English students come in all shapes and sizes, with diverse casts of mind, and diverse personal, ethnic and geographical backgrounds. What they share is a passion for literature. Given the shape of our course, they are unafraid of a challenge – say, writing an essay about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems in a week before discussing it with an expert on his verse – and glad to branch out intellectually – say, to try Elizabethan poetry or South African fiction for the first time. They have a curiosity which spurs them to read on, find out more and to think in depth. They have initiative in solving puzzles or finding topics for enquiry for themselves. They have skills in managing the independent parts of their studies and juggling deadlines. They are ready to write essays frequently (probably once a week) and take formal written examinations, as this is what the course will entail.
Usually applicants need to have studied English literature or (if this is what their school offers) English Language and Literature to A Level, or the equivalent in IB, Scottish Highers or other qualifications. The other subjects taken by applicants vary but, as you might expect, many have studied other languages or humanities, which can be useful for the course – yet candidates with qualifications in the sciences also do well.
You must check the University’s website for the most up-to-date requirements for the course, for particular colleges and for the university as a whole:
In Cambridge, admissions are handled by individual Colleges, so you must consult the webpage of the College to which you apply (or to which you are assigned, if you make an Open Application) for details of the likely format of the interview or any written test. For rough guidelines, see:
There is, though, some general good advice on preparing for interviews: read widely in advance, and think about what you read. Read pre-twentieth century works too, and also read poetry, for any good degree course will lead you to these things as well. In a lot of interviews the candidate is given a poem or short passage to read ‘unseen’ and asked what she or he thinks of it. If you regularly read poems independently, without your teacher instructing you, this ‘unseen’ test will soon be not daunting but delighting, a chance to exercise your intelligence, creativity and literary insight. A good anthology of poetry from all periods is one place to start, and to introduce you to writers whose work you could then further seek out. The key point is to read beyond the syllabus of your schoolwork, as much as the demands of time allow, thus showing your initiative and enthusiasm.
While it is a myth (perhaps put out by mathematicians) that there are no wrong answers in English, there are certainly many ways of reading and thinking. So do not be shy to respond for yourself in interview – or ever: describe precisely what you see; ask questions searchingly about what you see, and why it matters; consider connections between what you know already and what you are only just discovering; support your analyses with careful evidence. The interviewers love to read and talk about literature: and they look forward to hearing what you have to say.