St Catharine's has a strong reputation on the field of play and is one of the few colleges regularly to turn out three rugby XVs. It leapt by seven places - knocking Emmanuel College off the top spot, which it held for the past three years.
The college comes top academically on two counts - a ranking of the academic performance of all undergraduates in this year's exams and for the percentage of undergraduates receiving a first. The table is compiled exclusively for The Independent by Peter Tompkins, a partner at the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, and is used by prospective students when they choose a college.
Dr Paul Hartle, a senior tutor at St Catharine's - affectionately known by its students as "Catz" - said: "We're a medium-sized college and we're not a wealthy college. We've had a reputation of being an average college academically but over the last few years we have climbed up the table.
"We've told the students that there is nothing incompatible between being good with a violin or a hockey stick and being good in the field of studies."
Traditionally, the strongest areas of St Catharine's, founded in 1473, have been geography and law.
The college gets 43 per cent of its intake from independent schools and the rest from the state sector - roughly the same as the university as a whole. Of its 435 undergraduates, two-fifths are women. It has a reputation for producing high-flyers in the world of the arts, such as the actor Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Tompkins table is monitored closely by the university's 29 colleges as an indicator of their performance.
Last year's leader, Emmanuel, has slipped to fifth place this year, and Christ's - which has also regularly topped the table but came second last year - is fourth.
The biggest rise this year was by King's College - up 10 places from 20th in 2004. Newnham College, Cambridge's oldest women-only college, which was the fastest rising college last year - going up from 21st to 13th place, slips back down again this year to 21st.
The unofficial table is calculated by awarding colleges five points for a first, three for a 2:1, two for a 2:2, and one point for a third. The results are then shown as a percentage of the maximum which would have been achieved if every student had got a first.Reuse content