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Department of Computer Science and Technology


This page is intended to help students prepare to start 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.

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, and this page is intended to assist.

The Pre-Arrival Online Course

ALL students taking a Computer Science paper (whether Computer Sciences or Natural Sciences students) 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 is now open. It must be completed no later than Tuesday Oct 8 2019. You are strongly advised to complete it earlier.

This online course has two components: an introduction to the Fundamentals of Computer Science, and a first course in programming with Java.  It ensures everyone is starting the course at the same point. There are 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.

Full course details can be found here.

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)

Please note that selecting the 50% option this year will limit options in later years of the Tripos.  Many recent students felt that they had not given proper consideration of these limitations in the first year: this is a major reason that the option will be discontinued next year. If you do wish to follow the 50% route in your first year, please discuss this in detail with your Director of Studies, and make sure you understand the knock-on effects.

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.

Active Learning and Skill Building

CamGuides for Undergraduates provides useful information for all students.

Many elements of computer science are 'hands on', and this is often an excellent way to learn.  Learning new languages or extending your knowledge of those you already know can be helpful. Similarly, acquainting yourself with modern tools can be an advantage e.g. command line toold, UNIX tools, debuggers, compilers, shell scripts.  You may find playing around with a Raspberry Pi or similar of value for this.

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.