Katie - English
Katie is from Ruskington in Lincolnshire, in the East Midlands of England, and wrote this at the end of her second year studying English here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Katie sat A-Levels in English Literature, Classical Civilisation and French.
Why did you choose English at Cambridge?
The thing that attracted me to the Cambridge English course was its simultaneous breadth and depth. In the first two years (Part I) you’ll learn about literature from 1300 to the current year, giving you a really solid grounding in the subject for when you start specialising and choosing optional papers in third year (Part II). However, unlike the course at Oxford, English at Cambridge doesn’t require the study of Old English texts like Beowulf (although that is an option in third year!). For me, the Cambridge course had both an in-depth introduction to English Literature in Part I and a huge amount of flexibility in Part II, an ideal balance.
Why did you apply to Christ’s?
I walked through the main gate on a summer Open Day, saw First Court, with beautiful flowerboxes under all the windows, and knew that Christ’s was where I wanted to live and work during my time at Cambridge. I also remember being impressed by the friendliness and knowledge of the student helpers who were showing people round! By chance, I was given a tour by someone else studying English, who talked to me about the course and the fellows at Christ’s while we were walking around the college. When I actually got to Christ’s, she was in her final year, and was super helpful and encouraging to all the first years! I really love this friendly atmosphere, which I’ve experienced throughout my time at the College.
Christ’s offered a £120 book grant to all freshers in my first year, which to an English student was incredibly useful! I used it to buy the core texts for each paper. You can use the grant directly at Heffers on Trinity Street and get the books without paying, or pay for copies and claim the money back from the College at the end of the year. Christ’s also offers travel grants, from multiple funds, to help students to conduct research overseas. I applied for two different travel grants in Easter Term of my second year, and between them have received enough money to fund a research trip to Ireland, for my third-year dissertation, this summer. There’s different levels of support for student welfare at Christ’s, which I quite like. These range from informal JCR events like welfare smoothies and the Senior Tutor’s Tea in exam term, to the drop-in college nurse and free counselling sessions.
"I walked through the main gate on an Open Day, saw First Court with beautiful flowerboxes under the windows, and knew that Christ’s was where I wanted to live and work during my time at Cambridge."
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
Although I don’t often visit other Colleges, I think the system is really useful, especially in your first term. You arrive at College with a relatively small group of people, and the events organised by your College throughout Freshers’ Week are both fun and a brilliant way to get to know them.
In practical terms, Colleges are great because they allow you to live and work in the same peaceful space. Christ’s does allow tourists to visit the college during term time, but it’s far less busy than the city centre. Cambridge itself is often crowded, especially during school holidays (which don’t always line up well with the university terms) and bank holidays (which, in my experience, the university ignores).
I mostly experience other Colleges through supervisions, which are hour-long teaching sessions where small groups of students (usually two or three for English) discuss their weekly essays with an academic (called a ‘supervisor). Your supervisions are organised by your Director of Studies, but sometimes the supervisor they pick will work at another college. This is a completely normal part of the Cambridge teaching system, and often happens in the third and second years as you begin to specialise and get to choose more papers.
How did you find the application process?
I found the application process a bit stressful, although once I was offered an interview I found the Cambridge side of things very efficient. Applicants to Oxbridge have an early UCAS deadline (usually October 15), and Cambridge applicants must then complete the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) by October 22. Although I made sure I got everything done by the deadlines, the fact that my school doesn’t send many people to Oxbridge meant that they often weren’t able to support or advise me throughout the process. Because of this, my UCAS application went in very close to the deadline. My advice to people in the same position as me would be to research the application process thoroughly, work out what you need to have done by when, and make it clear to your teachers pretty early on when your deadlines are and how you’d like them to help you.
Despite applying straight to Christ’s, and getting an offer I missed my offer by one grade and was summer pooled. This is different from the Winter Pool, which happens immediately after interviews and allows oversubscribed Colleges to offer candidates worthy of an offer to Colleges with places left to fill in any given subject. The Summer Pool happens after A Level Results Day (mid-August), and involves a small number of candidates who have missed their offers but still achieved high grades. The College kept in touch with me throughout the process, which was very reassuring. Eventually, Christ’s decided to accept me as I’d achieved highly in my English A-Level, and they confirmed my place two days after Results Day. I remember those two days being incredibly stressful, but found stuff like getting out of the house for walks and spending time with my family really great for helping to take my mind off of it.
If there was an admissions assessment for your course, how did you prepare for it?
I applied to Cambridge in the year that the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) was introduced. I can’t remember if there were sample papers available when I took the ELAT, but there are some online now. Although they’re definitely worth taking a look at, I don’t think you should spend ages going through them at the cost of time spent on your A-Levels. The ELAT is an entirely unseen paper, so there’s no way to prepare for the material, although practicing writing on unseen extracts from literature might help you to develop your technique.You’re given six extracts, linked by a common theme (in my year this was ‘storms’), and asked to compare two of them in any way that interests you. Although this seemed slightly terrifying beforehand, when I actually started writing it was freeing. The ELAT was the first really unrestricted essay I’d written, and I really enjoyed the challenge.
"The ELAT was the first completely unrestricted essay I’d written, and I really enjoyed the challenge."
How did you prepare for your interview?
I mostly prepared for my interview by getting to know my personal statement, and the books I had mentioned in it, really well. English Literature is such a subjective field of study that there isn’t any one book which will make you a stand-out candidate. Having said that, anthologies of critical thought such as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism might be useful in giving you an overview of major critical movements which might not be covered at A-Level.
One thing I would advise you to do is read things that interest you, not things you think will look good on your application. I treated the summer before Year 13 (my final school year) as a chance to explore aspects of literature that I hadn’t had the chance to in school, and I think this really helped when the time came to write my personal statement.
My first interview, which I felt didn’t go that well, was mostly on things I was unfamiliar with, which was what I had been expecting from a Cambridge interview. I was very nervous, and remember mixing up the wooden chair to put my coat on and the comfy chair to sit in, which made me a bit flustered. It did break the tension a bit though, and my interviewers were calm and friendly, which definitely helped.
My second interview was on subjects and works I was more familiar with, and being more confident on these meant that I enjoyed the conversation more. That being said, the chance to speak with people who would later become my supervisors about works I love was amazing, and the more unfamiliar elements of the interviews were also really interesting.
Before you came to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
I was looking forward to the freedom of university! I'd only ever lived in a small Midlands village before I got to Cambridge (fun fact: there is not a single motorway in Lincolnshire), and the sheer amount of stuff that’s available in the city is amazing. There’s everything from parks to museums to a market in the square seven days a week. The idea that I could go to the shops at 10pm if I wanted was a completely new one.
I was probably most worried about living away from home for the first time, but I didn’t get as homesick as I thought I might. I found that having a set time every week to call home for an hour or so really helped, and Cambridge has good rail links so I can sometimes pop home for a weekend in term time. If you can manage to get enough work done to free up a couple of days, these mini-holidays can be really relaxing, and are a great reminder that life goes on outside the Cambridge bubble. My family and friends also come and visit me in Cambridge sometimes!
"The sheer amount of stuff that’s available in the city is amazing - there’s everything from parks to museums to a market in the square seven days a week."
What are your favourite memories of Fresher’s week?
There are loads! On the evening of the day we arrived in Cambridge, all the Christ’s freshers had dinner in the Hall. It wasn’t a formal dinner, and everyone was in jeans and t-shirts, but it was still the grandest place I’ve ever eaten. During the dinner I met my ‘college brothers’. In Cambridge there’s an unofficial tradition of ‘college families’, where two second years (‘college parents’) look after some freshers (their ‘college children’) in the first few weeks of term. I ended up becoming really good friends with them - we lived in the same (college-owned) house on Jesus Lane last year, and went on holiday to Prague with our housemates before exam term.
The first lectures I went to were horrendously busy, as everyone tends to go to the introductory lectures at the start of term. I remember having to sit on the stairs of the lecture hall in one! I’d had a teacher in secondary school who insisted on delivering his lessons in the style of lectures, so I was already pretty comfortable at keeping up with a lecture while taking notes.
I was more nervous about starting supervisions, as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write a 2000 word essay every week, and the whole format seems to focus a lot of scrutiny on the students. However, my supervisor for the first term, when we studied medieval literature, was wonderful. She gave us tea in every supervision, encouraged us as we made the academic jump from secondary school to university, and finished the term with a trip to the manuscripts room in the University Library so we could handle original copies of the works we’d been studying throughout term.
How does your teaching work?
English students tend to study two main subjects per term in Part I – a paper covering a particular time period, and Practical Criticism, a subject specific to Cambridge. Practical Criticism essentially involves looking solely at the text of a particular extract, discarding its context and focusing on the use of language and style. For each subject we have one hour-long supervision a week, so the average week has two supervisions. You tend to write one 1500 word essay every two weeks for Practical Criticism, and one 2000 word essay per week for the period paper.
Lectures aren’t mandatory in English, so the amount that you go to really varies from person to person. Since first year I’ve got a lot better at working out which lectures series will be helpful for me before the start of term, and then going to all of those. I’d advise going to any lectures that cover texts you know you’re going to be studying that term, and also those addressing subjects that you’re interested in. Outside of that, the introductory lectures are pretty essential, and it’s always a good idea to go to any lectures that your supervisor gives!
The bulk of studying in English takes place outside of contact hours (most supervisors recommend spending 40 hours a week on work), and we don’t really have any other kind of teaching. We do have revision supervisions in exam term, which tend to either be long group sessions or one-on-one discussions, covering both material you’ve already studied and exam technique.
Is the course what you expected it to be when you applied?
In terms of the amount of reading, and the way in which I learn, I’d say that the course is pretty much what I expected. I had no idea, however, of the huge variety of literature I’d learn about and become interested in. Throughout the last two years, I’ve discovered that I tend to read things from a historicist perspective, that I like everything from Middle Scots poetry to Victorian detective novels, and that I’m far better at keeping calm during exams now than I was during A-Levels.
The best thing about the course is undoubtedly the freedom that comes with the amount of independent reading that you’re expected to do. Generally, supervisors will set one or two texts per week, and perhaps give you some essay titles to pick from, but beyond that what you read is entirely up to you. This makes supervisions with other people on your course really interesting, as everyone is looking at the same text from a different perspective. The worst thing is probably the dedication that this freedom requires - no one’s making you get out of bed and start working, but if you don’t, you know you won’t do as well as you want to.
"The best thing about the course is undoubtedly the freedom that comes with the amount of independent reading that you’re expected to do."
How do you manage your workload?
I’m the kind of person who tends to focus on work above other things, and I’ve sometimes struggled to allow myself time to enjoy being at Cambridge. I tend to save more time-consuming extracurriculars, like theatre, for the first two terms and then cut down on what I do in exam term. Throughout the year, I volunteer as a Christ’s Ambassador, giving tours to prospective students and helping out at events such as Open Days or interviews. Tours are usually only half an hour long, so they fit into my day well, and walking around college with a group of students makes you really appreciate how beautiful Christ’s is.
I also find that working out your weeks (and sometimes days) in advance is really useful, in that you’re aware of exactly how much time you’ve got to fit in work, and on what day you can probably afford to do other things in the afternoon or evening. I’m a morning person, and struggle to carry on working past 8pm in the evening. Throughout my time at Christ’s I’ve worked out that it’s better to lean into that, and get up early, rather than try and force myself to work late into the evening.
What have you enjoyed most and least about life at Cambridge this year?
I’ve probably most enjoyed living outside of college, as about half of the second-year students do every year, in a College-owned house on Jesus Lane. It’s only a minute’s walk from College, so all of the facilities are still within easy reach, but it was really nice to live in an actual house instead of accommodation. It was really lovely to be able to cook with my friends on a Friday night, and we even had a barbecue in the back garden after exams!
I think the thing that I least enjoyed was that my exams started, and finished, far earlier than most of my friends’. This meant that while they were still relatively free I was having to spend a lot of time studying, and when I finished they had all just started their exams. I didn’t want to disturb any of them because they’d all been great about keeping the noise down when I was revising, so I went home for a few days immediately after I finished and then came back when they were coming to the end of their exams.
Are you involved with any student initiatives, societies or sports in Cambridge?
As I mentioned, I’m a Christ’s Rep, which I started doing pretty much as soon as I arrived in Cambridge. As someone who struggled a bit with lack of support during the admissions process, I think it's really important to get involved with access projects and try and help other students in the same position.
I’m also involved with Christ’s Amateur Dramatics Society (CADS) – in my first year I was the Secretary, and this year I was Vice President, which means I’m in charge of organising all the productions CADS puts on within College. We produce one show every term – the Pantomime in Michaelmas (first term), a Fresher’s Show in Lent (second term), and a Shakespeare Production in May Week (after exams at the end of third term). We also fund shows in other venues around Cambridge, such as the ADC Theatre and the Corpus Playroom, and fund shows at the Edinburgh Fringe every year. I wrote the Pantomime in my second year, with another student from Christ’s, which was a really fun way to get involved in theatre – CADS encourages students to try out writing, directing, and tech as well as acting.
How do you spend your holidays?
I live about an hour and a half from college, so I tend to go home during the long and short vacations. However, I try and pick Category C rooms, which allow you to leave as much stuff as you’d like in your room during the holidays as long as you tidy it into drawers or wardrobes. This is just to allow the rooms to be cleaned, and they won't be opened outside of term so your stuff is completely safe. I find this really useful for things like my ever-growing collection of mugs, which I can't take home because that would mean admitting how many I own.
I usually try and come back to College for a couple of days in the middle of each holidays to access the libraries in Cambridge, and often to help out at Open Days organised by the College. Additionally, this summer, I stayed in College for six weeks for an internship. The work itself was really interesting, and it was great having access to the libraries and getting to wander round Cambridge on the weekends, but the College was far quieter than I’m normally used to.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
So many things! Next year will be my last in Cambridge (as a student at least), so I’d really like to make the most of how easy it is to spend time with my friends at College, and how beautiful the city is. I’m going to try and go to the ADC (and the pub) more than I did this year, and I’m also really looking forward to the Christ’s May Ball (which is held every other year).
In academic terms, I’m doing one optional paper and two dissertations on top of the mandatory Tragedy and Prac Crit papers in third year. I’m taking Paper 7 (Early Modern Drama 1588-1642) which covers all the dramatics writers contemporary with Shakespeare who weren’t Shakespeare, and also writing a 7000-word dissertation on the use of dialect in eighteenth century Ulster poetry. I really like the idea of Paper 11 (Prose Forms 1936-56), but as I’m better at coursework than exams I’ve decided to do a second dissertation on something within the topic rather than taking it as an optional paper.
I’m not really sure what I’m going to do after I graduate – I’d love to stay in Cambridge and do something similar to the work I’ve been doing in my internship this year, but I’m also quite tempted to look around for work in a city like Dublin or Edinburgh. I think it will just depend on how this year goes!