Applying to English at Cambridge University

The Cambridge English course is unique for combining full historical coverage with the chance to specialise and develop your own interests. In the first two years of your degree, students cover the full historical sweep of literature written in the English language from the medieval period to the present day. In the third year, students have the freedom to pursue the interests they have developed, by choosing from a range of specialist topics and undertaking independent, guided research on topics of their own devising. 

The course embraces all literature written in the English language, which means students can study American and post-colonial literatures alongside British literatures throughout; there are also options to specialise in either or both of these areas in the third year, and to study literature in other languages. The course also embraces all genres and periods, including writing by philosophers and essayists, as well as the more traditional genres of poetry, prose, and drama. 

The English course is divided into two parts. The first part gives students a strong foundational knowledge of literature across the centuries. The second allows students to explore their own interests in more depth. Manifold approaches flourish here – for example, in poetic and aesthetic theory, in postcolonial writing in English, in Renaissance texts as ‘material’ objects, in film and its links to literature. 

** NOTE - The structure of the undergraduate English course will be changing for entrants starting October 2020, for more information, please visit: 

Academic Requirements:
- A-levels: A*AA
- IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

How did you decide between Oxford and Cambridge?

Some people at my school were convinced that Oxford would be easier (based on the fact that they didn't require UMS marks and my school's track record) but I wanted to keep an open mind and base my decision purely on the course. I liked the fact that Cambridge had separate compulsory papers on literary theory and literature in other languages, both of which interested me. The structure - whistlestop tour for 2 years (with no exams at the end of the first year!), and then time in th 3rd year to specialise - was more appealing than Oxford's. (Profile 1031)

I wanted to apply to Oxford and had filled in a mock UCAS form with Oxford on it. Then the 'Oxbridge' tutor at the college where I studied suggested Cambridge due to the differences between studying English at the different institutions ie: not having to start at 1100, but rather 1300 AD (Profile 543)

The course at Cambridge had a more modern outlook. (Profile 451)

I only visited Cambridge and I fell in love with it, so I never considered Oxford. Also the three day interview thing at Oxford put me off a bit. (Profile 522)

I felt Cambridge (the place) to be more inspiring and more distinctive than Oxford, which seemed just like any other city. Also, I got to know a few Oxbridge undergraduates through reading a well-known newsgroup and thought the Cambridge students friendlier and more down-to-earth. (Profile 538)

Do you have any advice for future applicants in terms of preparation?

Mock interviews can be helpful, but they're not essential - the important thing is to prepare yourself by reading widely, but not so widely that your head starts to spin, and go into those interviews still enjoying literature. Given that Cambridge asks for a lists of the texts studied at AS, it really does help to go over those. (Profile 1031)

The form: Try and be utterly honest about yourself. Enthusiasm about your chosen subject always helps and go into detail about where your interests lie within your subject.

The interview: Try and be as enthusiastic as possible about your subject, try and look excited when talking about your subject. If you are asked something you don’t understand, always tell the interviewer and they will always help you. Don’t treat the interview as an `interview`, try and think of it as a chat about something you enjoy talking about (i.e. your chosen subject). When walking in to the interview room say to yourself " i am going to enjoy this", that helped me to relax. (Profile 451)

The form: It's not really that much of a hassle. Lots of it is repeated from the UCAS form, so don't worry about it. Be clear.

The interview: Timed essays. Talks with teachers and fellow students. Try to have read a few of the classics and remember them. Be prepared for some verbal testing as well. Try unseen poetry/prose essays. (Profile 543)

The form: Well, keep revising it - I must have rewritten mine 10 times! Start entirely over again and just rewrite it - this is also helpful in cutting down the word count.

The interview: Read alot and be ready with a few authors/genres/movements that you know lots about and can discuss knowledgeably - the interviewers will, generally, take their cue from you, so it's good if you can initiate a discussion. (Profile 494)

The form: I don't see what there is to filling in the Cambridge application form that requires advice, as it just seems to me to be a case of filling in your name, address, grades, etc. That said, I strongly warn all candidates to SCOUR EVERY INCH OF THE FORM TO MAKE SURE WHICH SECTIONS NEED TO BE COMPLETED IN CAPITALS.

The interview: 1. Read lots of poetry, especially pre-20th century material.

2. Have lots of interesting things to say about your syllabus.

3. Have an interesting, slightly anecdotal story about why you applied to that particular college/university.

4. Get people - if your school can't do it, try your family, or even your friends - to ask you questions about your subject. Even if these questions don't come up, being able to answer them coherently and interestingly is good practice.

5. You don't need to choose a favourite book or writer (though keep in mind at least a couple of candidates) but make sure you have a favourite period/group/style. I had a few interesting things to say about Joyce, and so kept making the odd reference to him, but nothing ever came of it.

6. Make sure to focus your preparatory efforts on the subject rather than spending weeks writing an explanation for why you only got a B in GCSE shoemaking and didn't do the Duke of Edinburgh award. (Profile 538)

Did you have to submit any written work prior to the interview?

