Chances/Advice –– USA Student for HSPS Cambridge

Hello! I would appreciate any advice or feedback on applying for HSPS as a Polish national living in America. I am most interested in International Relations & Sociology.

SAT: (single sitting)
Reading & Writing: 770, Math: 750. Composite: 1520.

World History - 5
US History - 5
Psychology – 5
English Language - 5
French - 5
Spanish - 4

This year I’ll be doing:
US Politics & Government
Human Geography
English Literature
Spanish Literature
Environmental Science
Calculus AB (I have decided to possibly take the BC test also (self-study) – should I indicate this on UCAS? Or should I just stick with AB and hope it won’t hurt me?).

My GPA is 4.0 (UW) and my overall grades are around 97.

I know that my recommendation is strong, but my teacher probably wrote it in a US style, and didn’t provide predicted grades. (Is it possible to ask her to change this if she already submitted the reference?)

I appreciate any insight –– please be as harsh as you can. Cambridge (Downing) is my dream, but I’d like to know how hopeful I should be. Any advice for interview would also be amazing!

Based on their website, as a graduate of a USA high school, you need at least five AP tests with a 5, a high ACT/SAT score, and a good GPA. So you are at 2/3 of the requirements, though they probably would prefer that 5 on AP Calc. However, you still need a high SAT or ACT score.

I do not think that you need “predicted grades” - that’s for the A levels, and you will be applying using USA requirements, but I may be wrong.

I would also recommend that you provide your letter writers with the information they need for writing a letter of recommendation for Cambridge.

Their acceptance rate is 18%, so it will be challenging, but I would say that, if you get high test scores, you will be competitive.

Good luck!!

paging @Twoin18 or @collegemom3717

Your reference should include predicted grades and they had better all be 5s. It also needs to say words to the effect of “this is the best social studies student I’ve taught in the last decade”. A reference written in US style, especially one talking mostly about ECs, is a very bad idea. Your PS needs to discuss your academic interests and explain the match with the UK.

You barely scrape over the minimum of five 5s and your SAT is lowish compared to their expectations. You are also on the light side with some of your AP choices (eg APES is an easy option compared to Phys/Chem/Bio). But I wouldn’t try to do Calc BC if you aren’t being taught it (how would you have a prediction then?). Having said that any offer might still be unconditional because I don’t see any real need for them to condition it on math or similar. And none of this is a complete showstopper when it comes to getting an interview.

Broadly speaking Cambridge is more skeptical of Americans than Oxford, in large part because their experience has been that unless they have British parents, many Americans who are made an offer decide not to attend, which they hate (that was first hand from my college’s admissions tutor at a reunion). In contrast their offer acceptance rate for domestic students is about 98%, and it’s not much less for countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. So they hold Americans to a higher standard, especially during interview. It will help a bit that you are of European origin, simply because they will view you as more likely to attend. That means your probability of getting an offer isn’t very high, but no one can estimate it precisely.


The 18% admissions rate is deceptive. The acceptance rate for UK students is ~21%, whereas the acceptance rate for international students is about 13% overall- and for US students is about 10%. Further, the offer rate for HSPS is ~13%. So, compared to a US college with an acceptance rate of ~18% , where say a Georgetown or a USC would seem like a reasonable possibility, Cambridge is a horse of a different color.

I agree with @Twoin18 that your course choices are relatively light. Both World & Human Geo are “survey” courses, and are seen as less rigorous than US or Euro Hx. Obviously I don’t know what your options were, but Comp Gov would signal an interest in IR more clearly than US Gov.

You do need to have predictions for your APs senior year, and it’s typically your recommender. There is info on the UCAS site on how to write the LoR - if your recommender has already submitted the LoR and can’t edit it, that’s water under the bridge, but if they haven’t submitted or are able to edit, there is still a day and a half.

Which leaves your PS, Supplementary Questionnaire, and piece of graded work, and there is no way for us to know how strong they are. It is important that your PS demonstrates a serious academic interest in the course. Have you done any reading in either soc or IR outside of school requirements? the HSPS website has suggested background readings- have you read any of them? When our Oxbridge kid looked at the comparable page for her subject she was delighted to find that she had already read a fair few of them, just out of interest in the field. Or, do you read magazines like Foreign Policy or newspapers like The Economist on a regular basis? Oxbridge really does look for students who are seriously into the subject that they are applying to study.

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Thank you so much for the insightful answer. Unfortunately, my school offers neither European History nor Comparative Government, and won’t allow me to self-study as they don’t want to pay for a proctor. As for my Personal Statement, I’ve tried my best to show my academic interest –– and I have done a lot of outside reading in areas related to the course. Do you know if there is a way to get someone to look over my PS? Or is that not allowed? Again, thank you; I really appreciate you taking the time to help me.

