Computer Science extends from the physical principles upon which digital computers work to the mathematical understanding of the semantics of computation.
In Cambridge, Computer Science covers the principles of programming, operating systems, computer networks, artificial intelligence and numerous other topics.
The study of Computer Science is also concerned with understanding the theoretical basis of the subject. In consequence, the course is designed to provide not only advanced practical experience but also to give an understanding of fundamental principles which will outlast today's technology.
The first year of the standard Cambridge Computer Science course provides a thorough grounding in two programming languages (ML and Java) and Discrete Mathematics and Software Design.
There are also two alternative options for the first year. Students can choose either to study:
- One Mathematics paper and three Computer Science papers (the '75% Option'), or
- Two Computer Science papers, one Mathematics paper, and one further paper from a range of options (the '50% Option'). The range of options includes:
- Computer Science with Mathematics
- Computer Science with Psychology
- Computer Science with Physics
- Computer Science with Chemistry
- Computer Science with Earth Sciences
- Computer Science with Physiology
- Computer Science with Evolution and Behaviour
In the second year; a wider range of topics is covered. A number of major exercises are set and assessed; these include a Group Project where undergraduates are given an opportunity to work in very much the same way as they would in an enlightened software house.
In the third year, a number of advanced applications are covered and a substantial Project is undertaken which culminates in the writing of a dissertation.
In terms of teaching arrangements, first-year Computer Science students attend 12 one-hour lectures each week and undertake about 6 hours of formal practical work. Typically they will have four College Supervisions each week in addition. Most students undertake a good deal of informal practical work as well.
The pattern continues in the second and third years but the amount of formal practical work decreases. By contrast, the amount of informal practical work, including project work, increases.
Cambridge Computer Sciences graduates are currently in great demand. A good many have an entrepreneurial bent and a fair proportion of the local science-based industries were founded by our graduates. A number go into academic research and others find their way into the City.
Magdalene admits between one and three undergraduates each year to read Computer Science, and there are usually around four applicants per place.
We encourage applicants from all types of school and college background and although the information about offers given above indicates a typical requirement, each candidate is looked at in the light of his or her individual circumstances.
Academic study of Computer Science relies on mathematical techniques to formulate and analyse problems. An elegantly written presentation of practical applications (some of them specifically related to programming computers) is:
Tom Korner: The pleasures of counting, Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521-56823-4.
It will also help to pursue recreational mathematics in the form of games and puzzles to keep your skills tuned. Indeed, the exercises in Korner's book probably count as recreational mathematics.
The main prerequisite for Computer Scientists is to have a good A-Level qualification in Mathematics; double subject Mathematics at A-Level is a significant advantage. Physical science subjects such as Physics or Chemistry are also desirable. There is no requirement to have Computer Science at A-Level and an A-Level in Information and Communications Technology is not as useful as the subjects mentioned above.
A sensible plan is to take Mathematics, Further Mathematics, a physical science and one further subject (a second science, a modern or classical language, or a mathematically-based technological subject) in Year 12, then to take three of these through to A-Level and to supplement them with a further AS-Level (or continue the fourth to A- level) in Year 13. However, we recognise that different schools have different policies on these matters and we will not penalise students who are not able to follow this plan because of a school policy.
The typical conditional offer for applicants taking A-levels is A*A*A. In general A-Level subjects should include Maths, Further Maths and a physical science (eg Physics or Electronics). Applicants are encouraged to take Advanced Extension Award Mathematics, particularly if their school is unable to support teaching of Further Maths to A-Level. Whilst offers will take into account personal circumstances, we strongly encourage applicants to pursue Maths to the highest level possible and to show a strong interest in mathematical/physical sciences.
Computer Science with Mathematics
Applicants for Computer Science with Mathematics under the 50% option need to have studied Further Maths (or equivalent) at A-level. If you are applying to study Computer Science with Mathematics, then any offer you receive will also include a STEP condition.
Interviews and Written Assessment
Computer Science applicants who are invited to come to Magdalene for admissions interviews will usually have two subject interviews, each lasting about 20-25 minutes.The subject interviewers will not assume great computing expertise. Very much more interest will be taken in signs of mathematical aptitude and enthusiasm for problem solving. One or two mathematical problems (which may be obliquely relevant to Computer Science) will be presented during the interview.
You will also be asked to sit a 100-minute written maths aptitude assessment (otherwise known as the Computer Science Admissions Test or CSAT). This is a new test, which was used for the first time in 2015, and acts as the university-wide admissions assessment for Computer Science. More details about the CSAT, including some example questions for you to practice, can be found here.
The CSAT is an at-interview assessment, so you do not need to make any special arragements to sit the test. The College will make these arrangements for you and you will take the CSAT at the same time as you come to Cambridge for your interviews.