English at Cambridge

University of Cambridge: Guide & Discussion Forum

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Cambridge says the aims and objective of the English Tripos are:

  • to stimulate original thinking and critical habits of mind, and to develop an ability to construct an argument, both oral and written.
  • to provide a broad knowledge of the development of English Literature which will enable students to understand how writers work within and against literary traditions.
  • to create awareness of the historical dimensions of literary works.
  • to foster a sensitivity to language, and to equip students with the means of analysing forms and strategies.
  • to provide a comparative dimension for the study of literature in English, by study of literature in other languages, or of philosophical works which handle ideas in a non-literary mode.
  • to encourage awareness of literary criticism as an activity with its own history, which changes its nature and aims over time according to changed assumptions about the nature of literature

The Real Deal

As a recent Cambridge English graduate, I can summarise the course in one word: contradictory. On the one hand, you're free to read what you like, go to which lectures you choose and spend as much or as little time in the library as you want to/can get away with. On the other, you may at times feel like an essay-writing machine stretching to get past the 800 word block. Equally frustrating and rewarding, you often tap into thoughts that can seem beyond you. Similarly, your critical faculties are developing much faster than your creative ones so your writing - whether plays, poetry or even the weekly essay - can sometimes seem disappointing as you're so adept at ripping English apart. Supervisions, often one to one (especially in your final year) can be elating and the intellectual environment is stimulating and exciting. --Blissy 13:39, 2 August 2006 (BST)


Part I

Part I is probably where the difference between English at Cambridge and at other universities is most obvious: whereas other courses will offer you a piecemeal knowledge of random bits and pieces of English literature, typically whatever they think is least likely to bore their students, this course is unapologetically comprehensive and gives you a full historical and working knowledge of English, with some theory and philosophy thrown in for good measure. Part I is taken over the first two years of your degree. At the end of the first year you will take faculty prelims (preliminary exams) on the content you've studied so far, and at the end of the second year you take your Part I exams.

Different colleges teach different papers at different times of the year, but most everyone takes Shakespeare in Easter term (Summer) of the first year because that's when all the lectures and classes are scheduled. In your first term you will either be looking at Medieval or Victorian/Modern literature; in your second, it will be either the 'long' 18th century or Renaissance (the best paper in this student's opinion).

Part I is made up of 6 papers. Paper 3 (1300-1550) and Paper 5 (Shakespeare) are compulsory. You may submit a portfolio of three essays and a dissertation to substitute for 2 of papers 4, 6 and 7 (Renaissance, Long 18th Century and Victorian/Modern respectively). The rest you sit exams for - and therefore most people sit four 3/3.5 hour long Part I exams (you get a bit longer for Prac Crit and Medieval) which, combined with the two coursework pieces, make for 6 papers in total. You may also replace one of 4, 6 and 7 with a language paper from ASNAC, MML or Classics: you will need to know the language already for most of these but you may learn Anglo-Saxon or Italian from scratch. Note that most colleges will still insist that you receive the teaching for whichever paper you 'replace', so this does mean a larger workload, though the language teaching is spread out fairly thinly over the whole two years of the course.

Here are the papers, and a few examples of the authors you might study - but remember there is a lot of choice within each one, and supervisors will usually be happy to let you write on whichever writer interests you, even very obscure ones. Outside of the Medieval and Shakespeare papers, 1/3 of which are on set texts (currently Gawain and the Green Knight and Troylus and Criseyde or Piers Plowman for the former and Cymbeline for the latter) the essay questions will be open-ended and allow you to use whichever texts you deem appropriate to the question. This is quite liberating: you could conceivable write about texts not usually discussed on many English courses, such as political tracts or popular fiction, on authors not usually considered 'canonical', or comparative essays straddling texts from vastly different historical periods.

