Cambridge for Undergraduates


Not that Cambridge really needs any more Americans, but…

Last post I wrote about differences between the US and UK postgraduate programs as a surreptitious way to post video clips from The Simpsons. This time I’m going to write about differences between the US and UK (particularly Cambridge mathematics) undergraduate programs as a blatant way to encourage American high school students to consider applying to (Old) Cambridge.

Amid the usual debates about top up fees and better representation of the country, the recent talking point in British education has been the increasing trickle of UK students who opt to study in the US.

The converse, however, remains largely unspoken. To be sure, there’s a popular MIT-Cambridge exchange program, but it’s not very common for American students to commit their entire undergraduate career to study in the UK. (I know of one and a half exceptions.) This may be due to some degree of “stereotypical” ignorance about the rest of the world, but also because it’s a bit harder to imagine Animal House occuring anywhere outside the US.

More pragmatically, people assume that studying abroad would be significantly more expensive than studying in the US. This, however, is not necessarily true. Below are the annual tuition / estimated total cost of an undergraduate education in notable US universities (personally) compared to Cambridge University:

* – Berkeley tuition based on non-resident. (Subtract $18,684 for California residents… Mr. Schwarzenegger, please support California students and the UC system!)
** – For overseas students studying Natural Sciences, subtract £2,808 ~ $5,616 for Mathematics. Exchange rate has been taken to be
£1 = $2. (It’s getting there.)

It is probably true, however, that American students are more likely to get financial support for one of the US universities either via loans or internal/external scholarships. To be sure, however, there are scholarships and finanical aid available to Americans who wish to study in the UK. (By the way, grad students: the NSF fellowship can be used abroad.) Plus, students are automatically covered under the UK National Health Service.

But let’s actually get into the nitty gritty of the differences between a US and UK education. I should preface by apologizing for not being the most knowledgable person on UK undergrad programs: I’ve spent four years in Stanford as an undergraduate and only one term in Cambridge generally avoiding undergraduates. So what I have to say may only be relevant to Cambridge, and perhaps only for students who would be interested in mathematics or physics.

First of all, English undergraduate degrees are usually only 3 years with the option for an ‘honours’ (or M.Sc.) 4th year (Scottish universities are a bit different). In Cambridge and especially for Mathematics/Natural Science students, this is represented by the tripos system. The fourth year of the mathematics tripos, Part III, grants a student a “certificate of advanced study” (something like a M.Sc.) and is the gateway to a Cambridge mathematics Ph.D.

Typically British students focus in on a “major” before their undergraduate years with assessment of secondary education is based primarily on high stakes exams (GCSE, Advance Level). Based on the Cambridge Part IA/B curricula, however, I suspect that an American high school student with a solid background and good AP scores (including Calculus AB and BC) should be able to fit in nicely. Students who have had the benefit of more advanced coursework, such as university courses taken over the summer, may find Part IA repetative.

Such students needn’t worry, however, as things pick up very quickly. Unlike American universities which usually have “general education requirements” mandating a breadth of coursework, English universities such as Cambridge are subject-focused (again, Scottish universities are a bit different). Third-year courses in the mathematics tripos are roughly equivalent to American junior- and senior-level courses in mathematics/physics, while Part III courses are roughly equivalent to all the graduate courses one would ever need to take. Indeed, postgraduate degrees in the UK are usually purely research with no further coursework requirement.

To be fair, the tripos is very rigid. (As the oldest continously taught mathematical course in the world, one might suspect this.) American universities, by comparison, are remarkably laissez faire. A first year student with a strong background could start taking upper level and graduate level courses early on, and indeed many of the most competitive American postgraduate applicants have taken several graduate-level courses***. Even then, however, Part III offers several courses that many schools may not even regularly offer, such as a wide range of fluid dynamics courses that have been forgotten in the US, and Michael Green’s String Theory course… which is technically being taught to undergraduates. It would be very difficult (but possible) to be able to take such a breadth and depth of courses within mathematics/theoretical physics in the US****.

So where’s the give-and-take? Do UK students just study and learn more than their American counterparts? Do they play less*****? Actually, Cambridge students spend a remarkable amount of time doing extracurricular activities including sport(s), community service, and arts. The way I see it, there are three major differences in the way Cambridge works versus US universities that contribute to the above disparity:

