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 which works to prioritise as they range through the landscape of British and English-language literatures.
The breadth and flexibility of the Cambridge course constitute 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. Teaching is provided through lectures, seminars, and small-group supervisions and classes. You typically attend around six hours of lectures or seminars each week, and one or two hours of individual, paired or small-group supervision. You normally write one or two short essays per week which you then discuss with your supervisor.
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.
English at Peterhouse
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 the benefits of exploration, of rediscovering once popular and now forgotten works which may not initially appeal but which reward persistent investigation.
English is generously supported at Peterhouse, which means that we can supervise you on most aspects of your first and second-year studies and a good number of your chosen final-year courses in-house. Dr 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. Dr James Wade researches mediaeval English literature, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare, teaching this and Practical Criticism and Critical Practice. Dr Simon Jackson, a specialist on George Herbert and music, teaches Renaissance literature for the college.
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, such as 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 schoolwork 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 are asked to sit a written assessment prior to interview. This test will take place after you have been invited for interview and you do not need to register for it in advance. Details of the arrangements for the text will be sent to you by the college.
The written test will form part of our holistic assessment of a candidate's 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. Further information can be found on the University English site, including a sample assessment paper which you can access.
We ask all applicants in English to send us two examples 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 which you will be asked about during the interview.
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.