If you’re deciding which college to apply to at Cambridge, I wouldn’t recommend choosing a college based on application statistics. I admit that I attempted to do this and my cunning plan backfired, though fortunately it did still work out for me.
Intuitively, it might make sense to apply to the college that has the fewest number of applicants because then you’d be more likely to get in. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
You can easily find the number of applicants for each college and course at Oxford and Cambridge with a quick Google search. When I applied to Cambridge in 2017, I looked at the application statistics and I did take it into account when I chose my college, though I now realise this wasn’t a good reason to choose a college.
The main problem is that you’re not taking into account the quality of the other applicants. If you’re applying for a course with a thousand bad applicants versus when you’re applying to a course with 10 good applicants, you’re more likely to get in if you apply to the course with a 1000 applicants.
You might argue “well if there are more applicants, then there’s probably going to be more good applicants and therefore there is more competition so I’d be less likely to get in”. Although it’s correct that you’d expect more good applicants if you have more applicants, there’s four things you’ve got to keep in mind.
First of all, although there’s a huge number of applicants in total, there’s not that many applicants for each individual course at each individual college. For example, in 2019 a total of 350 people applied to study geography at Cambridge, but only 8 people applied to Clare College. With a sample size of 8, you really can’t accurately predict how many good applicants there are, so you can’t predict how much competition you’ll face. Therefore, using application statistics is not likely to increase your chances of getting in.
A second point is that there is a pooling system. This means that if you are a strong applicant and the college you applied to thinks you’re good enough to get in but they don’t have space for you, they will put you in “the pool” and other colleges can choose to give you an offer. This pool evens out the distribution of applications across the different colleges, meaning that it acts as a buffer for oversubscribed colleges. This means that if you apply to a undersubscribed course, you’ll probably end up having to compete with applicants from the pool, so overall you won’t be more likely to get in. If you apply for a course at a college with too many good applicants, the pool system will mean that you’ll still get in if you’re good enough, though it would be at a different college.
A third point is variation. Although historically there might be roughly the same number of applicants for each course at each college, there is no guarantee that the pattern will continue, as I discovered myself. In some years a specific course at a specific college will be oversubscribed and in some years it wont, so it’s hard to accurately predict how many applicants there are for each course at each college, meaning that the statistics probably won’t help you.
My fourth and final point is that Oxbridge let people in only if they’re good enough and they are under no obligation to accept any applicant even if they are the only person applying for that course at a specific college. If you look at the admissions statistics you’ll see that in some years at some colleges, there was only one applicant, and that one applicant did not get in. This shows that you won’t be let in just because you’re not competing with anyone else.
I’ll finish off by telling you how I used admissions statistics to choose my college. I initially wanted to apply to Pembroke or Clare, but after seeing the application statistics I thought that I wouldn’t be good enough to get in, so this was partly, but not completely, why I chose Jesus. I noticed that in the past few years there was a decreasing number of applicants for my course, yet the number of offers was constant. I falsely believed that this would mean that I would be more likely to get in. In the year I applied, Jesus ended up having way more applicants than normal, and using my flawed logic regarding admissions statistics, this would have meant that I should have been very unlikely to get in, but I did still get in and I think that this supports the idea that you should not use application statistics to choose your Oxbridge college.
In summary, trying to game the system using statistics probably won’t affect your chances of getting into Oxford or Cambridge, though it is possible that you’re more likely to be pooled to a different college if you do apply to a college that ends up being oversubscribed. However, I’d still argue that you should definitely still apply to the college you’d like to be at.
If you want help with choosing a college at Oxbridge, I’ve made a whole video and article about that, and I’ve also made a detailed flowchart about how to choose a college at Cambridge, so have a look at that if you’re considering applying to Cambridge. I also don’t recommend doing an open application (which is when you are “randomly” allocated a college), for reasons I explain in this video and this article.