Emily wrote this at the end of her second year studying Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion here at Christ's college, Cambridge. She is from Devon (South-West England), where she took A-Levels in English Literature, History, and Religion, Philosophy & Ethics, as well as an Extended Project Qualification.
What attracted you to your course?
I didn’t really consider studying Theology before Sixth Form, when I realised that A-Level RE was fast becoming my favourite subject! I particularly liked the look of the Cambridge course because of the diversity of topics you can study – there are no compulsory modules after first year, giving you huge scope to tailor your degree to the things which interest you, and the Cambridge course offers lots of opportunities to study world religions. There are also lots of really interesting modules which explore different disciplines which you might not think would be on a Theology degree: last year I took a paper on Theology & Literature which I really enjoyed.
Why did you apply to Christ's?
Christ’s was the first college I went to when I came to Cambridge to look around before I applied, and no other college lived up to it! I loved the architecture, as well as its central location, and something about it just felt right. (Also, the fact that it’s down the road from three very good sushi bars may or may not have helped!)
What is your favourite place in college?
Strange to say it, but the Typewriter (the brutalist building in New Court) holds a special place in my heart as the first place I lived in college and the site of many fond memories. I also really love Formal Hall for vibes.
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I think it’s a really fantastic way to meet people and build a solid foundation. Having a small community within the wider university really helps you not to get lost in the system, and to build really strong relationships, both with the friends you see every day and the members of staff who are always there to offer help if you need it.
When I was applying, I think I understood the college system in that I knew what a college was, but I don’t think you really grasp the strong sense of community and real foundation it provides you with until you get here. In terms of choosing a college, think about the size of college you’d like to live in, the atmosphere (is it known to be friendly? Sporty? Academic?) and the location compared to town and your faculty (the Faculty of Divinity is about a fifteen minute walk from Christ's).
How did you prepare for your interviews?
I was lucky that my school offered each Oxbridge applicant a practice interview with their subject teacher. I also did several practice interviews with family and friends, which were really helpful in working out how to take the time to think about a question before I answered it. I also found that it helped to speak slightly slower than usual to make sure I was really thinking about what I said and not going off on tangents. I also looked over my personal statement and re-familiarised myself with the things I mentioned on it: I looked back over the important parts of books I’d mentioned, and read over my notes from talks etc. I’d been to.
How did you find the interviews?
I think there’s no getting around the fact that applying to any uni is going to be pretty stressful! Ultimately, though, I knew that I’d done my best and that whatever happened I’d at least be glad I’d tried.
When I was applying, all Theology students at Christ’s had three interviews: two interviews at Christ’s, plus one interview at Clare though again, this does change and in my year we had interviews in person before the pandemic. I went into my first interview expecting it to be really terrifying (I’d heard all the horror stories about interviewers who try to intimidate you or catch you out), but my interviewers were really lovely, and it felt more like a friendly chat about a subject I was interested in than an interrogation. My second interview was slightly harder – they asked me some questions I hadn’t expected, and really probed into my personal statement – but I think in those situations you just have to remember that the questions are meant to be difficult, and there may not even be one “right” answer. My third interview was also lovely, and I remember leaving it feeling like I’d really enjoyed the conversation. Overall, it’s important to remember that it’s ok to make a mistake in an interview: they’re looking to see what you’d be like to teach, and if you can make a mistake but then listen to feedback and try again that might be even better than making no mistakes at all!
What advice would you give to prospective applicants?
Practice, practice, practice! The more you practice talking about and answering questions on your subject, the easier you’ll find it to answer questions in your interview. You can find lists of practice questions online which can be really helpful for making you think about your subjects in different ways. If you don’t have anyone to practice with at home or in school, you could always record yourself answering practice questions and listen back to your answers to see what you can improve.
If you’re applying for Theology, there’s also the option of asking a local religious leader to practice with you – they’ll have expert knowledge of the subject and so could make really interesting conversation partners.
Before coming to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
It’s hard to pin down one thing I was most looking forward to – I was looking forward to starting a new chapter in my life! I was excited for the new place, the course, the friends I would make and the independence of it all. I think the thing I was most worried about was what the people would be like – would they be friendly, would it be easy to meet people and how hard would it be to settle in?