  1. Year-end assessment. Unlike anywhere in the US, all assessment in the Mathematics/Natural Science tripos takes the form of year-end exams. That’s right, year-end exams. This means that there is no mandatory homework, no mid-terms, no late night cramming before May, etc. Instead, there is one set of high-stakes exams at the end of the year while students are allowed to study whatever, whenever and however they feel most comfortable. British students will have already honed their skills at preparing for such exams from their experiences with GCSE’s and A-levels.
  2. Tutorial system. Actually, I lied a little. There is some assessment in the form of small group tutorials where the faculty-student ratio is something like 1/3. If you ask me, this is one of the remarkable and amazing benefits of a Cambridge education. The chance to talk through problems in a small group with a professor (or lecturer or fellow or advanced grad student) does wonders for one’s understanding. It’s far more effective than sitting with a bunch of students to ‘write up’ solutions.
  3. Research. One of the unwritten but de facto requirements for grad school admission for US students is undergraduate research experience. For many students, this research becomes the entire raison d’etre for undergraduate coursework: the chance to make progress on the front lines of human knowledge and (probably) play with some cool lab equipment in the process. US research universities and national labs have extensive undergraduate research programs so that their students can contribute to current research. The payoff for the research groups is free grunt-work which can evolve into publishable autonomous research. For the student, a published paper is a gold star for graduate school applications. Further, it’s a chance to really experience what life in academia is like and to decide what particular fields they’d like to pursue. On top of that, one’s professor and graduate students often act as mentors, giving helpful advice and support as one trudges on towards grad school. For students who are keen on an academic career, the opportunity to take part in research early on is priceless. Unfortunately, within the rigid structure and coursework of the Mathematics/Natural Science tripos, there is little room for research. Natural Science students have some limited research experience in their fourth year, though not to the same extent as what a dedicated undergraduate at a US university would have had. Part III Mathematics students have the option to write what is essentially a literature review on current research which can turn into the kernel of a PhD topic. While this is a valuable thing in its own right, it is not quite the same as actual research experience. (“Research is long periods of frustration punctuated by very brief moments of absolute joy,” as one Stanford theoretical physicist once told me.)

I should also include a word on culture. Yes, it’s great to be in another country and experience another culture. Or, in the case of Cambridge, experience several different cultures. But beyond generalities of being “somewhere else,” there are a few notable points about the ‘university culture’ at Cambridge versus what one may experience in the US:

  • No ‘uncivilised’ housing. Before I left Stanford, one of my friends who had studied in Oxford noted that the English would think that Stanford’s undergraduate housing is downright uncivilised. In the US it is typical for undergraduates to at least spend one’s first year in a one-room double. While this is economical for universities, there is a lot of tradition involved with having a college roommate. (Involving, for example, vocabulary such as ‘sexile.’) Perhaps because the English tend to be more culturally guarded of their privacy, a Cambridge student can expect to live in a single. There are obvious benefits of this, but one should also note that many American students become lifelong friends with their old college roommates.
  • Colleges. Oxbridge (+ Durham… sometimes called Doxbridge, but only by Durham students) students are members of the university as a whole, their department, and their college. The college proctors tutorial sessions (see above) and provides a general social context for one’s university experience. The best analogy would be houses in Harry Potter. Harvard ‘houses’ are similar, but not quite as involved as Oxbridge colleges.
  • Getting in. Forget about those SAT scores. English universities are more likely to look at AP exam results (as substitutes for A-levels) and personal/telephone interviews for admissions. So instead of lengthy college essays, one would have an intimidating interview (often involving puzzles or worked problems) with a college fellow (faculty).
  • Getting to know professors. As mentioned in my note on undergraduate research, one benefits significantly from having faculty and graduate student mentors during one’s undergraduate career. Students at US universities tend to get this through undergraduate research and less so from office hours for courses. In Cambridge an undergraduate is primarily under the care of his or her tutor. In addition to getting to know students personally through small group discussions and problem solving, tutors also throw parties where students are invited. The idea of drinking with professors is nearly unthinkable in US universities (where students can’t legally drink until they are 21) and, I suspect, leads to a different kind of personal interaction with faculty mentors.

Anyway, the punchline is that I strongly suggest that any mathematically inclined (including theoretical physics) American high school student consider applying to Cambridge for an undergraduate degree.

Useful websites if you’re interested in studying in Cambridge or anywhere else in the UK:


***- This reminds me of a prospective graduate student my friends and I met when visiting UC Berkeley. The extent of our conversation with him was several iterations of the following:

PGS: Have you taken [graduate level course]
Us: … yes. So where are you fr–
PGS: Me too! So have you taken ….

From that day on we would refer to him as ‘Mitu.’

**** – Another way of putting this is that if one were to plot the breadth\depth of mathematics coursework versus percentage of graduates, Cambridge students would be a narrow (delta-function like) gaussian with a mean, MUK, much greater than American students. However, the American bell curve is much wider, and perhaps the 4+ sigma students greater than MUK. This example was motivated by a terribly geeky t-shirt that I saw someone wearing at CMS.

***** – Contrary to what countless American fratboys might think, UK students probably ingest as much (if not more) alchohol than their American counterparts. This is due both to a healthier pub culture (socialize versus paralyze), the abundance of formal events with wine, and the fact that drinks usually mean hanging out with friends rather than doing keg-stands.

4 Responses to “Cambridge for Undergraduates”

  1. 1 Bill Lovell


    Nice blog and esp. well-written comments on Americans at Cambridge. What a great experience! My 16-year-old daughter is looking at several US colleges for her undergraduate degree, but she’s also open to studying at Cambridge. She’s not a math person, however. She’s more into things like English lit, theology, history, or psychology. Do you recommend these programs as highly as you do the Tripos?

