What is a college?

Everything you are about to read has been written by current and recently graduated students at the University of Cambridge, to give you honest information about what it’s like to be a student at Cambridge.

Cambridge is structured differently to many other universities because it has Colleges. Similarly to other universities, there are buildings around town dedicated to courses and subjects – that’s your Faculty or Department. Your College, on the other hand, is where you actually live – your site of accommodation.

Think of Colleges like mini-campuses or halls of residence. As well as providing you with a bedroom, they’re where you’ll eat and do a lot of your socialising. A College has kitchens, a canteen, a bar and social areas. It has a library, a computer room, study areas, and will probably have music rooms, sports facilities and a gym.

Colleges have their own clubs and societies, and elected committees of students (often called JCRs, MCRs, or Student Unions) that represent students to College staff and organise lots of the social events. Your College provides you with academic and pastoral support, and it’s where you often (though not always) have your supervisions. There are so many added extras that make your College more than just an accommodation site where your room is!

The University of Cambridge has 31 Colleges, and 29 of them admit undergraduates. In your College, you'll find students from every year and most subjects, both undergraduates and postgraduates. Your College is your primary base while you’re at the university – you get to know lots of students from other Colleges too, but students tend to make best friends with people in their own, and nearly everyone believes their College to be “the best” and “the friendliest”.

"It's important to ask yourself 'Can I see myself living here?' when choosing a college." - Jack, St Catharine's College, Geography

“I analysed every college in the university, then ignored most of my statistics and went for the college I fell in love with as soon as I saw it. Sometimes you just know." - Dani, Emmanuel College, English

what is a college

I decided on Clare College because it has a reputation as being a friendly college. It being mixed gender was also important to me. I thought it being a medium sized college, it would have a real community feel to it. Not too small where everyone knows everything and not too big that you don’t know everyone in your year. I found that Clare having specialist teaching staff influenced my decision too because it meant that some of my classes would be in college so I wouldn’t have to travel much for classes. Proximity to the town centre, lectures, shops and nightlife was key, and I liked that Clare is an old college and has both old and modern buildings. I also wanted to go to a pretty college and Clare is known for being pretty, especially in the summer months. Make a list of things that you want from a college. As you look at the different colleges find those which fit your criteria.

ImaniClare College, modern & Medieval Languages

But how do you choose a College?

When you apply to the University of Cambridge you apply to a College, or if you can’t make up your mind then you put in an ‘open application’ and are allocated to one. There’s really no magic answer for how to choose a College. Some people make their decision to suit their interests, such as whether the College has sports pitches or an orchestra. Others choose a College because they like its appearance – some are old and pretty, and there are modern ones too. It might be the distance to the centre of town or your lecture sites that help you choose. Some people prefer Colleges with lots of students, where others look for small numbers so they can know everyone. College choice can be personal, instinctive and it doesn't need to be something that you can explain. Most of us know at least one person that chose their College because they have the same name (*cough* St Catharine’s) or they liked its ducks (Emmanuel…).

It’s tempting to try play a ‘statistics game’ and choose a College based on the numbers of applications to acceptances. This is a Very Bad Idea. Statistics change each year, and the system is set up to ensure that College choice doesn't affect your chances of getting a place at the University *

(* see this page on the Winter Pool process).

Don’t cause yourself undue stress and waste your valuable time - have fun using this Alternative Prospectus to look for somewhere you’d simply like to live instead!


Homerton College

Cambridge wasn’t somewhere I’d even thought about applying to until a teacher dragged me down to the Cambridge Open Day in Year 12. After falling in love with the place and setting my heart on applying, I suddenly had a lot of decisions to quickly make – one of them being choosing a College. I didn’t really know what a College was at that point! I chose Christ’s College because it was very central, medium-sized and it felt really old and cosy – I’d walked in on the Open Day and thought ‘I could see myself living here’. After my interview, however, I found myself ‘Winter-Pooled’ to Homerton, which is a very different College – it’s 2 miles outside the city-centre, one of the largest, and made up of mostly new buildings! I love it so much though, and couldn’t imagine my time at University anywhere else, largely because it’s where I made most of my friends. It really goes to show that you should approach choosing a College as something fun and light-hearted rather than a big stress, as you’ll be happy wherever you end up.

HelenaEducation, Homerton