Computer Laboratory

Freshers: Preparing to study Computer Science (October 2015 Entry)

These pages are intended to support incoming IA Computer Science students. In the period between receiving exam results and arriving in Cambridge, it is all too tempting to sit back and relax. However, it can be immensely beneficial (if not crucial) to take a more active role in preparing to start your studies. This page is intended to help students prepare for studying Computer Science at Cambridge both in the Computer Science Tripos and for the Computer Science option in the Natural Sciences and PBS Triposes.

If you haven't already, join the CS Freshers' Facebook group: It is setup and run entirely by the 2014 Freshers.

The Pre-Arrival Online Course

This year sees the introduction of a new online course that all students taking Computer Science (CST/NST/PBST) should complete BEFORE arrival in October

The course will have three components: an introduction to the Fundamentals of Computer science; a guide to setting up your own computer for use in the practicals; and a first course in programming with Java.

The online course has a series of exercises that are automatically assessed online and must be completed before arrival. The course will be administered through the University's online teaching system and will run once all places are confirmed and login details are available. This is expected to be no later than 4 September 2015

For full details please visit the course webpage

The Maths Workbook

Cambridge throws a lot of material at you in a short period of time, and much of it is mathematical. Unfortunately, skills in mathematics are prone to atrophy if not practised so it is worth spending time brushing up on a wide range of topics.

To assist you in this endeavour, you should try all the exercises in the mathematics workbook produced by the University's Faculty of Mathematics before you arrive.

Confirm your option

The first year of the course has a series of options. Most of you will have specified your choice when you applied, but many Colleges do not require a final decision until you arrive (with the exception of "Computer Science with Maths", which has different entry requirements).

Before you arrive, you should carefully review the options to make sure you know what they entail. Your Director of Studies will gladly assist you if you have questions, or you can use the Facebook group linked to above to ask current students.

To remind you, the options are as follows (linked to their official option pages)

Note that the starred options have entry requirements specified on their linked pages. Others may have recommended or desirable backgrounds - please check the option you are interested in carefully.

The majority of our students take the Physics option, which is similar in teaching style and workload to the Computer Science papers. By way of contrast, the Psychology option is more essay-based with fewer lectures and would suit an interested student with good language skills who is willing to study independently.


It is not a requirement to have a laptop. The entire course can be done using only the University and College provision of computing facilities. However in recent years most if not all of our undergraduates have come with a laptop. Following this trend, we are moving to a model where assessed practical work can be done on personal machines at the preferred time and location of the students.

Therefore it may be useful to have a personal laptop. A basic laptop is sufficient since substantial computation can always be performed on University machines.

General Reading

The most important preparation is to build up a broad background understanding of issues in computer science. There are a range of useful books. An excellent informal collection of accessible and relevant articles is:

  • The new Turing omnibus, A Kee Dewdney, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, ISBN 978-0805071665.
    Remember to try the exercises at the end of each chapter.

Computer science relies heavily on mathematics, not only for formal proofs but also as the language used to describe almost every aspect of the subject. You will need to be fluent in mathematics and familiar with the ideas of formal proof. An excellent introduction is:

  • How to think like a mathematician, Kevin Houston, Cambridge University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-521-71978-0.
    Don't be misled by the title; this book is absolutely relevant for computer scientists. It includes many worked examples and also illustrates common mistakes.

It is worth keeping up with advances in science more generally. Magazines like Scientific American and New Scientist cover a wide range of topics in an accessible style, and often have articles relating to computer science. Of course, there are also many web sites that carry technical news.

Finally, you might like to look at some text books that will be recommended for first-year lecture courses. Follow the link to Part IA and click on the Syllabus tab for any of the lecture courses there: Several books are included for each major course and you might like to look at more than one to find which suits you. Printed notes will be handed out for most courses, so you don't actually need to buy all of these.

Further information

The Computer Laboratory's Web pages at carry a lot of information about the course. The Director of Studies at your college will also be pleased to advise you. If all else fails, the Student Administration Secretary in the Computer Laboratory should be able to help.