To study English is to study the central human achievement - language - and everything written is grist to our mill. One day, you might look at Middlemarch, the next at an editorial from The Sun. We are interested in the ways in which language has shaped our world, but we also consider literature's relation to the social and political life of its own world, what Shakespeare meant to a 1590s reader as well as to you in your different millennium. However intellectually ambitious our approach may be (and is), we don't forget that what brings us to study literature is pleasure, delight in what the American poet Ezra Pound called 'the dance of the intellect among words'.

Please note: applicants applying to start the course in 2020 or beyond should be aware that the structure of the first two years of the course will be changing somewhat - full details of these changes will be published at this link when they become available,

The Cambridge English course comprises two ‘parts’. Your first two years are spent preparing for Part I, with Part II in the third, final year. More details of the various flexible options for both Parts can be found on the English Faculty Website. Part I gives you a solid grounding in English Literature from 1300 to the present, focusing (although not exclusively) on the literature of the British Isles. While the structure of papers in Part I is more or less fixed, within those papers there is tremendous flexibility and freedom. Unlike most other University English courses, the Cambridge English Tripos is not a ‘set book’ course. We think this is a good thing; the course structure gives you a framework, and we guide and encourage you in reading and thinking about a wide range of texts within that, often tailoring our suggestions – your reading and writing – to the things you’re interested in. In some ways, it’s like being on an individual programme. The course combines breadth with depth, enabling students to experience the whole map of English Literature, yet also to spend time exploring particular countries, cities, even streets. By the time you get to Part II you’ll be well prepared to make informed choices from a large selection of optional papers, and to write one, perhaps two, dissertations on topics you’ve devised yourself. Part I papers are examined at the end of the second year: two of them can be assessed via a dissertation or a portfolio of essays, rather than an examination. There are two, less formal, ‘prelim’ examinations (in effect, progress tests), which are taken near the end of the first year.

As an English student, most of your working week will be spent reading and thinking. In this you will be helped by the College's excellent Sherlock Library (which has 24 hour access). You also have access to University and English Faculty libraries, and to a huge range of online resources. The University provides optional lectures, arranged under broad headings (‘Shakespeare’; ‘Tragedy’); they are a resource in the same way that the libraries are resources, rather than a course on the specific content of which you will eventually be examined. Students learn for themselves (and on the grapevine) which lecturers are the liveliest and most challenging. Your college provides the supervisions which distinguish the Cambridge system, for which you write your weekly essays. Your supervisor directs your work, reads and comments on your essays, and monitors your progress. Students are often supervised in pairs, but there are also individual supervisions and seminars. You will learn from (and teach) your fellow-students; your weekly essays are not assessment (they don’t ‘count’) but part of that learning process. 

Faculty website:

Our Fellows look after about eight students in each year group and are actively involved in teaching. The two Directors of Studies are Dr Hester Lees-Jeffries, who researches and teaches Shakespeare and sixteenth-and seventeenth-century literature and Dr Caroline Gonda, who researches and teaches in the eighteenth century and Romantic period literature. Additionally, Dr Richard Dance, who researches and teaches in the Old English and early Medieval periods, is also a Fellow (and Director of Studies in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic).

In addition to their work for Part I, during their first year Catz freshers are taught a unique course (devised by us, and continually evolving as we incorporate our students' suggestions) which introduces them to the exciting challenge of literary theory from Plato to Postmodernism (and beyond). Our students find these ideas difficult, but relish the opportunity to debate exactly what University English is for. If you don't want to think hard and don't like to see your views challenged, don't apply to us.

We have the University's most flourishing literary society, the Shirley Society. Run by students, it sponsors College drama, publishes student writing, and hosts talks by invited speakers who have recently included Don Paterson, Robin Robertson, and Lavinia Greenlaw, as well as regular ‘bring and share’ sessions. Creative writing in the college is particularly lively at the moment, and our students have frequently been successful in being awarded university prizes for their work.

We prefer students to have taken English Literature rather than English Language at A2, although we have had a number of successful applicants in recent years who have taken Language rather than Literature. (We consider that there is no particular advantage in students taking both English Language and English Literature for A-level.) If only the combined Language and Literature option is available at your school, that’s not a problem; we realize that not all students have access to English Literature as an option, and we’re familiar with the demands and scope of different specifications (including IB and Scottish Highers). Our concern is that the English Language course is not sufficiently literary in its emphasis, and thus that it does not prepare students as well as the Literature course for the Cambridge English degree, which has a heavy reading load. Whatever subjects they are taking, however (and the range of subjects taken by our successful applicants is often very broad), we are interested in what our prospective applicants are reading; we expect successful applicants to show evidence of wide, thoughtful, independent reading. If you’re thinking about applying and would like some suggestions as to what to read next, then do get in touch (contact details are below).

