4%. Of that group, 743 accepted the offers and entered the school, for a percentage of 18.6% of Cambridge students coming from overseas. 

Of those applicants, 19.1% of applicants come from China, and 7.1% come from Hong Kong. 15.5% of Chinese applicants receive offers of admission, as do 15.8% from Hong Kong. Of all major applicant countries, Pakistan has the lowest success rate, as only 3.7% of the 107 hopefuls who apply are accepted. Hungary is the most successful country, with 24.8% of the 105 who apply given offers of acceptance. 

In 2020, 401 potential students from the United States applied to study at Cambridge, making up 5.7% of the school’s overall international applicants. Out of that group, 60 students were given offers to study, making the acceptance rate for US students approximately 15%. 

As those numbers suggest, students from outside of the UK make up a relatively small group of students studying at Cambridge College, but the school works to accept students equally from all over the world.