The English course at Cambridge benefits from a mix of tradition and innovation.

Students study a wide range of celebrated literary works, extending from Chaucer to the present day. Although developing this broad chronological sweep is a key aim of our degree programme, there is no fixed syllabus and no list of set books. To a large extent, undergraduates here decide for themselves what works to prioritise as they range through the landscape of British and English-language literatures.

This breadth and flexibility of the Cambridge course constitutes both its challenge and its excitement: challenge because you can never say you’ve read enough (there are always new books to discover, new avenues to explore); excitement because the opportunity is constantly there to devise a personal programme of study as you work through each period of literary history.

The Cambridge supervision system, which offers students a significant amount of one-to-one teaching with their supervisors, is designed to facilitate this very individual process of selection. Our primary role, as the English Fellows at Peterhouse, is to guide and advise our students as they pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse themselves in books and reflect on the endless questions which the written word poses. There are no limits to this canvas. The whole history of human feeling is yours to study.

We conceive of English studies as a rigorous but rewarding and good-humoured discipline, and we approach it with three principal aims in mind. First, we press our students always to scrutinise ‘the words on the page’, to examine in exacting detail the implications of particular turns of phrase, choices of metre or verse form, and even individual words. Secondly though, we also emphasise the importance of attending to the contexts of literature, the social, moral, religious, political and scientific horizons which inform a text’s meaning at any given point in history. Thirdly, we stress, too, the benefits of exploration, of rediscovering once popular, now forgotten works which may not initially appeal but which reward persistent investigation.

So is this the course for you? The best way to determine that is to take a few days, perhaps during a holiday, and explore some books which are very different from those you’ve studied at school. Read a poetry anthology (the more wide-ranging the better), try some eighteenth or mid-nineteenth century novels, explore a new Shakespeare play, and ask yourself, in each case, if this is something which interests you and provokes your curiosity. You might also like to explore the Cambridge Authors website for further ideas about books to read.

Course structure

Our Part I (first and second year) course is built around five core papers, to each of which we devote a term’s study. These are: English literature, 1300 to 1550; 1500-1700; 1660-1870; and either 1830 to 1945 or 1870 to the present; and then also Shakespeare (whose complete works get a term to themselves). The formal examination for one of the period papers can be replaced by a dissertation, and that for another by a portfolio of three essays. In addition to taking these first five papers, most Part I students also read for a general paper on the skills of practical criticism and literary theory. Subject to certain restrictions, any paper other than the medieval and Shakespeare ones can be replaced by one element from a range of borrowable options provided under the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, the Classics, and the Modern Languages Triposes. This means that appropriately qualified English candidates can take, for example, an Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French or Spanish literature option (subject to availability in the given year). Whatever six papers a candidate settles upon, these are studied over a period of two years, leading to examination at the end of the second year.

Having developed a sense of the broad spectrum of English literature, undergraduates turn in their third year to the Part II finals course where they have much greater opportunity to specialise. There are still two compulsory elements: one, again, on Practical Criticism, and one on Tragedy, a comparative literature paper which invites students to explore Greek tragedy (in English translation) in relation to Shakespearean and more modern tragic forms. To these papers, students add a dissertation project (on any literary topic of their choice) and two further papers chosen from a list of more than a dozen options. The latter cover a wide range of English, American, Commonwealth and foreign-language literatures, but also include papers on more theoretical and philosophical subjects. Again, individual teaching is arranged by the College’s Directors of Studies as appropriate.

Teaching methods

Broadly speaking, all Cambridge colleges offer teaching for the English degree in three ways. First, the Faculty of English arranges daily lectures which cover a range of literary topics relevant to the BA degree. The Directors of Studies in each college - there are usually two for English at Peterhouse - then arrange more structured, individual tuition for their own college’s students. This takes the form of weekly year-group classes and also of one-to-one or two-to-one supervisions, i.e. weekly meetings between one or two students and whoever is their supervisor that term, at which the students have the chance to discuss that week’s reading and essay-work with a specialist in the field. A typical week for Peterhouse first-years involves attending eight or so one-hour lectures, one or two one-hour supervisions on the main literary texts being studied that week, and perhaps one College discussion class.

