Studying English at St John’s
Studying English at St John’s College, like studying English anywhere, involves a lot of independent thinking and reading. You should be enthusiastic about finding things out for yourself, developing your own lines of enquiry, and honing your own responses to the texts that you read; you should also be excited by the prospect of reading and writing a lot, independently, every week. However, there is also plenty of communal work and collaboration, in weekly paired supervisions, and in classes or seminars in larger groups. So you should also be eager to share your ideas in discussion, generous, flexible, and open with peers and supervisors about your thinking and reading, and excited about communicating with and learning from others. The faculty provides a wide range of stimulating lectures; these are optional but an extremely valuable resource, so we encourage you to attend as many as you find useful. The University Library and the English Faculty are only ten minutes walk from college, and the St John’s library is excellent and very well stocked for English.
St John’s College currently admits around 7 undergraduates each year to read English, who arrive here from all over the United Kingdom and beyond, from a wide range of educational, social, and ethnic backgrounds: students are admitted solely on the basis of academic potential, and they frequently achieve outstanding results in their examinations – including, in recent years, prizes for best dissertation, best original composition, and top student in English in the University. The College provides study and travel grants, and will assist you with the purchase of computing equipment and books for your course. The College's three teaching fellows in English, Dr Christopher Warnes, Dr Orietta Da Rold and Dr Stacey McDowell, will direct your studies in college throughout your degree, and bring in supervisors with appropriate expertise for particular options you want to work on that fall outside their own areas. Dr Warnes is a Senior Lecturer in the English Faculty specialising in contemporary and postcolonial literatures, Dr Da Rold is a University Lecturer in the English Faculty specialising in medieval literature, and Dr McDowell is an Affiliated Lecturer in the English Faculty specialising in literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.
There are also two Professors in English at St John's, Professor John Kerrigan and Professor Richard Beadle, who specialise in early modern and the medieval period respectively.
Studying English at St John’s will be more demanding than studying English at school: you will read much more (and more widely), write much more (and more frequently), work much more (and more independently), and have to think for yourselves at every stage. We aim to be highly supportive as our students adapt to these demands, and we encourage you to develop self-motivated and independent minds from the outset. Then the Cambridge system can really come into its own. At its best, the atmosphere and ethos in supervisions and classes is that of a collaborative and mutually enriching serious conversation between equals, who share a love of reading and thinking. If this sounds like an exciting environment for you to study in then we strongly encourage you to apply!
The English course at Cambridge is divided into two parts: Part I (the first two years of your degree) and Part II (your final year). Part I involves the study of literature written in English from 1300 to the present day, divided into four ‘period papers’ and a paper devoted to Shakespeare. Part II has a wide range of optional papers from which you can select according to the interests you have developed over your first two years. You also study literary theory, criticism, and ‘practical criticism’ throughout your course, and ‘Tragedy’ in your third year.
There are options in each Part for swapping one of your English papers for a paper from another faculty, to allow the study of literature in foreign or classical languages; there are also options for submitting coursework (a portfolio of essays or a dissertation) in place of two of your English papers. Within each paper you will have a lot of freedom about which texts, topics, and authors you focus on, and the questions that are asked in examinations at the end of Parts I and II are generously conceived and wide-ranging enough to accommodate very different interests and approaches.
Cambridge English encourages independent and original thinking rather than any particular approach, and you will always be encouraged to develop and pursue your own interests and research projects. More information on the course is available on the Faculty website.
Competition for places to read English at St John’s is strong and applicants usually have an exceptional academic record. Offers are normally conditional upon candidates’ performance at A2 or equivalent, and our standard, minimum conditional offer is A* in English Literature plus AA in two other subjects at A2 (excluding General Studies and Critical Thinking). If you apply after completing A2 or equivalent examinations, for example during a gap year, you may receive an unconditional offer on the basis of the grades you have already received if successful at the interview stage.
Please note we welcome applications from candidates who are taking a joint A level in English Literature/English Language.
To help us with the selection process we would like you to submit two essays that you have completed recently on any literary subject. These may be coursework or timed essays, or any comparable piece of written work on set texts or authors, but they should be typed rather than handwritten, and should not be examples of creative writing. We will be looking for the ability to construct a coherent argument, to write fluently and precisely, and to think originally. If you are invited for an interview, you will also be asked to submit a short list of texts that you would be willing to discuss in detail.
Since most students who apply to read English at St John’s have brilliant academic records, the interview stage of the application process is very important. We are not looking for a particular kind of person, and you do not need to have done any special preparation or practice in advance of your interviews, but you do need to be ready and willing to talk and write in detail about some really difficult texts and ideas.
One of your interviews will be based on a short text that you will be given just before the interview itself. This text will probably be complex and perhaps opaque – it will usually not be the kind of thing you are used to reading at school, and it will require hard work and flexibility to think your way through it. Please do not be alarmed at this! Every applicant will find the text difficult, and there are no wrong answers; we simply want to see the way your mind works when confronted with something that does not immediately yield itself up to ways of reading and thinking that you have encountered and practiced previously. You should arrive at interview willing to work hard, persevere, and keep rethinking your conclusions. The best preparation you can do is to read widely outside your A-Level course, think hard about everything you read, and think even harder about how to communicate what you think – if you would like to practice, pick a random poem from an anthology or online, and find a friend or family member or pet who will listen while you try to explain what you think is interesting about it!
We will also want to hear more about your other reading, and questions may arise from the written work you have submitted, from your A-Level course texts, and from the wider reading you have mentioned on your personal statement. Please be aware that if you name particular books and authors on your personal statement we are likely to ask you about them: you should come prepared to discuss anything that you have mentioned. We will be looking for a capacity to comprehend and engage with counter-arguments, an interest in the implications and characteristics of different genres and styles, signs of genuine interest in literature, as evidenced by wide, self-motivated reading across genres and periods outside your course, and intellectual curiosity about the processes of understanding it.
Applicants will also sit a written exercise in College on the day of their interview, which offers you another chance to demonstrate your perceptive reading, critical thinking, and ability to communicate both. You will also be given the opportunity to ask questions and to highlight aspects of your application that you think are important and relevant. We try to conduct the whole process in a friendly and informal manner; please try not to feel daunted!
Applicants for English will need to sit the University's Pre-Interview Admissions Assessment, more information on which is available here.
Further information about the English Tripos, the Faculty, and the teaching staff can be found on the Faculty website. You can also contact the Faulty for more information: Undergraduate Enquiries, Faculty of English, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP. Telephone: 01223 335070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.