The English Tripos will give you the chance to study some of the greatest works of literature from the past 700 years, teach you how to connect them in exciting new ways, and encourage you to reflect on today's culture in its rich and complex relation to the past. It's also about concentration and sharp focus, thinking afresh about how and why texts connect with readers and (sometimes) make a difference to the world. At Fitzwilliam we introduce you to a wide range of approaches and encourage you to develop your own perspective and critical voice.
Number of students
Part I, which runs over the first two years of your degree, consists of six papers. Four introduce you to the history of literature in English from the Middle Ages to the present day, with Shakespeare as your fifth topic and a course in 'Practical Criticism and Critical Practice' as your sixth. Students sit a Part IA examination in the summer term of their first year. This requires them to submit a portfolio of three essays relating to their work on Shakespeare and to sit a written examination on 'Practical Criticism and Critical Practice'. They will then be examined on the remaining four papers for IB at the end of their second year. It will be possible to replace one of these four written examination papers with a dissertation.
Part II is taught in the third year of the undergraduate course. Here you both build on what you’ve learned in Part I and explore a range of new and exciting options. There are five elements to Part II. Two papers are compulsory, on Tragedy and Practical Criticism; in addition, you can chose two optional papers from a wide range of possibilities (including Literature and Visual Culture, Medieval Supernatural, Material Renaissance, Contemporary Writing, American or Postcolonial Literature) and write a dissertation on a subject of your choice. Everyone writes one dissertation and some students choose to do a second dissertation in place of another exam paper.
Whilst the University runs various programmes for writers in residence who offer some teaching, creative writing does not feature as a part of the Tripos exams.
For further information on the English Tripos, see the English Faculty website.
English at Cambridge is taught by way of University-based lectures and seminars, together with College-based teaching in the form of supervisions and classes. In supervisions students are taught in very small groups (usually in pairs) and will normally hand in essays beforehand which act as the starting point for discussion. Some supervisions take place at Fitzwilliam and some in other colleges.
The benefits of English at Fitzwilliam College
English is one of the liveliest subjects at Fitzwilliam. Our students benefit from the generosity of alumni who have provided funds to support them in all sorts of activities, from studying a foreign language to travelling to research a dissertation, to visiting the theatre. The state-of-the-art Olisa Library is both an invaluable resource for students and a wonderful place in which to study.
Not surprisingly, many recent English students have been involved with the written word beyond the concerns of their course, whether as editor of a university newspaper, founder of an interdisciplinary journal, as poet, writer and illustrator of children’s stories, or as the author of a trilogy of novels. Others have acted or directed, or performed as musicians or comedians. Two have been elected President of the JCR (the College’s student union).
Our standard conditional offer for this subject is usually A*AA at A-level or 40-42 points overall and 7, 7, 6 at Higher Level in IB. A Level (or equivalent) in English Literature or English Language and Literature is required. We may modify offers to take account of individual circumstances.
The admissions process
Applicants are asked to submit two essays as part of their application.
Applicants are also required to sit the English admissions written assessment, if invited for interview. More information can be found on the University website.
Candidates who are invited for an interview should also come prepared to discuss their reading both inside and outside the A-level syllabus. The interviewers will pay considerable attention to the candidate's willingness to engage with unfamiliar angles of interpretation. Intellectual curiosity, imagination, the capacity for incisive analysis, organisational ability and commitment to hard work are all qualities we value in our English students.
Before coming for interview, you might like to visit Converse, one of the resources for prospective students provided by the English Faculty, which provides sample readings of poetry and some useful tips on close reading skills. The Virtual Classroom includes literary exercises and quizzes, and a sample class on medieval literature. Other Faculty resources are also worth exploring.
English Taster Day and Open Day
Prospective applicants are encouraged to attend one of our Open Days in order to find out more about the course and the College.
Fitzwilliam runs an annual English Taster Day for year 12 students who are interested in studying English at university. Find out more information.
Reading suggestions for offer-holders in English
While many offer-holders will rightly want to concentrate specifically on their Year 13 studies, the following are just a few suggestions about preparatory reading for those seeking advice. It is understood that it may be difficult to source the editions listed below so these appear simply for guidance. If your place is confirmed after you receive your exam results then we shall be sending you a more detailed preparatory reading-list at that point.
Students who begin the course in October 2023 will study Medieval Literature in their first term and so it would certainly be a good idea for them to begin acquainting themselves with some of the key texts. These include:
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ed. Jill Mann (Penguin Classics, 2005)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Barry Windeatt (Penguin Classics, 2003)
Troilus and Criseyde. A New Translation, Barry Windeatt (Oxford World Classics, 2008)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans Bernard O’Donoghue (Penguin Classics, 2006)
For those who would like to read more about the history and context of medieval literature, either of the following would be helpful.
Marilyn Corrie, ed., A Concise Companion to Middle English Literature (Blackwell Publishing, 2009)
Dieter Mehl, English Literature in the Age of Chaucer (Longman, 2001)
Medieval web resources
The British Library has some online resources which are always worth looking at. Have a look at Discovering Literature: Medieval and The Middle Ages.
Other reading pertinent to the course
You might usefully also read any of the following but it is not expected that you will have done so. These are merely suggestions from which you may wish to choose:
Broadening your horizons by reading more poetry from any literary period would be valuable. For a selection of some of the best recent verse in English, see The Forward Book of Poetry 2020 (Faber, 2019).
If you want to brush up your understanding of how to write analytically about poetry, John Lennard’s Poetry Handbook (Oxford University Press, second edition 2005) is a good place to start.
More plays by Shakespeare. Any of the ‘big four’ tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth) would be a good place to start.
The Bible (as a key influence on so much literature in English across the ages). You might usefully read the Book of Genesis, the Book of Revelation and Matthew’s Gospel, for example. You should use the King James Bible, first printed in 1611 and otherwise known as the Authorised Version, which is accessible in various web-based versions.
Further web resources
There is a very useful ‘Introduction to Practical Criticism’ which can be found on the ‘Virtual Classroom’ section of the Cambridge University Faculty of English's website.