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Like reading? (Enjoy rhetorical questions?) Then read on … English at Cambridge is a swift journey through the literature of the British Isles from 1300 to present day. The idea of this breadth of study is somewhat intimidating, but it is this overwhelming sense of the tradition that precedes us which is so exciting.


Beth Oppenheim
English, 1st year
Downing College

The course is divided into Part I (first and second year) and II (third year). There isn’t much choice in Part I, but it means that you get a solid grounding in the canonical texts of English literature.(It doesn’t really matter anyway because in Part II you can basically do Whatever You Want.) You do also get the chance to study a foreign language, choosing from a huge range including Italian (where you get to study Dante with Primo Levi) and Old Norse!

“ this overwhelming sense of the tradition that precedes us... is so exciting ”

We also take five period papers over the first two years; Medieval (big names like Chaucer), Renaissance (Spenser, Marlowe etc.), Enlightenment (the lighter stuff including Romantic poets, Austen, gothic literature), modern (Dickens, both Eliots, Woolf…) and Shakespeare gets a whole paper of his own. Within these papers supervisors are really happy for youto stray away from the recommended texts and pick writers from the periodthat interest you.. There is also a ‘Practical Criticism’ paper, where you get given an extract (poem, prose, script, whatever) and talk about what strikes you as interesting… English is great.

If you’d prefer to take fewer exams, you can substitute some with coursework. Also, you won’t actually have any real exams in your first year, which allows us to languish on the grass with Shakespeare while everyone else stresses out.

Best thing? Becoming well read!

In terms of what it’s like to be an English student here; it varies quite a lot depending on how you like to spend your time. Lectures are optional, so we don’t have many contact hours, allowing us tostructure our own time. This is probably one of the hardest things about doing English, but also one of the best. This means you have time to get involved with anything you like, and Cambridge is definitely not short of options. Loads of English students will be involved in theatre (acting, designing, producing, directing), debating, orchestra, sport, student journalism, whatever floats your boat.

A standard day for an English student will be getting up (kind of whenever really, depending on if you’re a morning person or a night owl), cycling to the English Faculty (5 minute cycle from the high street if you’re running late for something and still haven’t worked out how to rouse yourself from the beauty that is sleep, 10 minutes if you’re a normal person, and 15 minutes if you can’t hack the deceptively small looking hill just before the Arts site and end up walking your bike up).Once you’re at the Sidgwick Site (the Cambridge Arts site which houses our beautiful English Faculty), you can pillage the shelves of the library for whatever you need for that week’s essay. In first year, in one week you’ll usually have one period paper essay, one short practical criticism essay, and work for your language paper too. If,as is frequently the case, you find that the books you need have already been taken out (get used to gazing vacantly at the space on the shelf where your book should be), you can head over to the University Library which is only a few minutes walk away and has a copy of every book ever published in Britain at your disposal.Then you might go to a lecture if you’re feeling particularly virtuous (unlikely), before heading off either to the English Faculty or to your college library to read, and start planning that essay (probably with numerous breaks)…

Worst thing? Having to plan your own time

No matter what people say, English is as intense as any other degree at Cambridge. It is hard work, and there almost certainly will be some late night library sessions, but it is fully worth it. You’ll meet some incredible people, immerse yourself in exciting, captivating works of literature, and engage with experts in your subject at the highest level.