English at Peterhouse

English is generously supported at Peterhouse, which means that we can supervise you on most aspects of your first and second-year topics and a good deal of your chosen final-year topics in-house. Jennifer Wallace, who has published books on Shelley, Keats, the archaeological imagination from Stonehenge to Ground Zero, and tragedy, teaches eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature and also the Tragedy paper. Christopher Tilmouth, whose research ranges across Shakespearean drama, Renaissance psychology and physiology, Restoration libertinism, and early modern philosophy, teaches the 1500-1700 and Shakespeare papers, literary theory, and the Moralists paper (a final year option on literature and moral philosophy).  Steven Connor, who has published books on Dickens, Joyce, Beckett, and the post-war novel, on postmodernism and the question of cultural value, on ideas of air, magic, skin, and sport in different cultures, on the place of sound, music and the voice in human history, on flies in art and literature, and on the relation between numbers and words, teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century topics as well as papers on literary theory and on visual culture.

For a student's perspective on life as an English student at Peterhouse, have a look at the JCR's alternative prospectus.

Course requirements

All applicants for English should be studying, A level English Literature (or equivalent). Occasionally, applicants are admitted who have taken A level English Language and Literature instead. In addition, it is helpful if applicants have taken one or more related subjects, such as History or classical or modern languages to A level (or equivalent). However, we also welcome applicants who have studied less obviously English-related subjects, for example Mathematics or the sciences.

We ask all our English applicants to send us two examples of recent English essays. In reading these, we look for evidence of (amongst other things) candidates’ understanding of the ways in which writers’ choices of form, structure and language shape the meaning of literary texts.

If English is not your first language, it is essential that your English language skills are good enough for you to undertake an intensive and challenging academic course that is taught and examined in English. Therefore, you may be asked to achieve a formal qualification in English Language. If you are taking subjects that require extensive reading and writing in English as part of your school work and are generally being taught in English by native speakers, this condition may be met by your school exams. It is however likely that you will be asked to achieve an IELTS qualification as part of the conditions for your offer. In English this is typically 8 or 8.5, with a score of at least 8 in written English.

The application process

All applicants for English across the University will be asked to sit a pre-interview written assessment at their school, college or local testing centre on 2nd November. These will form part of our holistic assessment of candidates' achievements, abilities and potential and are no more, and no less important than any of the other pieces of information considered during the admissions process. Registration for this assessment closes on 15th October. Further information can be found on the University website.

We ask all applicants in English to send us one example of recent written work. There are normally two half-hour interviews, usually with Fellows of Peterhouse and an Admissions Tutor. During these interviews applicants can expect to discuss the school essay submitted beforehand, set texts they’ve been studying in the classroom, and other works which have formed part of their own wider reading. Prior to one of these interviews, you will probably have 15 minutes of preparatory reading.

Typical conditional offers

Our typical conditional offer for English is A*AA at A level. IB offers are usually for a minimum of 40-42 points, to include 776 or 777 at Higher level in relevant subjects. Offers are designed to be realistic, taking into account individual circumstances, and to reflect potential and likely levels of achievement. Most of those who receive offers will attain the grades required.

Career opportunities

Vocationally, one of the great benefits of reading English at Cambridge is that it expands (rather than restricts) the employment opportunities available to you after graduation. In the past two decades Peterhouse English graduates have taken up a wide range of careers after leaving the College. These have included legal work, management consultancy, teaching, charity work, postgraduate research, and journalism (in which Jennifer Wallace has a particular interest). As befits a College whose alumni include the theatre directors Richard Eyre, Simon McBurney and Sam Mendes, and the novelist Tibor Fischer, a number of Peterhouse English students have gone on, too, to become actors, directors, script-writers, stand-up comedians and creative writers. Other typical careers pursued by English graduates include publishing, political research, work in the civil service and arts administration.