Key facts

Average number of students offered a place per year


Average number of applicants per year


English at Cambridge is an exciting subject to study. It is flexible, expansive, and interdisciplinary. It offers students the opportunity to explore a wide range of texts, helps them to reflect upon the world, and builds our ability to express ourselves through the games that language plays with us.

Our standard conditional offer for this subject is usually A*AA at A level or 41 - 43 points overall and 7, 7, 6 at Higher Level in IB.  All Colleges may modify offers to take account of individual circumstances.  Further information on studying English can be found here.

What does the English course cover?

The English Tripos is divided into three Parts. Parts 1A (first year) and 1B (second year) trace the historical development of literature in Britain and beyond 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 II (third year) offers you wide scope to pursue the specific thematic interests that will have formed over Part I, through a series of optional papers in addition to the core curriculum. You will write at least one dissertation in your third year. There is no single 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 deep commitment to and love of literature.

Course structure

In your first year (Part IA) you will take two compulsory papers: Paper 1: Practical Criticism and Critical Practice (‘PCCP’), and Paper 2: Shakespeare. The Shakespeare paper will be assessed by a portfolio of essays submitted during the Easter Term. The PCCP paper will be assessed by examination at the end of your first year. You will also study two of the period papers covering literature from the Medieval period (Paper 4), and the literature of the long Eighteenth Century (Paper 6). Both of these papers count towards Part 1B and will be assessed at the end of your second year.

In your second year (Part IB), you will study two further period papers, covering literature from the Renaissance (Paper 5) and the Contemporary era (Paper 7B). Of the four period papers, one will be assessed by a dissertation; the rest will be examined. You will also continue work on PCCP.

In your third year (Part II), you will take two compulsory papers, PCCP II and Tragedy (Paper 2), which ranges from ancient to modern. You also write a compulsory dissertation (of 6,000-7,500 words) and either submit a second dissertation (of 6,000-7,500 words) and take one optional paper, or choose two optional papers. The optional papers change regularly. The available optional papers for 2022-23 are:

  • Chaucer
  • Medieval English Literature 1066-1500: The Medieval Supernatural
  • Early Modern Drama 1588-1642
  • Material Renaissance
  • Love, Gender, Sexuality 1740­1824
  • Special Period of English Literature 1847-1872
  • Prose Forms 1936–1956
  • Contemporary Writing in English
  • Postcolonial and Related Literatures
  • American Literature
  • The Ethical Imagination
  • History and Theory of Literary Criticism
  • Lyric
  • Literature and Visual Culture

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

How is English taught at Downing?

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. The majority of your teaching will take place in College, in the form of classes, workshops, and small-group supervisions 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 three teaching fellows, supported by a number of other teaching staff that includes practitioners able to help students with their creative work. We cover a wide variety of historical periods, literary genres and critical approaches. Our areas of expertise include the Eighteenth Century period, modernism, contemporary poetry and fiction, literature and visual art, ecocriticism, 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.

The English Society is a community of current and past Downing English students. Our main activity is the production of Downing’s literary magazine, The Leaves. This publication features Downing talent in visual art, poetry, drama, prose fiction and non-fiction. Each volume is edited by students and contains new work by Downing students alongside winning work from the College’s Twining Egginton Prize for visual art, The Festival of New Writing for drama, and the John Treherne Prize for creative writing. 

Downing has three 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 Bonnie Lander Johnson whose work focuses on Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, drama and culture, the novel, and the ways in which literature has engaged with the histories of sciences and religion.

Downing also has four Bye-Fellows for English.

  • Lisa Mullen, whose teaching and research interests range across the long twentieth-century, with particular focus on ecocriticism, literatures of health and sickness, and the affordances of the interdisciplinary approaches to critique.
  • Claudia Tobin is a writer, curator and academic specialising in the intersections between literature and the visual arts in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Stephen Bennett, who is Director of Drama at Downing. He has taught and directed at the universities of Yale and Carnegie Mellon in the US, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Shakespeare's Globe and The Royal National Theatre in the UK.
  • Jenn Ashworth is a novelist, essayist and short story writer. Her research interests are broad and include space and place in the novel with a particular interest in representations of the North, memoir, narratives of sickness, care and recovery, formal experiment in the essay, representations of religious experience, the contemporary ghost story and creative writing pedagogy.

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, Howard Jacobson 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 organisations, advertising, public relations, consultancy, the civil service, and accountancy.

Entry requirements and interviews

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.

All applicants to study English at Cambridge are 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 interview, 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 Apply to Downing section of this site.

For more information and resources related to studying English, visit  

Love your subject: English


Image reproduced courtesy of Justin Rowe,