  2. 2 Marat

    Begin the 1.0 of 1.5 above (I assume), I thought I’d try to answer your question. Preemptively, I only met a few theologians in my time in Cambridge, so I don’t have anything to say about that.
    For English literature, throwing modesty to the wind, I think Cambridge is quite possibly the best place in the world to study the subject. It has the greatest concentration of world-ranking critics I can think of with people like John Kerrigan (Shakespeare), Christopher Page (Anglo-Saxon & Medieval), Colin Burrow (Epic & Romance Poetry), and many others. In addition to straight academics, there are plenty of other interesting characters around, such as the head library of Gonville & Caius Library, J.H. Prynne, a poet who was one of head figures of the British Poetry Revival movement of the 70’s. And with 30 colledges, each one having their own manuscript libraries, there are plenty of original sources of find if that is of interest.
    As for the Tripos itself, I think it offers a great balance of required courses and freedom. As opposed to Oxford, where they start at Beowulf (learning Old English), and work their way up through English literature, you have some freedom in the order and what you take. However, unlike most American programs, where as a literature major you can get away with only learning about the few periods you are interested in, the program is designed so that everyone at some point studies the canon from medieval to Victorian British literature.
    Moving on to history, although also a very strong department, I will not rave as much, merely because this being a British university, the course is very Anglo-centric. Unless you want to devote at least half your time to the history of the British Empire, I would think twice about applying to study history here. That being said, I think the history department does manage to attract some not only renowned, but quite interesting fellows. The Professor of East Asian history was until 2 years ago the UK ambassador to China, and probably the best course I attended in my time in Cambridge was “The History and Developement of Intelligence” by the university Professor of Modern history, who is still an active agent of MI-6 (the UK equivalent of the CIA).
    for physiology, I think I need to explain the unusual system Cambridge has. One doesn’t apply to study psychology, but instead Natural Sciences. For the first 2 years, ones is merely a Natural Scientist, and studies a broad range of sciences (3 + mathematics 1st year, 3 or 2 + more mathematics second year). As a prospective psychologist, first year one would likely study chemistry, 2 biology courses and mathematics and second year psychology and 2 other courses depended on intended focus. At the end of the 2nd year one has to apply to be accepted to the particular scientific department, and the last year (or 2 for physical sciences) are spent just on that one science. Having gone through this program myself (although as a physicist), I can highly recommend it.
    However, one thing to note about psychology is that, as you probably gathered above, the program is probably more “rigorously scientific” that the average American program, and designed to produce research scientists. Depending on a persons particular interests, it might be worth considering applying to Social and Political Sciences, and approaching psychology from the side of sociology.

    P.S. Flip: seeing at I’m not sure about the chances of this being read here, perhaps you could forward this on to the email of the comment above.

  3. 3 Amit H.

    Finally someone with experience with Cambridge from the American perspective!

    I don’t know if you’re still maintaining this blog, but if you can help me, I’d really appreciate it. I’m currently a junior in high school who is very interested in applying to Cambridge for Math. Of course, it’s kind of been annoying to plan everything out because their application process is so different. Eventually I settled on applying to Trinity, but like nearly all the colleges, they have stringent testing requirements like A-levels. Fortunately Trinity is willing to use AP’s instead of A-levels, but all math students also have to take a test called STEP. Since the results for those kinds of tests typically don’t come out until August, and most British students take STEP in June of their last year in high school, they effectively would not be able to accept me until August after senior year. I’m also applying to many American schools as well as Cambridge (which have the May 1 deadline for attendance), so the only way I’d be able to apply to Cambridge is if I took STEP June of junior year, a year earlier than others.

    Of course, this is all good in theory, but trying to take STEP here in the US has been a challenge for me. Most of the people I’ve talked to have told me that it’s fairly easy to do, but there have been some untimely delays. Do you know anyone who has experience with taking STEP in the US? I imagine it’s very rare, but if someone has done it, I’d like to hear how.

  4. 4 CC

    Amit H.,

    I am glad I found this blog. I live in the US and just finished taking the STEP exams – I applied to Cambridge in math as well. Usually the way it works is that you apply to Cambridge, and if you get in, they make you a conditional offer – you will have to take STEP and earn specific scores according to whatever they offer. There is a website for STEP at

    If you want practice they have old tests there, and the tab called ‘Marking’ under About the Test describes how they grade. I don’t know if you can take it during your junior year – though that is a good idea.

    Make sure to get started on your application early. If you want to interview outside of England, you have to get the application in by September I think. There is a lot of useful info at the Cambridge website:

    They have sample live interviews here as well. In any case, I know a lot about applying there (AP scores are good, as you mention) so if you need any help, feel free to drop me an email. I hope this helps in regards to STEP. Your best bet is just to contact someone at Cambridge.

    Good luck!!


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