I needn’t have worried, because everyone I’ve met in Cambridge has been really lovely! Obviously my first year was a bit different from what I expected, because Covid-19 lockdowns meant that for most of it I was only able to spend time with people in my household, but that wasn’t a problem because we all became really close friends. When lockdowns started to ease and I became able to meet more people, I found that everyone else was just as lovely as my housemates were.
What was your Fresher's week like?
Our Fresher’s Week was a bit scaled-down compared to most years, but we still managed to have fun! One thing I particularly remember was the freshers’ “bop” organised by the JCR. Normally this would be a big party in the function room, but because of COVID we were just told to have fun within our households. Even though it wasn’t the massive party most years have, it was a tremendous bonding experience and we all left feeling like we knew each other better than when we started.
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions?
My lectures and supervisions in First Year were quite a different experience because they were all online, but everyone made do as best they could and the work was still really enjoyable. My supervisors were really friendly and the step up to university-level work was stimulating and added a whole new dimension to my subject.
I was definitely relieved to start in-person lectures this year: studying in-person makes it so much easier to meet people and makes your lecturers feel more like real people rather than images on a screen.
How is your work different now, compared with school?
The biggest difference between uni-level work and school work is that now you’re reading the academic literature first-hand rather than hearing about it from your teacher or textbooks. That said, you soon get used to academic reading, and you learn about your subject in so much more depth that it’s definitely worth the effort.
The best thing about my course is definitely the diversity of things you can study. Last year I studied Islam, Hinduism & Buddhism, Ethics and Theology & Literature, which allowed me to explore a huge variety of different disciplines and viewpoints. I think this is something which really sets Theology apart from a lot of other degrees, because you’re not just doing one kind of analysis all the time: one day you can be studying anthropology, and the next day you’ll be doing literature!
What does your timetable look like?
Generally in Theology you take four modules per year, and have supervisions on two in the first term and two in the second. You’ll generally have one or two supervisions per week, for which you’ll have to produce a 1,500-2,500-word essay. In first year, you also have to take a language module, for which you’ll have around 3 classes per week plus some individual study. It might sound like a lot of work, but it’s definitely manageable as long as you get into a good routine.
In terms of balancing work with other things, it’s definitely important to try to do other activities to take you away from your work and let off steam. There are so many clubs and societies, so join what you think sounds good and stick with what fits! I’d say you can probably do one or two high-commitment societies per term, plus a couple of less serious ones on the side. Personally, I’ve sung with the college choir and edited the student newspaper Varsity, as well as doing some more low-commitment things like country dancing (complete with Jane Austen-esque outfits!).
What are your favourite and least favourite things about the college?
My favourite thing about college is definitely the people – there’s a real community atmosphere, and a huge part of that is down to the friendly culture.
My least favourite thing is probably the fact that the pool isn’t heated – it can make for a bit of a shock when you jump in!
What did you think of your accommodation this year?
This year I lived in a house on Jesus Lane, which was definitely a good choice. We had two kitchens and an actual kitchen table(!), which was a real bonus for having people over. Since it’s normally only second years who live on Jesus Lane, there’s a really nice cosy feeling to it, and you’re still really close to college if you want to go in for meals or events – it's a four minute walk from the Jesus Lane houses to the College gate.
How do you spend your holidays?
This summer I went on a three-week tour of America with the college choir, which was an incredible experience! We saw sang in a range of different places around the East Coast, including New York and Washington DC, and stayed mostly with local families, which was a great opportunity to properly experience American life. Short holidays are generally spent on a combination of revision, catching up with home friends and short breaks away; last Christmas I went to stay with a friend from college, and this Christmas I’ll be going on a trip to Venice!
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I definitely have mixed feelings about going into third year; on the one hand, I’m really sad that it’s almost over, but on the other hand I’m really excited to be back with my friends and having new experiences. I think that having had such a disrupted first year due to COVID makes the time I can spend at uni even more precious, and I definitely want to make the most of it before I leave. I’m looking forward to learning in even more depth about my subject with my third year papers, and to being back in Cambridge having fun with all my favourite people!
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.