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The CSAT and Practice[+] are designed by the Climb Foundation to help candidates. We are advocates for more opportunity to shine and less opportunity to fail, and we strive to level the playing field.

The Computer Laboratory

What is the CSAT?

The Computer Science Admissions Test (CSAT) is a written test used by a number of Cambridge University colleges for Computer Science admissions.

Why should you want to sit the CSAT?

tl;dr − if the interview doesn't go well, the CSAT can save you; it did others. It's another chance. In fact, it's far more than that! We designed it to help you. Literally! Ok, fine, it also helps the colleges who use it to find the candidates who deserve a place, i.e. you.

- It awards only your best solutions;
- It awards only your approach, ignoring algebraic or silly mistakes;
- It contains questions on a great variety of topics (see the past and sample papers);
- You get to choose which questions you want to answer;
- You have time to think, in silence.

In other words: it's very different from the interview, or from a shortlisting test you may have to sit before the interview.

Simply put, if the interview doesn't go well, the CSAT can save you. If the interview does go well, the CSAT can be ignored. Both scenarios happened every year. The college wants to find those candidates who deserve a place and the CSAT offers more information about what you can do. You're less likely to be missed out on. See more in the FAQ.

In short, you should want to sit the CSAT! Read what relevant individuals have to say:

  • I know of current undergrads who would have been rejected if it hadn't been for the CSAT. That's one reason it was created and why we want to help you. It has questions on many different topics. You can choose which questions to answer. It considers only your best answers. It awards only your approach, ignoring wrong algebra. There is no such thing as "failing the CSAT", but there is such a thing as "done something/well in the CSAT", and you CAN do well! We all want you to. Yes, really!

    • Dr Bogdan Roman
    • CSAT creator
  • CSAT provides a good complement to the skills tested at interview. It has allowed us to gather valuable additional information about candidates' academic ability and thus greatly improve selection, particularly at the pool stage. It has been a valuable additional way for us to assess capable candidates who may not necessarily shine at interview.

    • Dr Richard Watts
    • Director of Studies
  • While applying to Cambridge I was most worried that I may get a very difficult interview question or not understand it at all. Thanks to the CSAT, I could choose questions from the set of 20 that best demonstrated my skills and not worry that I really have to excel at the one question I am going to get at the interview.

    • Pawel Burzynski
    • 2nd year undergraduate
  • The CSAT really gives you a second chance. I prefer quietly thinking about questions rather than having to come up with an answer on the spot with two senior academics next to me. If i am stuck on a question, I could move to another question, returning to it when I have a new idea! Contrary to my expectations, the CSAT was a more pleasant experience than my interview and I'm glad I sat it. It also allowed me to have the reassurance that if either the interview or the CSAT goes poorly, I can demonstrate my ability at the other one, which has calmed down my nerves about the entire process overall.

    • Richie Yeung
    • 3rd year undergraduate
  • The CSAT makes the admissions process fairer. Relying on interviews alone can lead to applicants who don't do well in face-to-face conversations falling through the cracks. The CSAT gives those applicants an opportunity to show they have the right skills by showing insight in written answers. I believe it's much better at this than other tests because we actually award marks for insight rather than perfect answers.

    • Dylan McDermott
    • PhD student & CSAT team member
  • I believe the CSAT is a great opportunity for applicants to show their abilities in a longer written format and with questions they like. It's not important whether the answer is wrong or right. We want to see how a candidate thinks about a problem. This allows us to identify the candidates who we believe deserve a place. It's a very different format to the interviews. Having more information about each candidate means the admissions teams are less likely to miss an applicant who deserves a place!

    • Alex Chadwick
    • PhD student & CSAT team member
  • When I was interviewed in 2015, my college didn't require CSAT. Therefore, I never looked at it before coming to Cambridge. Having now discussed the CSAT with students from other colleges, and having looked at the questions myself, I wish I had. It's not only great to show you'll be good at the kinds of topics taught in the CompSci course, but it's also a great way to check if those topics interest you - and that's what matters, both for your degree but also for the CSAT marking criteria. Incorrect answers can still attain full marks, if the intuition is correct! Looking back, it probably would have been better for me if I'd taken the CSAT.