  • Paper 1 Practical Criticism and Critical Practice. In practice, everybody takes this: questions typically ask you to work out the relationship between a critical quotation and a few unseen passages but are really very varied and often surprising in the kinds of work they require (EG 2014 exam had questions requiring you to 'prac crit' the name of the exam itself and on passages from philosophy).
  • Paper 2 English 1066-1350 (Early Medieval) - Almost nobody takes this: you specialise in Middle English, Old French, and Medieval Latin literature.
  • Paper 3 English 1300-1550 (Medieval) - Chaucer, Malory, Langland, the mystics, Skelton, the Gawain-poet etc.
  • Paper 4 English 1500-1700 (Renaissance) - Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, More, Milton, Jonson, Marvell, Carew.
  • Paper 5 Shakesepare - currently Cymbeline is compulsory. Expect to read his entire works in the term you study him, as well as some contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
  • Paper 6 English 1660-1870 (The Very Long 18th Century) - Dryden, Pope, Austen, Brontes, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Fielding, Dickens.
  • Either Paper 7A, English 1830 to 1945 or Paper 7B, 1870 to Present, depending on the college teaching capabilities/personal preference (ask Directors of Studies for more info on this) - Dickens, Rossetti, Woolf, Eliot, Beckett, Hill, Amis, Harrison.

--TritonSails 23:03, 25 July 2014 (UTC) (adapted from out of date content from Blissy, August 2006)

Part II

Part II is where it gets really fun. You're allowed to extend your interests and are given a freer reign. There are 5 papers in total. There is a compulsory dissertation (you can write it on anything you like) and two compulsory papers:

  • Practical Criticism - this builds on what you've learnt in Part I and poses similar questions, but at a more advanced level (e.g. one poem may be posed instead of two which is more usual at Part I level).
  • Tragedy - everyone's scared of this paper to begin with, but it usually becomes the firm favourite. You're allowed to study anything and everything - cinema, opera, jazz, theatre, philosophy, religion, modern pop music, - as long as it relates to tragedy. You're expected to cover a satisfactory amount of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy but really, this paper can take you anywhere. There's about 30 questions on the paper (!) and you can let your (academic) imagination run riot. It's brill, but often unnecessarily dreaded. Excitingly, you can either write three one hour answers or one three hour answer--the latter option perhaps not one for the faint of heart.

On top of these 2 compulsory exams, and 1 compulsory dissertation you have two options:

  • take 1 additional optional paper and write 2 dissertations
  • take 2 optional papers and write 1 dissertation

The current optional part II papers are:

  • Chaucer
  • Medieval Supernatural (1066-1500)
  • Material Renaissance (1530-1680)
  • Modernism and the Short Story
  • Special Period: 1847-72
  • Contemporary Writing
  • English Moralists
  • History and Theory of Literary Criticism
  • American Literature
  • Postcolonial and Related Literature
  • Early Modern Drama (1588-1642)

The pros and cons can be weighed up, but it's really down to how you work. Can you juggle two dissertations and organise your time well enough? Can you revise hardcore for an extra exam and keep all those quotations in your mind? --TritonSails 23:12, 25 July 2014 (UTC), updated from Blissy, August 2006

Teaching and Lectures

Teaching takes place all over Cambridge and you are often sent to supervisors' houses! You'll be taught mainly with your college buddies, but will have plenty of opportunities to mix with other college students.

Lectures Lectures are not compulsory. They don't record your attendance, but you should at least go to some. You soon have a favourite lecturer and have to be up early to get to their lecture, just for their wit. Lectures take place on the Sidgwick Site and, depending on your college, this can take 2 minutes - 30 minutes to get to. Not that bad really is it? Your DoS (Director of Sctudies) gives you a lecture list at the beginning of term (called "Notes on Courses") and will generally give you a bit of advice about which might be most useful. Lectures are open to everyone and you'll probably see the same faces from lecture to lecture.

I've sometimes emailed a lecturer after a lecture to ask about a particular point they made. Don't be shy, they love it really!

Classes/Faculty Teaching These have to be organised by your DoS and are applicable to Shakesepare and Languages/Language for Literature and Practical Criticism Theory Papers (ToV, FoC, ToU) and Medieval translation in Part I. You'll go to these classes and join people from across the university who have been put up for them too. They're helpful, but ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS do the reading or you'll have nothing to take from them.