All applicants for English are required to take a written assessment if shortlisted for interview. You will not need to register in advance for this assessment: we will provide details directly to you. More information can be found here. You will be asked to submit two essays before your interview, which will form the basis of some of the discussion (one essay in each interview). These should be ordinary essays completed as part of your English course at school, not written specially or rewritten; please do not send coursework (it’s too long). You’ll be contacted after you submit your application, with further details of what to send and how to submit it. We’re interested in seeing recent work that will give us a flavour of what you’re currently working on, and in what ways; it doesn’t have to be your most polished work. (If you’re not sure what to send, contact the Admissions Office and they’ll be able to advise you.) In one interview you will also be given a short poem to discuss, as would often be the case in a supervision (and in fact both interviews are quite like supervisions, in that they’re discussions, rather than rapid-fire questions!). At Catz we almost always interview all applicants.

Dr Lees-Jeffries is always pleased to hear from prospective applicants and to answer questions about English in Cambridge and at St Catharine's, and about any aspect of the admissions process; she can be contacted via email at

After your degree

Cambridge English offers an education in how to think, not training for a particular career, and at Catz our graduates in English have gone on to do a wide variety of things. Our best-known Catz English alumni are probably the Shakespearean director Sir Peter Hall, the actor Ian McKellen (whom we try to see on ‘class trips’ whenever possible – and we can usually visit him backstage…), and the journalist Jeremy Paxman; the novelist Joanne Harris (who read Modern Languages at Catz) is an Honorary Fellow of the college. More recently our graduates have gone into theatre (directing, acting, voice coaching, as agents…), teaching (including Teach First), law, publishing, journalism, film-making, community work, marketing, the corporate world, and many other fields; a significant number of our recent graduates have continued their studies at post-graduate level, in Cambridge, the UK and the US (in subjects including child psychology, politics, art history, philosophy, and creative writing, as well as English). We think it’s a good sign that lots of them stay in touch and keep us updated on what they’re doing.

Find out about the general advice for anyone applying for undergraduate courses at St Catharine's.

Studying English at Catz provides the opportunity for highly stimulating study within a friendly, nurturing environment. With an average of around 8 students per year, most of our supervisions take place in groups of twos or threes.

The course here offers the chance to ‘follow your nose’ with your own academic pursuits: many of our essay titles we choose ourselves from within a given time period or group of authors. This allows us the formative freedom to learn what interests us through pursuing our own lines of study, as well as preparing us for writing the two dissertations (one in second year and one in third year) that form key parts of the English Tripos. Furthermore, the added bonus of having an in-college literary society -- the oldest in Cambridge – ensures friendships across all three years of English students and establishes other ports of call for help or advice for the first or second years.

In first year there is about one essay a week and the ‘Practical Criticism’ section of the course means you are taught by every Catz English fellow at least once. Catz ensures there is pastoral and academic help always on hand, and organises out of college trips to see plays throughout the year: most memorably, the Globe ‘double-whammy’ of a matinee and an evening performance in the same day in the summer. We’re encouraged to use these experiences of watching performances as material for our essays – no production, however kooky, is irrelevant. Cambridge itself is packed full of lectures, plays, talks by working poets, actors and academics, and is a wonderful backdrop to studying at Catz. 

The Catz Fellows are brilliant at bringing out the best in you. Group sessions discussing critical theory, on the spot analysis of poems, talking one-on-one about how to incorporate your wider reading into your essays, or simply working on your sentence structure – there is an environment to suit everybody.

Natasha Pinnington, third-year undergraduate

English at Catz strikes a great balance between continuous freedom of inquiry and a solid coverage of all the different periods of the Tripos. Having a group of Fellows, each specialising in a different period of literature – Victorian and Practical Criticism, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the ‘Long’ 18th Century – means you are closely followed and supported throughout each step of the course. Catz’ relatively small size – usually only 7 or 8 English students in each year – also ensures that English students across all years get to know each other well, and creates a tight-knit environment in which ideas and discussions are shared throughout college.

Teaching largely takes place in small group supervisions, or larger whole-group seminars, which set you off on a weekly essay. This frequent close scrutiny of your work or ideas might sound daunting, but is far from it; at its best, this form of teaching is a conversation in which you are encouraged to share interpretations and ideas with one another. It’s not about saying things that are necessarily ‘correct’ or agreed on by everyone; instead, these classes become a forum for encountering new ways of thinking about texts and language.

The same can be said about the weekly essays themselves; although we’re encouraged to produce work of the highest possible standard, these really are attempts to calibrate and deepen the dialogues begun in supervisions, and often will lead to a further supervision on the same topic or text. Most of the time, we are free to choose essay titles and topics ourselves from an allocated text or texts; this space to follow your own interests completes a uniquely thorough but varied academic experience.

Marco Young, third-year undergraduate