Cambridge University ‘plans to bring back entrance exams’

The Sunday Times is reporting that Cambridge University is planning to reintroduce a universal entrance exam because what it calls ‘the glut of top-grade A-levels’ is making it hard to identify the brightest students.

The paper reports that Cambridge is considering a test that would be taken by all applicants while they are still at school to help screen candidates after AS-levels are scrapped next September (apparently five candidates – most predicted top grades at A-level – apply for each place at the university).

The proposed exam, they suggest, would involve a language aptitude test and a thinking-skills assessment, with multiple choice questions, along with a 45-minute essay.

Barbara Sahakian, professor of experimental psychiatry, is quoted:

“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.”

The article goes on to report concerns from some at how such a move would disadvantage state school students – who would be less likely to be coached or prepared for the exam than their peers at private schools – and points out that the proportion of state school students at the university has risen from 50% to 60% since the previous entrance exam was abolished in 1986.

The paper also notes that no final decision has been made of reintroducing a university-wide entrance exam, quoting a university spokesman:

“The university is considering all options but has made no decisions. We already use admissions tests for some subjects and the option of introducing wider testing is part of discussions about how to adapt to [A-level reforms]. 

“Whatever decision is taken, all applicants will continue to be assessed holistically.”

More at: Cambridge brings back entrance exams (subscription may be required)


Or maybe – knock, knock, hello – everyone could just apply to university AFTER THEY’VE GOT THEIR A-LEVEL RESULTS which would eliminate the need for AS-level results (which Cambridge seems to claim to be the cause of the problem here), remove any distractions during the second year of A-level and avoid swinging the pendulum back in favour of private school pupils?

Or is the issue less about A-level reforms and the scrapping of AS-levels, and more that they don’t actually trust A-level results anymore, believing they are unable to discriminate at the upper level? There seems to be a some mixed messaging coming out here.

Where do you stand on this and what do you think of the prospect of Cambridge bring back an entrance exam? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…


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Categories: Higher Education.


  1. Gwenelope

    SchoolsImprove AS Levels are not ‘scrapped’ but de-coupled from the A-Level. Most schools & colleges doing AS yr 1, A-Level year 2.

  2. peterabarnard

    SchoolsImprove Hopefully most people will have far more important concerns given that A level is a measure in time and unreliable anyway…

  3. Most sensible suggestion is for applicants to wait until they’ve had their A level results to apply for uni.  In the longer term, if graduation moved to 18 via multiple routes which credited all achievement eg formal exams, activities such as Young Enterprise, DoE Award, sport, theatrical and musical participation, membership of and attendance at groups like Scouts, etc unis would have a better idea of the personality, aptitude and potential of candidates.

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