Thank you for your response. I’ve written to my teacher and asked her to edit her letter, so if that’s a possibility –– and she gets back to me –– I’ll have predicted 5s for everything. I don’t think she talked about ECs, though, thankfully, so at least the letter will be closer to what is expected. As for my PS –– should I just explicitly state why I want to study in the UK specifically? For me, it’s always been a given: I’m a European, so I want to study in Europe. For my SAT, I know it’s quite low, but since I don’t want to do it a second time (I know re-dos look bad) I was hoping my higher score in R&W would work for me. And as for Calc BC, my school has a policy where the best AB students are able to study for the BC test starting in January. I’ve spoken with my teacher, and he’s happy to let me do it, as he thinks I’d be able to get a 5. Should I include it on UCAS, then? Thank you!

They are not especially interested in why you want to go to the UK- they want to know about why you want to study this course, and are you suited to it? It’s about the fit. You can highlight what sparked your interest in the field, then note how you acted on that interest (eg, activities, outside readings), and how you want to pursue that interest. I trust you’ve taken a deep dive and read everything online, on the University / College / course webpages, and taken a look at the academic interests of the HSPS tutors at Downing?

I wouldn’t be quite that explicit. But perhaps something indirect like “Given my European heritage I am particularly interested in studying X, Y and Z parts of the course”. And then just be prepared to expand on those interests at interview (and you’d better know your stuff if they ask you about X, Y and Z).

That probably makes sense. However it’s quite possible that it could be specified in any conditional offer.

I have, though I’ll definitely review the Downing HSPS tutors in greater depth before my interview –– if I receive it. I’ve done my best to include everything else you mentioned and I do truly have a passion for the subjects, so I hope that will be recognized. One last question if you’d be so kind: is it alright if my PS is written with American grammar/spelling? I feel like it should be, but it’s struck me that I don’t actually know for sure.

Thank you for the advice! Would you happen to know whether it’s at all possible I’d be given an unconditional offer, given I already meet all of the minimum requirements, or is that unlikely? Also, would you be aware of any good resources to prepare for an interview? I think I’d be able to have a deep and interesting conversation about my PS, but I’m completely unsure as to what the discussion around the unseen article/excerpt will look like.

Yes it’s possible to get an unconditional offer if they want you. I think that’s more likely than not.

As far as interview goes, very likely the PS won’t be mentioned, except perhaps as a quick icebreaker if something stands out (“So you row? That’s great, the boat club always needs new talent”). They tend to focus on a standard set of questions asked to all candidates to ensure fairness. Usually two per interviewer in case one goes off the rails. All are difficult and designed to see how deep you can go in exploring the issue. For example a politics question might be “look at this map of Europe” showing political opinions by country on some topic. Why does it differ between X and Y? And then you might get into a discussion about the effect of the EU or Communism or whatever on these opinions. The idea is to ask something you won’t know the answer to, and see how you reason your way through it.

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I don’t think that would be an issue. Better to write using the system you’re used to rather than risk making mistakes using a less familiar form (e.g., practice vs. practise).

Check YouTube for mock Oxbridge interviews (my D22 watched a few when she applied last year). I did a quick search and found one for HSPS:

Good luck!

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For what it’s worth, my son had all of the necessary requirements in the bag when he received his Oxford offer letter, but it was still a standard conditional offer. He submitted all of his SAT/AP scores to his college admissions officer through the College Board and two weeks later, he received his unconditional offer letter.

And don’t forget the deadline is 1800 UK time. So waiting until tomorrow to submit is a bad idea.

Yeah, I know. I took everyone’s advice and got my teacher to include predicted grades (all 5s, even for BC Calculus) but I’m waiting for her to submit the letter. I should have it in by tonight, but she’s a little difficult to communicate with, so I’m hoping for the best. Thank you for all of the help and willingness to answer my questions –– I appreciate it greatly. Even if I don’t get in, this has definitely been an enlightening experience: I definitely wish I’d gone to school in the UK. Thank you again!

That’s useful to know, thank you!

Thank you –– I appreciate the help!

I just got an invite to interview! It’s on December 1st so I’m very stressed out. Hoping it goes well, though. I was only invited to one subject interview, though. Is that typical for online/overseas interviews? And if there’s only one, will it last longer than the typical 20-25 minutes?

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Oh, and I’m assuming mine will be mainly based around democracy because that’s what I focused on in my Personal Statement and that’s the research interest of my interviewer –– is it better to go in depth on a few points or illustrate my understanding of a vast array of different causes/effects but with less depth?