Computer Laboratory

Common myths and preconceptions about Cambridge Computer Science (covering admissions, the subject as it is taught and the prospects of graduates)

Disclaimer: This document contains the opinions of two people, both College Directors of Studies. They should not be taken as definitive. Official information can be found in the University's Undergraduate Prospectus, the various college prospectuses and by directly contacting your preferred college. The University is not responsible for any action by any person consequent to any access of this information.

Introduction

We spend quite a lot of time talking to people about applying to study Computer Science at Cambridge. There are some questions that crop up frequently. We also hear anecdotally of myths and preconceptions surrounding the subject, particularly concerning the applications process. This page is an attempt to counter some of those. It mentions A-levels and GCSEs, but most of it also applies to people taking alternative qualifications (IB, Scottish Highers, other National qualifications).

GCSE grades

The admissions process does not rely on any single measure of success and we will take a number of factors into account. There is a modest correlation between GCSE performance and University performance so the Colleges pay a little attention to your GCSE record, but they moderate their view based on your school's overall record. The better your school, the better they will expect you to have done. As a guideline, you should have more A grades than Bs and Cs combined and you should have no grade Ds or below (although that is not a hard-and-fast rule as we can all have blindspots). If you come from a school with a record of high academic achievement, then you will be expected to have at least a few A* grades. We have had successful applicants without a single A*.

A-levels

Most applicants and admitted students have done three subjects to A2 level. Most Cambridge admissions tutors agree that it is better to do three A-levels well (in relevant subjects) than four or five badly. If you want to impress us, it is better to concentrate on getting 3 A-levels with good module scores (if doing modular A-levels) than to do extra A-levels. If you do have time left over get some experience relevant to the subject, or pursue some sporting or cultural activity. If you are already doing four A-levels, then a College may well make an offer based on four, rather than three, A-levels.

Independent vs State schools

Some people assert that applicants from independent schools have a greater chance of being accepted. Other people will assert that because the Cambridge admissions process takes into account the average performance of the school that applicants from independent schools actually have a lower chance of being accepted. We intend that our admissions process selects candidates who have the greatest potential to do well in our subject regardless of their school. This is a complex issue and there are many reasons why the balance of independent school versus state maintained school students at Cambridge does not match the proportion in the population. We do not believe that our admissions process is one of those reasons. Many of us working in this area would refuse to participate if we believed that it was discriminatory.

Which newspaper you read

Some myths perpetuate that we find quite bizarre. For example, there is a myth that we care about which newspaper you read. Some people believe that you will stand a better chance at interview if you walk in with a copy of the Telegraph (or, alternatively, The Guardian) under your arm. This presumably comes from the image of Cambridge as old fashioned and fusty (or, alternatively, full of trendy lefties). The national press can't seem to decide what we are, but we certainly don't recognise ourselves. Many subjects do care that you have opinions and do care that you are able to defend them intelligently (whatever they are) – this isn't enormously relevant to Computer Science as it isn't that kind of subject. In short – we don't care which newspaper you read, if any. We don't much care about which books you read, although if you claim in your personal statement to be a big fan of Finnegans Wake then it might be commented upon. We don't particularly care whether you turn up in a suit and a tie, or covered from head to foot in tattoos with multiple facial piercings.

Latin

Cambridge stopped requiring Latin a very, very long time ago (long before GCSEs even existed). Most of the staff cannot read, write or speak Latin, so it would be rather bizarre to expect the students to.

Geographical bias

The majority of the people who apply to us live relatively close to Cambridge, because of the travel time between home and Cambridge. Therefore it's not surprising that many of our students are from the south of England. However, we also have large numbers of students from the north of England, and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have taken students from practically every other country in the world as well.

Open applications

An Open application is neutral, it will offer neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.

Scary Interviews

We admit, you might find our interviews scary. Some people do and there is not much we can do about that – but it isn't a Cambridge-specific thing, you might find admissions interviews scary no matter where you go. We hope that ours are no worse than elsewhere. Remember – everyone is in the same boat, and the interviewers are looking for reasons to take you. We understand that some degree of nervousness is inevitable and will try to put you at your ease and take that into account. Furthermore, interviews are only one of the factors we will be using to make a decision.

Computer Science, Computing, Computer Studies, ICT and Information Technology – are they all the same thing?

There is unfortunately a lot of confusion over these terms in the general population and in schools, and people who should know better use them as if they were interchangeable. Computer Science is the study of information and computation. The other terms are more vocational and mostly describe training courses in how to use particular pieces of software. Think of it this way: someone with an ICT qualification will know how to use a program like Word. Someone with a Computer Science qualification will know how to create a program like Word, and will also know how to make it easier to use, how to make it work on a variety of machines, how to make it easy to add additional functionality, how to fix bugs in it, how to make it communicate with other pieces of hardware or software, how to market it and how to deal with any legal or copyright problems with it. They will understand the theoretical basis underlying the program. They will also know how to do a million other things besides. Not just now, but throughout their working career.