Supervisions/College Teaching Quality of supervisors can vary a little bit, but on the whole supervisors are brilliant. Often willing to help, feel free to email them and say 'I'm interested in doing X next week, can you give me some pointers?'. Don't piss them off by being late or by handing an essay in half an hour before the supervision. You can learn a lot from them and even when they're putting you on the spot they're ultimately helping you out.

Essays Write them and try to write them well. If you write well you've got a better base to revise from and it makes that Easter/Exam/Summer term a lot easier. However, if it goes drastically wrong one week don't get hung up on it. Remember, you're usually writing 8 essays for your main paper and you only have to answer 3 questions in the exam. You can afford to experiment and miss bits, because you fill those in and solify them during exam term.

Reading Lists These are available on the English Department's website, but they are HUGE. Don't be scared of them (this "don't be scared" theme seems to crop up a lot) but use them to guide your reading on certain topics and authors. --Blissy 13:39, 2 August 2006 (BST)

Practical Criticism

Prac Crit is a Cambridge institution, you are likely to have a Prac Crit session once a week for your entire degree. Prac Crit is applicable and necessary to everything else you'll do in studying English, so getting a grip on it from the start is a good idea. Don't stay quiet in classes, your ideas are just as valid as everyone else's and it's as important to be in conversation with other academics as it is to be in conversation with the text (well, as far as you can be with a text!).

You'll usually do a lot of talking about a lot of texts. Your prac crit essay writing will develop a lot over the years and everyone has different ideas about how to write a prac crit essay

How do I approach Prac Crit?

Practical Criticism involves two central questions: what is the text trying to do? And, how is it trying to do it? Obviously, it's not this easy and texts are sneaky things that have many facets: it can move readers, explore a genre or form, impress a patron, satirise a politician, lament a changing world, all at the same time. And a text will work towards its aims in many different ways. Our job is to respond to these complexities, (and, in an exam, consider them in relation to a question posed) and see how well it achieves its aims. Does the text defeat itself? Does its outward purpose conflict with what is actually achieved? How does it manipulate its readers? It's helpful to think of prac crit in these broad "how" and "why" terms to begin with.

Words Words are great. Pay attention to which words are used and how they're used. Do words of a similar lexicon come up (e.g. fiscal terms or words relating to the act of writing that recur can point to an underlying concern)? Try to use the dictionary as much as possible because words can often have a revealing second meaning.

Form Your technical vocabulary will mature as you progress. Lennard's The Poetry Handbook is excellent, and written by an ex-Cambridge fellow (and has some nifty prac crit advice with sample essays at the end which can be found on this website: Poetry Resource and Practice Essays

Context It is often desirable to place the text in context, but this isn't always easy - especially if you're not told where it comes from. Context, however, can be achieved by simply commenting on the form and seeing if it conforms or not (e.g. a sonnet about hate would be going against the grain...)

IMPORTANT You can’t learn practical criticism per se or make your responses formulaic. There are ways to help you into a text (see the section on how to write a prac crit essay) but examiners and supervisors really want to see your potential and how you respond to texts. You can’t impose things onto a text that aren’t there (that is not what practical criticism is about), but you can be aware of the sort of things to pick up on. Have some critical, analytical vocabulary in place but use these only where appropriate – take your cues from the text, it’s all in there ready for you to explore!

How do I write a Prac Crit essay?

As I said, everyone has different ideas and these are my own based on what worked for me (a First in my Prac Crit paper at Finals). Practical Criticism can run away with you, and you have to be very strict to achieve the result you want under exam/timed conditions.

