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Study English at the University of Cambridge


Fact File

Magdalene Campus code: M
UCAS code: Q300
Course duration: Three years – BA (Hons)
Typical offer: A-level: A*AA, IB: 41-42 points
Essential subjects: English
Useful subjects: Languages, Humanities

If you have a passion for literature, we have a challenging course that will inspire you in your reading, and develop your critical and imaginative abilities.

English at Cambridge balances a strong grounding in the core of English literature with the chance to explore literature from around the world, other art forms, the English language, and related intellectual traditions.


At Cambridge
At Magdalene
What we are looking for
Subject Requirements
Teaching Staff

The Cambridge English course is divided into two parts. The first part gives you a strong foundational knowledge of literature across the centuries. The second allows you to explore your own interests in more depth. You’re introduced to the full range of English literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. There are few set texts, so that while you must study widely, you can also focus on topics of interest to you.

Teaching is provided through lectures, seminars, and small-group supervisions and classes. You typically attend at least six hours of lectures or seminars, and two to three hours of individual, paired or small-group supervision each week. You normally write one or two short essays per week which you then discuss with your supervisor.

More details of the content of each part of the course and the range of papers available can be found on the English Faculty website. Subject to certain restrictions, it’s also possible to take papers from the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic; Classics; or Modern and Medieval Languages courses in Part IB and Part II. Further details of these papers are available on the Faculty website.

There is a case that can be made for Magdalene as the home of modern English Studies. I. A. Richards, who is sometimes credited as the 'founding father' of modern literary criticism, began as an undergraduate at Magdalene in 1911. After 35 years teaching at Harvard, he returned to the College and lived here until his death in 1979. Much of his early work was done in collaboration with the polymath C. K. Ogden, who had joined Magdalene in 1908 and went on to invent 'Basic English', which still forms the standard vocabulary for much English language teaching across the world. One of Richards' early students at Magdalene was the poet and critic Sir William Empson.

Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, and C. S. Lewis were all members of Magdalene; three of them were also recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Amongst the current Honorary Fellowship are the Poet Laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy, and the distinguished American literary critic and Harvard University Professor, Helen Vendler.

Magdalene has a thriving community of English scholars, including the Director of Studies, Dr Jane Hughes, who specialises in medieval literature, and Dr Marcus Waithe, whose teaching areas include Victorian literature and contemporary poetry. Dr Michael Hrebeniak is a College Lecturer with specialisms in American literature, practical criticism, Modernism and the short story. At Magdalene, at any one time there are usually about 16-18 undergraduates in English across all years, as well as a varying number of postgraduate students.

Candidates for admission are judged on six main areas:

  • written work which is requested to be sent well in advance of an interview;
  • on your performance in the Cambridge College-registered written assessment for English;
  • the subject interview itself with Dr Hughes and a second subject specialist, which follows a short written 'quiz' based on passages of prose or verse which candidates are asked to write about and then discuss in the interview, and which also includes a discussion of texts and topics suggested by the candidate's writings and/or suggested by the candidate him or herself during the interview;
  • a general/subject interview, normally with an English specialist and with a Fellow who does not teach your chosen subject;
  • school references about the candidate's achievements and potential;
  • and finally on actual or predicted A-level (or equivalent) results.

It is not advisable to worry too much about the interviews (regard them as a chance for you to meet us as well as for us to meet you!) but it is a good idea to think very carefully about the portfolio of essays you will send in - get advice from a teacher.
If you send in a piece of practical criticism or a critical appreciation, don't forget to include a copy of the piece itself - we can sometimes guess what it is you are describing, but not always!

And don't forget to keep copies of all your essays so that you can reread them and have them fresh in your mind before the interview. Choose essays on books you would like to discuss with us at interview. We prefer recent essays if possible. If you write creatively, you are welcome to send a short sample, but this should be in addition to the academic essays. Please don’t bring additional material with you to the interview as we are not able to read it on the spot.

We expect applicants for English to be studying English Literature at A-level, IB Higher Level, or equivalent. English Literature and Language is acceptable if English Literature is not available at your school. Beyond that, there are no other specific subject requirements and a wide range of combinations will be acceptable, including a mixture of Arts and Science subjects.

Our typical offer for English is A*AA at A-level or 41-42 points in the IB with 7, 7, 6 at Higher Level. Sometimes we may ask for an A* (or 7 at IB Higher Level) in English Literature specifically. However, our offers are always tailor-made to the individual candidate and we try to set the offer at a realistic level.

Interviews, Written Work, and Assessments

Candidates for admission in English are asked to send two essays in to College in advance of their interviews.

Candidates will usually have two interviews. One will be with the Director of Studies and another English Studies Fellow, the second with two other Fellows, either in English or a related subject. Candidates are normally asked to complete a prepared reading before one of their interviews. Candidates are encouraged to write their own notes in response, for their use in the interview. This is not a test and is not graded, it is used instead to get you thinking about some of the issues that will come up in your interviews and to help get the conversation going.

Applicants invited for interview will also take a written assessment. The assessment for English is a Cambridge College-registered assessment. This means you will not need to register for this assessment in advance and the College will provide details directly to you. More information about the assessment is available here. Please note that your performance in the written assessment will not be considered in isolation, but will be taken into account alongside the other elements of your application.


Dr Jane Hughes

College positions: Official Fellow, Director of Studies in English, Pepys Librarian, Keeper of the Old Library

Dr Jane Hughes

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Professor Marcus Waithe

College positions: Official Fellow, College Lecturer in English, College Librarian

Marcus Waithe is Professor of Literature and the Applied Arts in the Faculty of English, and a Fellow and College Librarian at Magdalene College.

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