Cambridge announces new entrance exams for undergraduates

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The University of Cambridge has announced that it is instituting entrance exams for incoming undergraduates.

Each test will be tailored specifically to a certain subject and will be administered either pre-interview or at-interview, depending on the course. The purpose of these tests are to provide admissions tutors with more evidence of an hopeful students’ abilities and potential to succeed.

Cambridge officials emphasized that these tests are a holistic part of the application process; they will be evaluated in addition to writing samples, applications, transcripts, a-level exams and interviews. While exams for each subject differ, they will commonly include a language aptitude and thinking-skills assessment and have both a multiple choice and essay component. The university states that no specific preparation is needed for the exams.

This new testing policy is in response to grade inflation around the UK, particularly with A-level exams. According to the university, teacher and student feedback has indicated a need to develop new ways to measure students’ qualifications during the admissions process.Cambridge professor of experimental psychiatry, Barbara Sahakian, told the Sunday Times: “What people are concerned about is whether the A-level exam results still mean quite the same thing as they used to mean. There are a lot of students getting very high grades but not all of them would have got those grades in the past, so it is hard to discriminate between candidates.”

This new evaluation system does raise some concerns. Some argue that wealthier students would be put at an advantage, as they would have the money to pay for preparation courses. Additionally, some subjects are very difficult to test without background knowledge. Subjects like classics, which emphasizes knowledge in Greek and Latin, are not taught in public institutions. Therefore, less privileged applicants would have less preparation or background knowledge of a subject than their privately-educated peers.
An Oxford tutorial fellow of English stated that she does not think that Cambridge’s new policy will impact the University of Oxford or its application process. Oxford currently administers pre-interview admissions assessments for most of its subjects. These assessments are aptitude based, as opposed to knowledge based. The professor also stated that these assessments may actually offer an advantage to applicants in less advantageous situations. Other elements of the application process, like writing samples and transcripts, may be influenced greatly by teachers or the institutions. Aptitude tests, alternatively, offer students a chance to showcase their natural abilities with no direct help. While preparation and unfairness may still occur, the results of the test are more likely to highlight a student’s potential. If Cambridge’s testing system is similar, the fellow suggested, then this additional step in the process may potentially be positive for some applicants.