Choosing your course
Some people know well in advance what they want to study at university, and others spend longer searching for the right subject or choosing between a few. Make sure it’s your decision as it’s the most important one you’ll make! You need to choose something you’ll be happy studying (essentially as a full-time job) for at least three years.
Enjoy looking through this website’s course profiles - we encourage you to keep an open mind. Course titles aren’t always entirely representative of the topics they include, and who knows? You might fall in love with something you haven’t considered before. Cambridge subjects tend to be traditional, but there’s some courses that are unique to the university (e.g. Natural Sciences) or aren’t as common (e.g. Land Economy and Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic). Each course also allows you to explore your own interests, as they usually begin broad and with each year you get more flexibility and the chance to specialise.
There’s a common misconception that your degree determines the type of career you go into. Fair enough, no-one’s going to let you operate on someone’s brain with a degree in English, but there are very few degrees that lead into specific careers. The job destinations of Cambridge graduates are hugely varied and employability rates are extremely high – this is due to the ‘transferable skills’ we gain (management speak for useful things like thinking analytically, writing clearly and meeting deadlines that we apparently learn to do).
TIP: You can help yourself work out whether a subject is for you is by reading up on what it entails, talking to students (you can ask them questions through this website), looking at department websites and, most importantly, reading around the subject. Check the course requirements to make sure you’re studying the right subjects for the course, too…
But how do you choose a College?
Most universities teach using a variety of settings/methods. Some you’ll have probably experienced before at school or college, others are particular to university education, and one particular kind – the supervision system – is special to universities like Oxford and Cambridge! Check out the main types below:
Lectures: Often a room full of people (ranging from hundreds to ten, depending on your course) listening to an academic who is speaking at the front. These tend to be very informative and less interactive. You can use notes you take in them to inspire arguments in your essays or to revise for your exams.
Classes/seminars: Many courses include classes or seminars. Smaller than most lectures and generally more interactive, teaching might be based around discussions in groups. Depending on your course, you might have classes that develop subject-related skills, such as a language class or drawing class.
Labs/practicals: You might also be taught through doing practical work. Natural Sciences students often spend their weekday afternoons in laboratories (‘labs’), for example.
Field trips: Some courses do field trips! Lucky you who get to escape the Cambridge bubble during term time and explore anywhere from sunny Mallorca (interviewing tourists about heritage) to… Norfolk (analysing beach pebbles). These of course vary by subject, but they’re a great opportunity to grow closer to course mates and see your subject in action! The faculties, departments and Colleges often have funds available to help you go on trips in Britain and abroad.
Supervisions! Supervisions are often considered the best thing about studying at Cambridge and Oxford - they are small group teaching for one or two students or small groups. You usually get one or two hour-long supervisions per week, in which you meet with an academic or PhD student (your ‘supervisor’) to discuss anything from an essay you’ve recently written, to maths problems you’ve been set in advance, to anything you’ve struggled to understand in lectures. Don’t see this as daunting! It’s time on your own with someone who’s here to help – supervisors are fountains of knowledge and while they will push you to think about things in different ways and deal with new information, they’ll also help you tailor your education to best suit you and your interests. Most students know at least one supervisor who offers tea and biscuits at supervisions too!
Independent Work: There’s a big step up in independence when you start university. No one’s taking the register in lectures or giving you detentions for not handing in homework - it’s down to you to motivate yourself and use the teaching on offer to prepare for your exams. You might also spend more time in libraries or labs doing independent work. On the plus side, that means you increasingly get to study in your own way and explore your own interests!
The topics for each of my supervisions are set in advance – in MML, for instance, it might be on one of the set texts – and I’m given an essay on that topic to complete in advance of the supervision, with a suggested reading list. The supervision gives you a chance to get feedback on your essay and ask any questions that have come up following your supervisor’s comments, and then that acts as a springboard for further discussion. While it might seem a bit daunting to explore your ideas with the world’s leading academics on a near one-to-one basis, all my supervisors have been respectful of and taken a genuine interest in my point of view, all while suggesting other ways of thinking about the topic. The discussions have made me much more aware of how different ideas and cultures have influenced each other throughout history.
AliciaQueens' College, Modern & Medieval Languages
Because philosophy is a small subject (there are around 40 students across the year), my supervisions this year have mostly been one-on-one. They are an hour of discussion with an academic focused on work submitted the day before (in philosophy this is usually a 2,000 word essay). Supervisions can be quite intense, but I have found them to be the most useful type of teaching because you always end up with a better grasp of the subject material. I often turn up with questions that I need answering because I didn’t understand everything from the reading, and my supervisors have always been happy to help. The best thing about this type of teaching is that it is tailored to you. It’s an opportunity to get specific feedback and help and you can direct what is discussed based on what you need.
RachelPhilosophy, Newham College