Computing and Information Technology A levels

Most of the A-level qualifications in this area are designed to teach useful skills to people intending to go into areas other than Computer Science. Some training in how to use Word, Excel, or other utilities is likely to be of some benefit to people studying a wide range of subjects other than ours. Some of the Computing A-levels are helpful (the ones which teach the scientific and mathematical side of the subject) and some are not (the ones that emphasise vocational skills). There is no requirement to take any AS- or A2-level computing courses, whatever they are called. We would, on the whole, prefer a candidate with an AS- or A2 in Further Maths (if offered by your school) to any of the Computer Science, Computer Studies or Information Technology A-levels.

Further Maths A level

Many schools do not offer Further Maths, and so to be fair we cannot make it an A-level requirement. If your school does offer Further Maths then we strongly recommend that you take it, either to AS- or A2- level. We have found that a strong Maths background correlates well with University performance in our subject. If you have the opportunity to study it but decide to take some other subject instead (particularly if that other subject is not a Science subject) then you will face some questioning to determine whether you are really serious about studying Computer Science.

Computer Science – is it all about playing games/designing websites/using ready-made packages like Word/programming etc?

Computer Science as a subject suffers from a lack of understanding in the general public. People see the word "Computer" in Computer Science and think the subject relates to their own experience of computers, which for most people is games, websites, maybe applications like Microsoft Office. There is a lot more to it than that. Those with a little more experience might think that the subject is all about programming – there is certainly an element of that, just as it is helpful to speak English in order to study English literature. Hopefully the other pages on this website will convince you that there is a great deal more to the subject than that.

Isn't Computer Science just for students that have programmed before?

Many if not most of our applicants will have had some experience of programming in some form, to some extent, in some language. But some have not, and we wouldn't want to discourage you if you have not. As mentioned above, some people think that there is nothing more to the subject and that you shouldn't apply to study Computer Science if you have no experience of programming just in case you turn out to be no good at it. Alternatively you might think that everyone else will have done a great deal and that you will be so disadvantaged that you will never catch up. In truth most of our students have done very little, simple things using maybe a little Basic, Java, sometimes some C or C++. Some have used Access or Excel as part of an A-level project. Some have used php or perl in designing websites (incidentally, we do not regard html as a programming language, it's really just text with a few simple additions). It is true that some will have taught themselves a language such as C and used it a great deal, but they are relatively rare, and to be honest they may well have taught themselves what we would regard as "bad practices" that they will have to unlearn. We start by teaching a language that few if any will have even heard of let alone used – so all our students start off at roughly the same level, and we build from there.

Girls and Geeks!

Some of our students are geeks, and proud of it. Some of our students (the majority) are not. Some of our students are female. Some of them are also geeks. It takes all sorts. Geekiness is not an admissions criterion.

If you want to work in IT aren't you better off going straight into it after A-levels rather than wasting 3 years at University?

You used to hear people saying this, particularly in the Computer Games industry. It used to be possible to go into this area at 18 and to earn a respectable salary. This is not really the case anymore as employers who might once have taken on unqualified people have realised that they require higher level skills, such as those provided by a Computer Science degree. Even if someone did find a job at 18 earning a respectable salary they would find it difficult to progress without proper qualifications, and a salary that looks attractive at 18 is less attractive at 25, 30, 35 etc. A degree in Computer Science gives you prospects and far wider horizons.

Computer Science graduate prospects

Of our recent graduates, around half go into the IT sector, a fifth into banking and investment, a further fifth go on to research degrees at Cambridge and elsewhere, and the final tenth into a wide range of other jobs. Computer Science is the intellectual foundation of future sciences and economics, i.e. doing a CS degree is not just learning a trade – it might be preparation for a future Nobel Prize!

Will I learn skills useful for employment?

Some people worry that our course has too much of a theoretical bias and that they will not actually learn any marketable skills. In fact our graduates are highly sought after by industry: at our 2006 recruitment fair, 47 companies large and small paid to be present for the chance to recruit our graduates. Between those companies they were looking to fill more than 5 times as many graduate-level vacancies than we had graduating students, and they were adamant that our graduates were the ones that they really wanted. The course does indeed have a large theoretical component, but we believe it is both worthy of study in itself and a necessary foundation for the more practical components.

Money!

The newspapers sometimes publish figures that give the impression that Computer-related jobs are poorly paid. It is usually because they bundle people doing low-skill IT jobs (data entry, call-centre, etc) in with people with Computer Science degrees, and this lowers the average. If you only look at graduates then a very different picture emerges. People with a Computer Science degree have earning power on average second only to those taking Medicine or Law (depending on how you interpret the figures).

Aren't CS/IT jobs all being outsourced to India or elsewhere?

The job market for graduate Computer Scientists is both healthy and rapidly expanding. Some high-end, engineering, research and development posts have indeed been outsourced, although the majority of the jobs that have gone are at the lower-skill end of the scale. The market for graduate Computer Scientists worldwide is healthy, and in this country demand continues to far outstrip supply.