English at Cambridge is an exciting subject to study not just because it enables students to explore a wide range of texts, but also because it helps them express themselves through the tussle with words that fascinates all authors.


The English Tripos is divided into two Parts. Part I, which lasts for two years, traces the development of literature in Britain from Chaucer to the present day. You can expect to cover literary works across all periods and genres, and to apply a broad range of critical approaches, which range from close reading to the consideration of historical, social and political context. While these period papers aim to give you a solid grounding in significant works of literature, there are no official ‘set texts’: you will be strongly encouraged to pursue your individual interests, and to develop your own critical practices. Part I also includes compulsory papers on Shakespeare and Practical Criticism—in the latter, you will be asked to respond to a number of short texts, and to reflect more broadly on the relation between literature and society. In addition to these examined papers, you will have the opportunity to write a 5,000-word dissertation on a subject of your choosing, and a portfolio of three smaller essays.

Part II, which lasts one year, offers you wide scope to pursue the specific interests that will have formed over Part I, with optional papers that include Literature and Visual Culture, Shakespeare in Performance, Postcolonial Literature, Modernism and the Short Story, The History and Theory of Literary Criticism, and Contemporary Writing. You will also be able to write a further dissertation of up until 7,000 words; you may also choose to replace one of your optional papers with a further dissertation. There is no ‘one way’ to excel at English at Cambridge. The Tripos rewards a large variety of approaches; above all else, we value critical thinking, originality, and a relish for literature.

More specific detail on the course can be found at the Faculty of English.

How is English taught at Cambridge?

Teaching at Cambridge is divided between the Faculty and Colleges. Lectures on a wide variety of topics are organised within the Faculty; you will be free to attend whichever lectures you wish. You will also have at least one weekly class (or ‘supervision’), during which you discuss your written work with a specialist supervisor. Unlike the examinations at the end of Part I and II, this written work will not be formally graded or assessed; rather, it provides the opportunity for further discussion and development of your ideas. Supervisions at Cambridge are held in small groups with other students from your college; numbers typically range from three to six students. English at Cambridge is therefore distinguished by the amount and quality of individual feedback; the majority of your supervisions for dissertations and Part II optional papers will be one-to-one.

Downing prides itself on its undergraduate provision; we currently have four teaching fellows, who cover a wide variety of historical periods, literary genres and critical approaches. Our areas of expertise include the Victorian period, modernism, literature and visual art, philosophies of language, and lyric poetry. Where you wish to work on a topic that falls outside of our collective expertise, your Director of Studies will organise supervisions with a specialist from another college. We do not aim to impose a particular way of thinking, but to allow you to develop your own particular interests, in a genuinely mutual dialogue with leading experts in the field. Our pedagogical environment is flexible, supportive, and challenging.

At Downing you will have access to excellent facilities. The College Library contains an extensive range of books and journals, which supplement the comprehensive materials available at the Faculty Library and the University Library. English undergraduates at Downing are assisted with the cost of buying books through annual grants from the Denham Fund. Downing is supportive of creative writing, and awards prizes worth up to £500 for original poems, short stories, and chapters from novels, thanks to the generosity of the late P. D. James, Honorary Fellow of the College. Downing also has a flourishing drama scene, with the Downing College Dramatic Society and the Howard Theatre at the very heart of college life.

Downing has four fellows who teach for the English Tripos:

Dr Ewan Jones, who focuses on the relationship between poetry and philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Dr Sarah Kennedy, whose research interests include twentieth-century and contemporary Anglophone poetry, modernism, metaphor, nature-writing, literary self-conception, originality, and allusion.

Dr Marcus Tomalin, whose interests include theoretical linguistics, philosophy, and Romanticism.

Dr Catherine Phillips, whose research is largely on literature and art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Downing has long been strongly associated with English at Cambridge. The influential critic F. R. Leavis was Fellow in English from 1936-1962 and Downing has among its English alumni Trevor Nunn and Quentin Blake.

English graduates from Downing have entered many professions including education in universities and schools, journalism, law, publishing, television, theatre, arts administration, fine art, charitable organizations, advertising, public relations, consultancy, the civil service, and accountancy.

Entry requirements and interviews

The standard conditional offer for candidates in English at Downing is A*AA at A2 Level. While History, Classics, Religious Studies and languages all give particular strengths to undergraduates taking the English Tripos, only English Literature or Language and Literature are compulsory for entry. All additional subjects, including Science and Mathematics, are acceptable, though we have a preference for academic rather than vocational subjects. We welcome applications from students intending to take a gap year before commencing a university degree.

From 2016, all applicants to study English at Cambridge will be required to take the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT). Information about this can be found on the university website here and on the ELAT website here. The ELAT replaces the written tests that candidates at Downing would previously have been asked to take.

If you are called to interview at Downing, you will receive two 30-minute interviews on the same day, each conducted by our teaching fellows. The interviews are designed to ascertain your aptitude and enthusiasm for English at Cambridge. There are no ‘trick questions’ or preconceived right answers; above all else, we are looking for candidates whose passion for literature leads naturally to independent and original thinking. As part of the examination, you may be asked to respond to a small literary text or extract.

Further advice about entry requirements and interviews for all subjects can be found in the Applying to Downing section of this site.


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