Studying English at Cambridge University

studying English Literature at Cambridge


I have loved my past three years of studying English Literature at Cambridge, but there have certainly been challenges and surprises along the way too!

This blog will try and give you a better idea of what studying the subject is really like – it is much more than just reading novels and writing poetry…

What Is The English Literature Structure At Cambridge?

A brief outline of the Cambridge literature course is as follows: the tripos is split into 2 parts – the first two years of the course are ‘Part 1’, whilst your final year is ‘Part 2’ (although your results are calculated only from Part 2 exams).

In the first two years, you cover an extremely wide spectrum of literature, taking papers in Medieval, Renaissance, Shakespearean, 18th century and modern literature.

What you study within each paper is completely up to you however – you can write about plays, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers and more… What I have enjoyed the most is the freedom of choice you have as a student to tailor the course to your interests.

If you don’t like poetry, don’t worry – you can largely avoid writing essays about it!

What Is Practical Criticism?

However, one paper which is compulsory at Cambridge at least is Practical Criticism.

In short, this is a three-year long module which covers close reading, linguistic analysis, literary theory and literary criticism.

In the exam, you receive unseen passages of plays, books, poems and more, and you have to answer a question about your chosen passage within the exam time constraints.

Whilst this might sound a little dry, and even something you have done before at school, the three years of preparation you do for this paper can be fascinating.

Supervisions for Practical Criticism for me have included discussions of rap music, modern race relations, visual art, and almost everything else you could think of!

This paper has really broadened my horizons, introducing me to new literary genres and texts I had never encountered, as well as really enhancing my technical and theoretical knowledge.

Dissertations: English Literature at Cambridge

Whilst Practical Criticism is compulsory, you do get to choose the subject of both your Part I and Part II dissertations, as well as the two optional modules in your final year.

I chose to write about the poetry of Tennesee Williams in my second year for my dissertation (only his plays are usually written about), and then contemporary poetry about art in my final year, incorporating a lot of the feminist theory I had learnt over the course of my degree.

Dissertations are a great chance to really hone in on your interests and strengths – you have complete free rein, so you can write about anything at all!

You’ll have a supervisor to help you along the way, so your choice is hopefully guided by an expert in the field. Writing my dissertations, though stressful and challenging at times, has taught me so much about research, perseverance and structuring an argument.

They have been excellent preparations for the toughest parts of the degree, and you have a sense of so much pride at the end.

In my final year, alongside my dissertation, I elected to take the papers in Material Renaissance and American Literature.

I really enjoyed both of these papers and having the freedom to choose – they are both completely different subjects, and I loved having a contrast between the two.

In the Renaissance paper, we studied art and material culture alongside literature of the period, looking at the interaction between text, the physical book and visual/artistic influences. By contrast, my American paper was much more modern – I even wrote an essay about 9/11, and the lectures were very much anchored in history, contextualising the literature of the USA.

Studying literature at Cambridge has been so rewarding – handing in two essays a week taught me so much about time management and organisation, and I can now look back and feel proud of all I have achieved.

What surprised me most about the course was how broad and wide-ranging it is – I have studied everything from Christian Medieval literature to Renaissance reading practices, from contemporary pop culture to Victorian ghost stories, and so much more. If you want to study something which will let your imagination run wild, then English might be for you.

About Anna Gelband
Anna is in her third year at Downing College, Cambridge where she is reading English Literature. She has been specializing in American Literature and Renaissance Literature in the final year of her degree, and wrote her dissertation on modern poetry and visual art. She is also on the committee for the Humanities society at Downing College, and is passionate about getting more people involved in the arts. From next year, Anna will be completing a law conversion course, before beginning a career as a solicitor. In her free time, Anna loves netball, music and going on long walks to discover new parts of Cambridge.

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