COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.

In a new series, we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.

Assessing undergraduate admissions was likely to be a very different process in a pandemic, let alone with a changing landscape of cancelled exams and reassessments. One of the team at the forefront of overcoming these challenges was Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for Cambridge Colleges.

Cambridge admissions is something that can easily make a newspaper headline – its high public profile in the UK means it is a system that is always under scrutiny.

As Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges (29 separate institutions that are responsible for admitting our undergraduate students), I have a coordinating role, working closely with colleagues in the Colleges, Faculties and Departments, and the central Cambridge Admissions Office.

Together, we ensure consistency of policy and practice in how we go about assessing our excellent applicants throughout the very competitive entry process. I am also the lead Admissions Tutor at my own College, Newnham.

It was clear from about February that things were going to look a bit different this year. Our contacts in Singapore, China and neighbouring countries were clearly taking the new virus very seriously, and educational systems around the world were starting to be disrupted.

When the University announced on 18 March that it had entered ‘Red Phase’ in response to the pandemic, planning for what might be a very different admissions process started in earnest.

Two days later, the government announced that A-level exams were cancelled and grades to be awarded based on teacher assessment. We had two possible worrying scenarios – either too many students (because of generous grading) or not enough (because of mass deferrals).

We also had to deal with an admissions process that was largely paper-based: all application records were contained in thousands of physical folders, residing in filing cabinets in College Admissions Offices, which were now largely closed to their staff.

We had to adapt all of our working practices very quickly – I had never heard of Zoom or Teams or Slack before March – and we had to rapidly revise our processes.

As well as Confirmation, where we manually check A-level results against the offers made to candidates, we also run a physical Summer Pool process (where we place near-miss candidates at other Colleges) and take others in via Adjustment (for disadvantaged students who receive higher grades in their A-levels than expected).

We knew we potentially had a big problem with Maths, which is the only subject where Colleges substantially over-offer on places as it is the subject still with Sixth Term Examination Papers (STEP) to determine mathematical potential and which are normally sat alongside A-levels.

Fortunately our colleagues at Cambridge Assessment, which administers STEP worldwide as a public exam, managed to come up with a remote proctored solution that candidates could take from home (an interesting effect of which has been the highest female intake into Maths in years).

By now, exam regulators had announced that the centre-assessed grades – CAGs – were to be moderated to ensure minimal overall grade inflation. While we were waiting for the final results of STEP, IB, A-level and other exam systems, many hours were spent on the Digital Admissions Project with a team at University Information Services and with the Admissions and Data Services Team in Cambridge Admissions Office, led by the amazing Helen Reed (who we decided by August had actually cloned herself in order to get done everything she did).

So, by the time of A-level results in mid-August, everything was in place – we had a system of Google Drive folders for each offer-holder, a developed moderation interface for viewing key details of applicant records, and a revised system for running the Summer Pool meetings online.

We always get A-level results ahead of time, and very rapid analysis over that weekend suggested some oddities, but broadly a pattern of results that matched what we had seen in previous years, which looked as if it should result in about the expected number of arrivals in 2020. We breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"The experiences of the past few months have brought home to me the real strength of the admissions process at Cambridge – this is a system that treats candidates as individuals and not numbers, and is run by real people rather than algorithms."

The Summer Pool was run remotely but went remarkably smoothly, with Admissions Tutors paying particular attention to indicators of disadvantage when deciding when to relax on missed offer conditions.

By the end of Friday 14 August, the process was complete and Colleges were full, with just a handful of rooms in each held back in case of successful appeals, and the highest state school and disadvantaged admissions statistics on record.

What we started to see during that day, though, was unexpected – many teachers getting in touch with disturbing tales of unaccountable wholesale downgrading from their predictions, seemingly concentrated in particular school types, especially big sixth-form colleges. The results moderation process had clearly had some unfortunate consequences for individuals.

It became apparent over the course of the weekend that a government U-turn was all but inevitable, and at 4pm on Monday 17 August the expected announcement came – that A-level results would revert to CAGs in the case of downgrades.

Over the next, frantic few days, collegiate Cambridge did what I had not imagined possible. By the end of the week, we were in a position to formally extend offers of admission to nearly 400 extra students, all of whom had been found a College room. October 2020 will see a record number of admissions, with no required deferrals and the highest ever state school intake.

I remain hugely grateful to teaching colleagues in Faculties and Departments, who all offered to do what they could to take the extra students this year, rather than seeing the impact of mass deferrals on the cohort about to apply.

Admissions Tutors worked minor miracles in finding extra rooms in their own College, or collaborating with other Colleges to allow admission elsewhere; Lucy Cavendish College even brought forward their planned change to being a standard-age College in order to help.

The experiences of the past few months have brought home to me the real strength of the admissions process at Cambridge – this is a system that treats candidates as individuals and not numbers, and is run by real people rather than algorithms.

Following this dramatic time (and a long lie down in a dark room), the work continues. The UCAS deadline for entry in 2021 is fast approaching, and we need to finalise in the next few weeks protocols and platforms for the delivery of an entirely online admissions process, with remote interviews for our global applicant field, digital document upload and a virtual Winter Pool process. Wish us luck!

Words: Sam Lucy
Design: Zoe Smith
Photography: Lloyd Mann
Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh