Clara - Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion
Clara is from Clapham (South London), and wrote this at the end of her first year studying Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion here at Christ's College, Cambridge. At school, Clara did A-levels in Russian and Religious Studies, as well as Pre-U History.
Why did you choose Christ's?
I applied to Christ's because I really liked the size of the College, its central location, and the fact that it has accommodation for all three years on (or very close to) the main site. Although it ticked all of these boxes, the main reason I picked Christ's was how friendly and welcoming it seemed. I came to Cambridge on a Theology open day and the Director of Studies for Theology at Christ's, who was also the College Chaplain at the time, gave a talk and took us on a tour of the college. He was so lovely and friendly, it made me really want to come to Christ's. Although, sadly, he's now left Christ's, there definitely is a very open and friendly atmosphere here, which makes it very easy to feel at home.
Christ's also has quite a few grants that you can apply for. For example, in my first year, everyone got a book grant (worth more if you used the Christ's discount at Heffers bookshop!). I've definitely made good use of this, and it's allowed me to buy lots of books for my course - an NRSV Bible, Hebrew Bible, Hebrew textbook, etc. This year I also applied for a travel grant, and ended up getting some money towards going to Israel in September, which I'm very excited about.
I really like the collegiate system - it means making friends is less daunting in Freshers' week, and you get to know people doing lots of different subjects. If you study Theology you're usually not supervised in your College, as there are rarely fellows who specialise in each particular paper in the same College. I think this is quite fun - I've got to see other Colleges and make some friends outside College in supervisions. However, most of my social time is spent in Christ's, as this year I haven't been in lots of societies. All of my friends are close by, and I'm always popping in to visit them during the day!
How did you choose your course?
What made me want to do theology at Cambridge was just how wide-ranging the course is, and how many specialists they have in each area. A Theology and Religion degree involves lots of different disciplines, from history and biblical studies to anthropology and sociology. I knew I was interested in Judaism, anthropology and Christian theology, but wanted a course where I could explore other aspects of religion too. Cambridge was able to offer that range, which I've definitely experienced in my first year papers.
Another thing that attracted me was the compulsory language in first year - you can pick Greek, Hebrew, Arabic or Sanskrit (I chose Hebrew). I was aware of the difficulties of translating texts and importance of being able to read the original, and I also enjoy languages, having studied Russian at A-level. I know this aspect is something lots of applicants, especially those who haven't studied languages in a while, are worried about. However, the teaching here is really high quality and individualised - I found that my Hebrew lessons became my favourite part of the course. I loved learning Hebrew, but even those who found it difficult were able to pick it up (as long as they came to the lessons!).
How did you find the application process?
The application process for Cambridge was long, but ended up being quite enjoyable in my experience. There is an assessment for theology - when I did it this was a short video lecture with some questions afterwards. I did the practice ones online to prepare for the format, but apart from that there's not much else you can do. It wasn't too hard, so don't panic about it. I was very worried about my interviews, but they were actually quite fun! I really love the subject, so I read quite a few books and articles on different topics to prepare, and enjoyed being able to go into more depth than at school. I listened to podcasts (I would recommend the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' series) and lectures (Gresham College has lots of free religion lectures you can watch or listen to online). I also entered a few theology essay competitions. These are great, as they show initiative and allow you to research a specific topic, which is very useful in the interview, as you have things to talk about. I personally really enjoy writing, and the essays were good practice to learn how to construct an argument and format things in the way you do at university (e.g. using footnotes).
Were your interviews what you'd expected?
When I applied Theology candidates got a second interview at a different College to even out the application process, since there are so few applicants. So I had three interviews in total, the first at Girton and then two more at Christ's (where I applied). Having done lots of reading around the subject, and a few practice interviews organised by my school, I felt fairly prepared for the interviews, although of course I was still very nervous. My first interview at Girton really didn't feel like it was going well. The interviewers just asked me questions from a set list, and then didn't properly discuss my answers with me, just moved on to the next question. The questions weren't really tailored to my interests and they didn't ask anything about my personal statement.
However, my interviews at Christ's were far better, and I actually found myself really enjoying them. The interviewers were very friendly and knew how nervous we all were. They mostly asked about things in my personal statement (apart from one short text we discussed), so the interviews ended up being a very interesting chat with people who knew loads about the subject, and about topics I really enjoyed. Of course, they tried to push me, but not so hard that it was impossible, and I learned a lot. My advice would be to try and talk about areas you're interested in (although do still answer the question), and be open and responsive to the suggestions or challenges interviewers make - they're often trying to push a thought further along, rather than put you off!
"My interviews ended up being a very interesting chat with people who knew loads about the subject."
What did you do before coming to Cambridge?
I didn't take a gap year before coming, although I did fill the summer before with lots of things. I volunteered in Lithuania in a community for people with learning disabilities called L'Arche. I also walked the Camino Ingles with a friend, which is a week long hike in Spain to Santiago, and then went interrailing.
I think this experience really prepared me for coming to Cambridge. Freshers' week can be very daunting, especially for me, as I'm quite shy, but going alone to Lithuania (I don't speak Lithuanian!) made me much more confident. I also really enjoyed making lots of friends there, so I ended up being really excited to make new friends from different backgrounds in Cambridge. I remember being a bit worried about the accommodation, as I knew very little about what living in College would be like. In the end, my room this year was amazing - big, quiet, with a lovely view of the Fellows' Garden (which, despite its name, is open to students).
What was your first week at Cambridge like?
I remember Freshers' week being very full of activities, which was great. It meant I didn't have much time sitting in my room, not knowing what to do or where to meet people. Of course, if you wanted, you could have time alone, but I enjoyed throwing myself into everything right away. One of my favourite memories was Family Dinner, which was great fun, and also where I met one of my close friends (she's my college sister). I was surprised by how friendly everyone was - everyone was a bit nervous, but very keen to make friends, so it was a really fun week.
Academic work started with an induction day at the faculty, which allowed me to meet coursemates and learn how things worked. I think I had about two weeks to write my first essay, after meeting my supervisor for a short chat about the course. I did find it difficult, but I had enough time to get to grips with the topic. The supervision was very useful, and my supervisor explained anything I'd found hard or not understood.
How have you found the first year of your course?
The course this year has been great. It's quite similar to what I expected, although I didn't realise how much help you get with the language. In first term, I had four Hebrew classes a week, all with the same teacher. It felt a bit like being back at school, which was quite nice, and meant we learned all the grammar very quickly.
I've done a huge variety of papers this year, which is one reason I chose the course. These were:
- Old Testament
- Anthropology & Sociology of Religion
- Christian Theology
- Coursework paper on World Religions (I wrote about Jewish Law).
I could also have picked papers on the Reformation, New Testament, or Philosophy & Ethics. I loved how wide-ranging the course was - the types of essays I was writing through the year were all different. My favourite paper was definitely Hebrew - I loved the challenge, as well as the change from reading books and writing essays. In the process of learning a language you learn so much about the history of the ancient texts and their transmission, which I found fascinating.
"I didn't realise how much help you get with the language."
How does the Theology course at Cambridge work?
In the theology course, you have either one or two lectures per week for each paper (these are very useful, but not absolutely essential in terms of content), three or four language classes a week (these are pretty essential - it's important to go to them all), and seminars for some papers.
As well as this, you write one or two essays a week, which are then discussed in supervisions. For each paper you get a separate supervisor, and supervisions will either be one-on-one, or with one or two other students. In first year, for each paper you'll write five essays, and have supervisions for each, as well as a few revision supervisions to practice for the exam in Easter term. Unless you pick the coursework paper, this means you write ten essays each term. This might seem daunting, but you can discuss with your supervisor when to arrange one-on-one supervisions, spreading out your workload. Supervisions are challenging, but very helpful - in them, you solidify your understanding and push ideas in the essays further. I especially enjoyed my supervisions for the sociology and anthropology paper - my supervisor was great, and the discussions about contemporary society and religion challenged me to think about the world around me in new ways.
Do you think you've been able to balance work and free time at Christ's?
People talk about the huge workload at Cambridge, and it's true that it's bigger than most other universities. However, I've found it manageable, especially helped by the fact that, unlike at school, you can organise your own time. I'm definitely not a morning person, so I've enjoyed waking up a bit later (except for the odd 9am lecture). I've also made sure not to spend the entire week slaving away at an essay, but take some days off (apart from lectures and classes) to spend time with friends. In first term, I was still getting to grips with how to write essays, so this was harder. However, later on I learned how to write one fairly quickly, and leave time for breaks and social things I wanted to do.
While I do love the social side of College life, the fact that everyone has a lot of work and different deadlines, means it can sometimes be hard to see people. However, everyone generally eats in the College canteen (Upper Hall) in the evenings, so even if someone's working all day there's always a chance to see them and catch up.
"Even if someone's working all day there's always a chance to see them and catch up."
How do your spend your free time in College?
I really love living in College, and the social side of Cambridge is great. Some College rooms are quite big, so it's easy to hang out with lots of your friends in their rooms. This year I've loved having fun with my friends, and taking part in Cambridge traditions, like formal dinners in the College hall, or chapel events such as short services or concerts (which are often followed by free hot chocolate!). Christ's is also very conveniently located - it's close to all the shops, most importantly Sainsbury's. If you like going out, there are four main clubs as well as a massive Weatherspoons, all of which are just a few minutes walk from College. This was definitely a bit of a change for me, having been used to clubs being at least a good half hour away from my house. It's really useful, as you save loads of money on transport.
This year, I haven't been involved in many societies or sports. I've spent most of my time not working just chatting to my friends - we have film nights and get together a lot. I have also been part of Streetbite, a student initiative which helps to give out food to homeless people. I do a shift volunteering with them every two weeks, and I've found this really rewarding, especially since homelessness is a big problem in Cambridge. At the end of the year, after my exams, I also got involved in the Christ's May Week Shakespeare play, organising all the props and costumes, as well as helping to design the poster.
What are your plans for next year?
Next year I'm looking forward to making the most of all the opportunities Cambridge has to offer. I'd love to get back into music, and join an ensemble or orchestra. I also want to keep volunteering with Streetbite, and find other volunteering opportunities.
Along with about half of the second years, I'm going to be living in one of the College-owned houses on Jesus Lane, which are a few minutes walk from College. I'm looking forward to this, as I think it'll be lots of fun spending so much time with my friends, and cooking more as a group, which I really enjoy!
The only paper I know I want to take for sure next year is Hebrew, since I've enjoyed it so much this year. There's a huge amount of choice in second and third year, so picking papers is really hard. I'm going to think about it more this summer, and then discuss my options with my Director of Studies before coming to a firm decision.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.