What it is Like to Study at the University of Cambridge
October 11, 2018
What it is Like to Study at the University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world (established 1209). Most Americans will have heard of Cambridge and its slightly-older brother (Oxford), and most will liken it to the names of some of America’s great universities—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and so on. While it is certainly true that Cambridge resembles these American universities (or rather, these universities resemble Cambridge, as many of them imitate Cambridge’s college system), the educational experience can feel quite different. I’ll describe some of my impressions from my time at Cambridge!
Aside from the stunning beauty of the storied campus, the most striking quality an American student will notice is Cambridge’s high degree of specialization. Undergraduates at many American universities are both required and permitted to take courses in disparate areas. I majored in Literature, but I could have easily majored in both Economics and English. This breadth of academic experience—the norm in most American educational institutions—is more unusual at Cambridge.
At Cambridge, a student selects a field of study when applying to the university and usually sticks to that field. This leads students to command an extraordinary depth of knowledge in their chosen fields at a younger age and also allows most students to complete their degrees in three years. Concentrating on one field is a dream for some students, but beware of this specialization if you aren’t ready to commit!
In the U.S., there are many frequent, graded minor assessments that can lead to maddeningly precise numerical representations of your work: what is the difference between a 3.98 and a 3.96 GPA, anyway? But at the end of the year at Cambridge, students take challenging, high-stakes exams. While they are not the ONLY thing that matters (other portfolios and research projects can come into play here), they are very important.
At the University of Cambridge, assessment of your work is divided into broader categories: degrees are awarded as first class, upper-second class honors, lower-second class honors, and third class honors. This classification can lead to its own species of stress: it can be frustrating to be just at the cusp of a first class degree but not make it due to one or two exams that did not go as well as expected. The U.S. grading system allows for easier refuge for second chances if a particular exam or essay does not go quite as planned!
Everything you can think of at an American university certainly exists at Cambridge: lectures, seminars, lab work, study abroad programs, and so on. But they sometimes work a little bit differently. In the U.S., students receive credit and a grade for having attended the lecture and completed the course requirements (such as papers or exams). At Cambridge, lectures are more “free-floating.” There is no exam or grade based on attendance of a single lecture: they are there for faculty to present their ideas or research on given topics, and to help support the progress of the course as a whole. Reading Pope? Take the eight-week Alexander Pope lecture circuit. Studying 18th century French literature? Attend the four-week lecture series on the Enlightenment. These lectures are for your benefit, but not required.
The one thing Cambridge has that American universities do not typically offer is supervisions. Supervisions are the glory of the Cambridge education. It is a special privilege to be able to read and discuss literature in a small group setting with a faculty member or advanced graduate student. If you go to a big university in the U.S. and take larger classes, it is possible to get away with minimal or infrequent participation in class. In a supervision, you HAVE to talk. Closely supervised work improves clarity of expression and affords the opportunity to really get to know a text and express your ideas about it.
There is an aspect of formality to the University of Cambridge that for an American student sometimes borders on the ridiculous. At Clare College, I attended formal dinners with multiple courses, high tables, special seating, and even had to wear a robe on top of a suit and tie. This is not the case for every dinner or social gathering, but if you prefer the idea of rolling into the dining hall in your pajamas every day, this formality may be somewhat off-putting. If you approach it with a sense of humor or relish the idea of sipping sherry before a hearty meal, it can be fun!
The College System
The University of Cambridge is larger than people sometimes realize, with roughly 12,000 undergraduates at a time. At Yale, by comparison, the number is about 5,500. The larger size contributes to a “decentralized” feel to Cambridge: you do not really identify as a unit with your graduating class so much as with the members of your college. With 31 total colleges, it is quite possible never to see, never to meet, or never to be in a class with a good proportion of your fellow undergraduates.
Schools like Yale, Princeton, and Rice imitate Cambridge’s college system with their own residential colleges, but the differences are significant. At Yale, they are simply residences and most students are randomly assigned to a given college. At Cambridge, the education you receive and your chances of meeting certain subsets of your peers can differ depending on the college you attend. If you are an English student, for example, there will be a different set of core tutors in each college. The intellectual character varies and so can the quality, with some having more financial resources and better food than others. Only a Cambridge undergraduate student could offer full testimony to the advantages and disadvantages of the system, but it is no doubt a controversial issue.
My experience at the University of Cambridge was extraordinarily rewarding, and I have fond memories of my supervisors, classmates, and moments of leisure by the gorgeous River Cam. The opportunity of learning in both an American and British setting has provided me with different perspectives on education. American students considering Cambridge should think about how ready they are to commit to a certain field of study. They should also conduct extensive research into the very different admissions process at U.K. universities - it is not wise to apply to Cambridge at the last minute. If the dream of Cambridge attracts you but you are not quite ready to pledge to a given major just yet, there is always graduate school!