    • Tom Benn
    • 3rd year undergraduate
  • Mature Colleges such as Wolfson are especially keen on assessing applicants from as many different countries as possible, but it is not easy to keep track of what mathematical and computer science content our applicants may have been formally taught before we interview them. The CSAT is a great help in that regard − candidates choose questions that relate to material they are familiar with, which helps both them and us. While colleges work hard to ensure that our admissions process is fair, many applicants find the prospect of interviews quite daunting. Our interviewers are trained to help calm candidates down and guide them through the questions we ask, but we can only cover a limited amount of material in a 25 minute or 40 minute interview. By contrast, the CSAT lets applicants decide which questions to answer and in what order. The CSAT gives them much more time and opportunity to "shine" and impress us − not just by solving a range of questions they choose themselves but also by giving them a great deal of freedom in how they approach their answers.

    • Dr Chris Town
    • Director of Studies
  • The CSAT can be challenging but if you could do something during the CSAT, even the easiest question, it will present you in a better light than not sitting the CSAT. Also, unlike the interview, no one was staring at me during the CSAT, so I felt more comfortable and it helped me think better.

    • Dobrik Georgiev
    • 3rd year undergraduate
  • We design the CSAT because we want to get information about your true abilities. We look for your insights and abilities on questions that require thinking, not recipes or tricks, giving more applicants an equal footing. Having better data about you when making an admission decision can never disadvantage you. With only interview data, you will find yourself ranked in a group of k applicants with similar abilities, where decisions in the absence of better data become significantly more subjective. The CSAT is there to improve this.

    • Dr Lucian Carata
    • CSAT team member
  • Unlike the interview, the CSAT gives you control over the questions you want to answer. As long as you have the right idea then it rewards you even though you might make careless mistakes. I am more comfortable thinking in silence while solving questions, difficult or not, so the CSAT is definitely more appealing than the interview, during which I had to constantly speak my thoughts out loud.

    • Albert Bui
    • 3rd year undergraduate
  • I always enjoy setting questions, trying other people's questions, and marking the responses we get. We aim for every question to be an opportunity for students to show us several different insights, and I especially like to see answers where someone has worked through the various steps. Even if they haven't given the right answer, they've often shown us exactly the skills and ability we're looking for, and it's satisfying to be able to reward that. I hope that, despite all the stress, students manage to enjoy the questions in the same way I do trying them out and refining them to the finished article!

    • Philip Saville
    • PhD student & CSAT team member
  • I found the CSAT very useful for the interviewers to go through it with me during the interview. This allowed me to discuss my strong solutions, explain which I had trouble with and why, and further demonstrate the problem solving ability to other questions I had not attempted. The choice in the test is also another very useful feature since not all interviewees will have had education in the same topics and this choice lets candidates attempt those questions most relevant to them. It works well alongside the interview since some candidates may not perform their best under the pressure of interviews. The CSAT can be a fallback and an enhancement.

    • Andrew Jeffery
    • 3rd year undergraduate
  • The point of interviews is to bring candidates a new challenge and test their problem solving skills. If a problem is too familiar to them then it doesn't matter how hard/easy it is. I saw the CSAT as a good supplement to the interview. The interviews on their own had the problem of "bad luck": since they only ask a couple of questions the candidate may not get a chance to prove themselves. The CSAT provides a much wider pool of problems to identify the different skills of candidates from varied backgrounds. It also provides "shy" candidates a different environment to perform. I appreciated that the CSAT required me to think more than anything and that it is non-standard. This made me much more relaxed and I felt it was a test of my skills as I knew I could rely on my own strengths. Standardised tests, however, do not obtain the same results. As soon as a written test becomes too standardised − e.g. by using multiple-choice questions, a very clear curriculum, very clear format etc − it becomes mechanised, and students can find shortcuts to optimise their grades.

    • Andrei-Vlad Badelita
    • 3rd year undergraduate
See all

Colleges using the CSAT (alphabetical order)

If you apply to one of the above colleges and are shortlisted for interview then you will be sitting the CSAT, on the day of the interview. You would be making a great choice! You would show more skills with questions of your choosing.

Note: You may be required to sit another test 1-2 months before the interview, designed to shortlist candidates for the interview. The Climb Foundation is not involved in this test. For more information about this aspect please contact the College you are applying to.

Learn and improve. The Practice Platform!

Do you want to learn how to think and reason about non-trivial Mathematical and Computer Science questions, or to improve your skills, or to prepare for the CSAT? Well, without further ado, head over to the CSAT Practice Platform. We think you'll love it.

