skip to content

Department of Computer Science and Technology


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 backand relax. However, it can be immensely beneficial (if not crucial) totake 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 Tripos. Note: The NST option will not be available from 2020 entry onwards.

The Pre-Arrival Online Course

All students taking a Computer Science paper must complete the online pre-arrival course before term starts in October. This includes all Computer Scientists, as well as any Natural Scientist students who are taking (or thinking of taking) the Computer Science option.

The course has three components: an introduction to the Fundamentals of Computer Science; a guide to setting up your own computer with the ML programming language 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.

The course webpage contains full details.

The Maths Workbook

The Computer Science course in Cambridge builds on a strong mathematical foundation. Therefore we also require students complete the maths workbook before arrival in October.

Please attempt all the exercises in the Mathematics for the Natural Sciences Workbook produced by the University's Faculty of Mathematics before you arrive.

Confirm your Option (Computer Science Only)

Computer Science students choose an option in their first year. 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.

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 course pages. Others may have recommended or desirable backgrounds: please check the option you are interested in carefully.

Once you have decided which option is right for you, please note your choice in the option selection activity in the pre-arrival course.


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

Therefore you may find it useful to have a personal computer. A basic laptop is sufficient since substantial computation can always be performed on University machines via an Internet connection.

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 recommended text books for first-year lecture courses. Follow the link to Part IA and click on the Syllabus tab for any of the lecture courses listed 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, and college libraries will have copies of these books, so you do not need to buy all of these.

More Information

The Department for Computer Science and Technology'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 Department should be able to help.