  • Write to time. You'll always need to in exams, so get this skill nailed.
  • Read Spend 10 minutes reading the question and the texts. They will often give you a clue as to what you're supposed to be looking for in the question. Don't misread, and don't miss humour. Make sure you understand because a simple misreading can be fatal for your argument.
  • Scribble on the text and all up the sides, picking out what YOU think is interesting and relevant to the question.
  • Prepare to Fight. All good practical criticism essays will have an argument of sorts. If you don't have one at the beginning, try to have one by the end.
  • Plan. Now, here is where I get radical in my way of doing Prac Crit. I found that I needed to do a lot of planning before I wrote or it all went awry and my pen would be moving and I'd have no idea where I was going. I planned for 10 minutes or so, but I was always very involved with it. You might be able to plan in a minute or two.
  • Frame. This is your way of introducing, that might be by overviewing the whole text or it could be in some neater way. Framing is how you focus the question to the text and start to lead the reader down your path.
  • Form. Often there's something interesting to be said about the form - is it a poem? what kind of poem? diary entry? letter? why has this mode been chosen? Does it enhance or go against the themes it engages with? Form is a useful way of a) showing your knowledge of historical and literary contexts b) narrowing down still further.
  • Focus. This is when you get down to your brilliant idea, your masterpiece brainwave. It often comes out of a sentence, a grammatical feature, a change in metre, a contradictory line and can be related back to your larger idea. Nifty, eh?
  • Conclude. Bring together the threads of your argument and relate it finally back to the question. And you're done.

I'm Stuck - Ideas please!

What follows is a fairly disparate array of things that could lead to a productive argument. This is probably most useful to newcomers to see the scope of Prac Crit. Try and take it in, but a more structured way of thinking follows in my guide on how to write essays (as you'd imagine, thinking in a Prac Crit class is different to making an argument)

They might give you a hint as to what sort of answer they’re looking for in the way they word the question.

A question might be: ‘look at this passage as an example of approaching a fictional conclusion’ (they want you to discuss how successful an ending it is..) ‘Consider the form, meaning and tone of this poem’ (look how they’re put form first – there must be something about the structure of the poems that influences a reading of their meaning and tone)

I'd open with a short account of the text (we're still told to do this in our final year!) - is it a memory? a meander through a garden? a quest? Who is the narrator? is the narrator a character, the author or other? What is the narrative perspective?

Is it a landscape? An interior? An encounter?

Is it atmospheric, evocative or descriptive, precise? (atmospheric and evocative are not interchangeable and neither are descriptive and precise) What is the tone – elegiac? Accusatory? Didactic? Nostalgic? General introductory comments like this can often channel you down an interesting path.

Write down what you notice about theme, genre, how the text is constructed (for example, is enjambment used – and to what effect), how the author handles and develops concepts, any particular outstanding themes or preoccupations, any recurring images (burning, iridescence, dancing etc). Choose examples from your close reading of the text to back up your wider comment on the text as a whole.

Are there conflicts or tensions in the text (for example nature/industry)? Is there an established form being used/subverted (a sonnet that undermines the concept of love for example?)

What information is being presented? Is it obscured? Is there bias? Does this lend a particular weight to the poem? Is the information explicit or gradually revealed – who is privy to the information? If there are characters do they know as much as the reader?

Does the poem address something external to the poem (an apostrophe, for example “O calendar customs!” or “Breughel, You’ll know them”)

Prose – is there dialogue? --Blissy 00:32, 2 August 2006 (BST)

How To Do Well in Cambridge English Exams

1. Be Consistent This means (1) do your utmost to write proper answers to all the questions you’re asked to do – marks can plummet when you don’t do this; (2) do your utmost to be on good form in every paper – you can’t just give up on one as a consistent performance is necessary to hit your target; (3) don’t let any failure in (1) and (2) get to you, as the worst thing you can do for your consistency is to dwell on the past. So, with my absolute assurance that it’s terribly hard to judge performance in these exams from the inside, do not worry about what’s gone before: move on and continue trying to hit your standard.

2. Check Rubrics/Exam Instructions You can usually do this in advance on your university's website. Double-check in the exam, bearing in mind any stipulations.

3. Answer Questions So obvious, right? Well, it often doesn’t happen. Too many people just use the question as an opportunity to write an essay that they already wanted to write. That is OK up to a point, but the material needs to be turned to the issues of the question. Keep them in mind – and the problems and opportunities of the specific terms of the question – at the beginning, the end, and probably in the middle too. You can be quite explicit about showing how you’re focusing on it. For example: of course you may find yourself wanting to squeeze some material of one sort into a question that seems initially to be asking for something else, but if you reckon the question can be answered in relation to other stuff, explain why apparently tangential material actually informs the topic of the question. If you can’t explain, it’s probably a bad idea just to hope the examiner will forgive you.