There also exist other relevant preparation/practice material available online, which we describe separately here.

How does the CSAT look?

You need to answer only a subset of questions, and you can choose which questions to answer, i.e. the questions you feel most comfortable with. This allows you to show what you like and what your strengths are! You don't have to answer algorithm questions if you enjoy pure maths more, or vice versa. We think freedom of choice is vital, especially for CompSci, which is why we designed the CSAT in this manner. Candidates with different strengths (e.g. pure maths vs algorithmic thinking) can equally excel in different CompSci areas. Have a look at CSAT sample and past papers:

Traditionally the CSAT has had two sections, the second section being more challenging. We are considering a slight change in overall structure starting with 2019, which would be announced here, but fundamentally the nature and style of the questions will remain unchanged so all of the above papers are fully relevant.

Knowledge. The knowledge required is from the syllabus you will have covered in school by the time of your Cambridge interview. There is enough choice for all candidates regardless of the school system you attended − don't worry if you see a question relying on knowledge you haven't covered in school, just choose a different one.

Style. CSAT questions are more variate than what you meet in school exams, and will seem more exotic. They require reasoning and depth of thought rather than just applying mathematical recipes. It is marked in the same way too: we look at the approach you applied and the line of reasoning you used, and ignore algebraic or silly mistakes. You can literally get full marks with the completely wrong answer!

Difficulty. The CSAT is not meant to be an easy test or a general aptitude test. This is fully to your advantage! Silly mistakes are more common on easy tests among quality candidates (you tend to rush easy stuff so you can get to the juicy stuff!) and thus silly mistakes would be more costly for you. More importantly, easy tests don't allow good candidates to stand out, so it would be risky for you. General aptitude tests do not go in depth into relevant technical/scientific skills so again it would be risky for you. The CSAT doesn't care about silly mistakes − we're quite adept at identifying during marking that you know what you're doing even if you botched the entire solution; it offers you another chance to show actual thinking skills in relevant technical areas but with questions of your choosing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why shouldn't I discuss the CSAT questions with anyone else?

Interviews at all colleges happen over a few weeks in December, then also in January and March, and many colleges spread their interviews over multiple days. Thus, most candidates sit the CSAT on different days. Colleges have access to the CSAT results of both their own candidates and other Colleges' candidates. Discussing the questions with someone else (in or outside Cambridge, on the Internet etc) will help other candidates to get higher scores than yours. In other words, discussing the CSAT questions with others will harm your own prospects.

If I do well in the interview but less so in the CSAT, or vice versa, would I be unlikely to receive an offer? Must I ace both?

No, you do not need to ace both. We designed the CSAT to help you, not to stop you. We want you to do well, not badly, and it is an opportunity, not an obstacle. We know how stressful interviews are, and that they are not the perfect evaluation tool: there is too little time and you are all very nervous.

As described above, the CSAT is here to allow you to show more skills besides the interview in a different setting, but with questions of your choosing. Yes, there were candidates saved by the CSAT as the interview went badly, and yes, there were candidates whose CSAT didn't matter as the interview went swell. Colleges will at least pool you if you have a good CSAT score even if you have a bad interview score.

How many CSAT questions can I mess up before messing up my chances of receiving an offer?

Really? That's not how the CSAT works :). Unlike pre-interview tests which are designed to deselect (shortlist) candidates for interview, i.e. which you must pass in order to get to the interview, the CSAT is designed to select suitable candidates. You will be evaluated on what you can do, not what you can't or what you did wrong. The CSAT allows you to choose which questions to answer. It is there to offer you another chance to shine besides the interview, and in a much less stressful setting. It's not there to catch you out.

Is there a minimum CSAT score for being considered for an offer?

Nope. There is no such thing as a passing mark. The CSAT does not shortlist or deselect candidates. Each CSAT script is considered individually, like the interview. Every college ranks its candidates after considering all elements of each application holistically. Most colleges used various in-house written tests in the past. The CSAT provides a more relevant metric for comparison, but most importantly it is there to help you. We can't stress that enough! Actually, we probably can ...

Must I cover advanced material not seen in school?

Nope. We don't expect you to. In fact, we encourage you to sharpen your current skills rather than learn new (advanced, university level) concepts before applying. You'll be taught those anyway. All CSAT questions' solutions can be worked out using school level knowledge!