3 English essays. I submitted my coursework, because it was very long and reflected my own interests - I'd chosen the topic. I also sent a timed essay, plus one normal homework essay, both that I'd got As for. (Profile 494)

King's requested two pieces of recent written work, which was lucky, as I only *had* two pieces of recent written work. They were my AS-level essay 'Act III Scene (iii) is a Crucial Scene in Hamlet, Explore its Dramatic Importance on the Audience' (which scored an 'A' grade, I recall) and another essay, actually a practice exam question, about Philip Larkin's Whitsun Weddings. I hoped that they would represent two sides to my writing: the former essay having been weeks in the making, drafted and redrafted a thousand times; and the latter being totally off-the-cuff, penned (it was handwritten) in one hour with no subsequent revision at all.  (Profile 538)

I submitted my AS Shakespeare coursework on 'Othello' and a second essay on Coleridge's poetry. You're meant to submit stuff that's part of your normal schoolwork but, because I took Eng Lit off-timetable by myself, I wasn't really doing normal schoolwork - so the second essay was a bit of a long, rambling free project to be honest, and in hindsight I'm not that impressed with it. Other people in these profiles have submitted personal projects like this as their work - but I imagine it tends to be better just submitting (or tinkering) school essays… (Profile 1031)

I had to give in two pieces of written work. This was a bit of a hassle, since I had done my A level in 1 year and had only written timed essays. I had also completed my A level over two years before. So I re-wrote one of my mock exam essays and added bit in. I was also given an essay question by my old English tutor which I answered. Even thought they were marked, I never got a grade and was unsure if they were good enough. (Profile 543)

I submitted two essays. One was a critical appreciation of a Shakespeare Sonnet (73). The other was an analysis of Iago's speech patterns and contrasting them in different situations. (Profile 451)

What questions were you asked during your interview(s)?

I made a note of the interview questions I remembered as soon as I got home, specifically for inclusion on this website - hence the somewhat comprehensive nature of what follows... 

Interview 1: It seemed as if the interviewers were playing a bit of good cop/bad cop. Easy enough at first: "Describe your school" "Why King's?” "Why Cambridge?" "Do you have any brothers or sisters at university?" "Did either of your parents go to university?" Tell us about your English classes" "What were some books you have read recently outside your A-level course?" Amongst my list was classic medieval play Sir Gawain and the Green Knight "Did you study that on your own?" Yes, it was a translation "So you haven't read it in the original Anglo-Saxon then?" "What books are you studying currently on your A-level course?" Then the harder stuff, as the tide of conversation turns towards Othello. I studied Hamlet at AS "How are Hamlet and Othello different as characters?" I mentioned at some point about Othello being a noble black man corrupted by evil white men "That's *one* interpretation. Wouldn't you say however it is very much a modern interpretation?" I rambled on about Coleridge and alternative interpretations, but ended up restating that IMO Othello was a noble man who was the victim of Iago's machinations "So you consider Othello the victim then? I would have said *Desdemona* was more like the victim, after all, she was *killed* by Othello” But they're all victims of Iago really "Would you say Iago is a victim?" The unseen poetry is brought out. "What do you think this poem is about?" "What do you think is meant by 'a maiden true, and fair'?" Someone honest and virtuous "And faithful, as well?" "What do you think is meant by 'two, three' at the end?" "That's all. Do you have any questions you would like to ask us?" 

Interview 2: "How do you feel your last interview went?" "I apologise if we go over some of the same ground - what questions did they ask you?" they asked me why I applied to Cambridge, to King's, what my school was like, then they asked about Othello, about a piece of unseen poetry... "what texts are you currently studying at A-level?" Othello, war poets, Songs of Innocence & Experience, I'm writing an essay about Richard Llewellyn and Patrick McCabe... "there's lots of poetry there, but do you read any pre-20th century poetry on your own?" Yes "which authors do you like?" the Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge. Now we were into the real 'English' part of the interview again, and I felt a lot more confident discussing my particular area of interest than I had Othello (as I'd missed a lot of the reading of that play in class through illness, etc.) "What do you find particularly interesting about Coleridge?" I mentioned the poem The Lime Tree Bower My Prison "Can you remember any particular imagery from that poem? Don't worry if you can't" "You mentioned that Wordsworth writes more about inanimate objects. Now, imagine I hadn't read any Wordsworth, what's of interest to me about inanimate objects? I might think his poems are about stones or something..." "Would you say Wordsworth is religious?" Yes "Would you say Wordsworth is Pantheistic?" Silence "Do you know what Pantheistic means?" "So if Wordsworth is religious, then why doesn't he write about God?" Now, despite all the idiotic things I've probably said by now, all the holes in my knowledge that have been unearthed and the great amount of time that it has been shown that I need to root around in the Mothers' Union jumble sale that is my mind to come up with anything of any value or insight, I'm already feeling a *lot* happier. I've been discussing a subject I like, the interviewers seem genuinely interested in what I have to say and I feel a resonance of sorts with them. The unseen poetry is brought out. "What do you think the poem is about? Take as long as you want, as it's quite difficult" "Where do you think the evidence is in the text that it is all a metaphor?" "Do you know what firmament means?" "What does the cauldron symbolise, do you think?" "What does the breaking up of the island symbolise?" "Do you have any questions you'd like to ask?" And that was it. No questions were asked about my philosophy on life, my political allegiances, my hobbies, anything to do with my UCAS personal statement, anything to do with either of the essays I sent in or anything else I had been told that was par for the course. (Profile 538)

To what extent can all poems be considered fragments (based on something I hadn't considered in my Coleridge essay)? Discuss Shakespeare's representation of Italians (the interviewer noted my Italian name). What are the advantages and disadvantages of looking at and ignoring context when dealing with works of literature? What was the last book you read? (Profile 1031)

'Tell me about your school' was asked at both colleges. The worst question was in my 2nd interview at King's when I was handed a poem and asked to comment. I didn't understand it, my mind froze up, and I just had to make something up! (Profile 494)

How often do you read? I was asked about points I made in my essays. I was asked to discuss recent books i had read. I was asked whether I thought the context of poems was important (i.e. the date the poem was written, who wrote the poem etc.), I was asked about my extracurricular activities, and I was also asked about my lack of an "illustrious" set of GCSE results. (Profile 451)