4. Have Arguments (This isn’t the time to tell you to have good material, or whatever – so my emphasis is on more superficial things, but no matter what your level of preparation you can benefit from getting the superficials right.) Arguments: easy to neglect, even when answering questions. One criterion when choosing a question to answer should be: do I have something to argue in relation to this – not just relevant material, but actually a point or some points to make? So your best place to use, say, your stuff on the Shakespearean tragic hero might not be the apparent gift question on tragic heroes which has no issues you wish to tackle, but rather the thorny question on something else that means you can use your material in relation to a sharper argument. Not every paper will yield you opportunities to make lively, interesting arguments. For example, the question could be a proposition that you agree with; it might be an invitation to consider ‘in what ways renaissance writers did XYZ’ – not inherently dramatic. Then, you need to try to find some dynamic in your argument – to uncover something paradoxical, contradictory, or whatever, that thickens up your response. Find an angle. Don’t forget to have arguments. A key part of your task is to write essays: if you do the other bits (use good material, answer the question) without turning it into an essay, you’re missing a trick. Don’t just splurge your material down – that’s a self-defeating defence mechanism. NOTE – you may not have an argument at the start, but try to have one by the end… See (6) below.

5. Calm and Confident Ignore other people: it is impossible to interpret their actions or behaviour usefully, e.g. the person who smirks arrogantly while writing three times as much as you is probably insane and not an example of the geniuses who should be doing these papers. Expecting to do well is actually a good strategy: a bit of positive visualisation never does any harm. Imagine yourself sitting down in the exam, opening the paper, finding questions, writing three essays, and leaving. (Don’t get too specific – it’s the general vibe you’re after.) This is what it will be like, and expecting it can make it even more so. FEEL WORTHY – this is terribly important: you have every right to pronounce judgement on these questions, to quibble with whatever statement (attributed or otherwise) with which you are confronted. It is your job to do this, so there is no possibility of presumption. And relax: these are not the most important things in the world, even if it is 100% worthwhile trying to do well in them.

6. Be Alert Keep thinking throughout – don’t just go into automatic pilot. If you change your mind about your argument half way through then present it as an alternative approach – examiners like to see people thinking, responding, being intellectually flexible and actively critical. (Don’t be chaotic about it – but remember that a disciplined argument can vary and even end up running against the initial grain.) If your argument drifts, think about the best way of bringing it back to focus. If you come up with something clever spontaneously, then find a way of bringing it in – if you’re worried it may be flawed, say so (‘An alternative reading, which captures X but may not be able to account for Y, might be…’) – just as long as you are being responsive in the exam.

7. Do Not Be Alarmed By This Document Lots of stuff here is ideal-world, on-a-good-day exam advice. It doesn’t all need to come together, but thinking about it in advance may help make it so… --Blissy 14:06, 26 July 2006 (BST)

One Last Word of Advice

Never get behind. Write essays, and hand them in on time. You have to learn not to be a perfectionist because this can seriously inhibit you. It takes a while to get your head around, but everything you do is tailored towards those final exams. Write with a view to making your life easier when it comes to exam term. It's easy to get caught up in one concept, or even to get distracted by the amount of free time you DO have. Keeping on track and having self-discipline is imperative for the result you want at the end. Good luck everyone, and enjoy it because it's one of the most stimulating environments and wonderful experiences of your life.

If you need a positive: just think, English is one of the only subjects where you're allowed to:

  • deface your own books and it be smiled on
  • talk for half an hour about the placement of a comma, only to find it's a smudge on the paper ;)
  • oh, and it prepares you for the work place a lot more than you thought it would

--Blissy 13:39, 2 August 2006 (BST)

My Personal Statement


Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic
Modern and Medieval Languages
Natural Sciences
Politics, Psychology and Sociology


Clare Hall
Corpus Christi
Gonville and Caius
Hughes Hall
Lucy Cavendish
Murray Edwards
St Catherine's
St Edmund's
St John's
Sidney Sussex
Trinity Hall