Clare College Cambridge


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The English course is divided into a two-year Part I and a one-year Part II. For most students, Part I involves the study of literature written in English from Chaucer through to the present day. At the end of the second year examination papers are set in each of four large periods of literature which take you from Chaucer through to the present day; there is also one paper devoted just to Shakespeare, and another on practical criticism and critical practice, where you give an account of particular passages in relation to larger questions about the form and functioning of literature. These exams are relatively unprescriptive, and generously conceived as regards the kinds of question set: 'Cambridge English' is a very broad church indeed, and allows plenty of room for individuality of approach. Most students will choose to sit four of these six papers, and also submit two pieces of coursework: a portfolio of three 2,000-word essays, and a 5,000-word dissertation on a subject of their choice.

There are also some minority options which students can choose to take instead of one of the mainstream papers. If you wish to study early medieval literature (1066-1350), or to work on literature in a modern foreign language or in Latin or Greek, or to learn to read Old English or Norse or medieval Welsh or medieval Irish, this can be arranged as part of your English course.

The Part II course, followed in the final year, offers wide scope for personal choice. Together with the compulsory papers on Practical Criticism and on Tragedy, there are a large number of optional papers - on Chaucer, medieval dreams and visions, literature and the Civil War, lyric, the history and theory of literary criticism, literature and visual culture, Shakespeare in performance, modernism and the short story, American literature, commonwealth and international literature, English and European moralists, contemporary literature (written in the last 15 years) and more. You may choose to do either two of those papers and one long essay (up to 7,500 words, on pretty much any literary topic) or one paper and two essays; thus you are free to put together the course of work that best meets your particular strengths and interests.

More information on the course is available on the University of Cambridge website: Faculty of English

Studying English at Clare

Teaching goes on through lectures, classes, and supervisions. Lectures are given on a university-wide basis; they offer the stimulus of a wide range of topics, approaches, and models of critical thinking. Attendance is optional; you are free to go to as many or as few as you find valuable. (The English Faculty and English Library are on Clare's doorstep, as is the University Library, and our own College library, The Forbes-Mellon, gives you access to much of the primary literature as well as expert guidance with electronic resources).

Classes are with some or all of the others in your college year-group; there will normally be between four and eight students in a class. The style of discussion tends to be informal, but not casual. In your first year you might typically take part in three classes a week: one dealing with background material relevant to the period on which you are working, perhaps another involving an exercise in practical criticism, and one in which to discuss the Shakespeare play set for that week. (At Clare the study of Shakespeare is spread in this way across the first three terms, with most of the writing being done in the third term.)

The heart of the course is the weekly supervision, the hour-long meeting in which your supervisor discusses with you the work you have been doing during the past week. As an example, when you are studying Renaissance Literature, you might spend a week working on John Donne; your supervisor would advise you about which poems to concentrate on, and suggest other works where comparison could be stimulating-Donne's sermons, perhaps, or other metaphysical or Elizabethan poetry-together with a number of possible questions to bear in mind. (Some critical essays might also be mentioned, but at Clare the emphasis falls decidedly on reading literature rather than on academic criticism.) You would then have five days or so for intensive reading in and thinking about Donne, before writing an essay-an essay which will normally be of an exploratory, experimental kind, intended to focus perceptions and to try out arguments which can then be developed, qualified, or challenged in discussion with your supervisor.

Clare is a college that gives a high priority to undergraduate teaching, and there are four active teaching Fellows in English (see below). Our research specialisms include the Victorian and modern narrative and autobiographical writing; twentieth century poetry; literature and philosophy from Milton to Byron; and medieval literature and culture – but we all teach widely and enthusiastically outside those areas, as well as bringing in supervisors from outside Clare where appropriate, especially for final-year students, who can expect to work with University specialists in their chosen subjects.

At Clare we do not teach according to any preferred line of approach, but see our role as being to help the students to discover their own interests and to clarify their own thinking. Students are supervised in pairs or singly and this means that someone who has or who comes to develop particular interests – in theatre, for example, or music, or historical context, or philosophy, and so on – will be able to slant their course of work accordingly. There is always room for negotiation about which authors or topics you will be studying. In a more general sense, too, the supervisor is responsive to the individual, and addresses the person as much as the subject. English is a humane discipline, and as a student's skill and knowledge grow, supervisions will evolve away from the teacher-pupil situation towards being a sharing and comparing of experiences between equals, who have in common a strong love of literature. That is an ideal, but one which is frequently approached, and sometimes achieved.

Admissions Requirements

There is no fixed quota of places in English; in recent years our intake has varied between seven and ten, with between six and seven applicants for each place. The competition for places is exceptionally severe, more so than at most other Cambridge Colleges, and successful candidates generally have mostly grade As or A*s at GCSE, and are predicted at least one A* and two As at A-level (or equivalent). Shining at A-level does not, by itself, mean that you have a good chance of getting in. But if you enjoy reading (and re-reading) literature to a degree that is unusual among your friends, if you find yourself thinking about issues raised or effects created long after you have shut the book in question, and if you feel a strong intellectual curiosity to explore beyond the limits of the A-level course, you may well be the kind of student we hope to attract to Clare. 

The level of offer we make to candidates who have not yet taken A-levels is normally A*AA; any combination of subjects is perfectly acceptable so long as it includes English Literature. We are unusual at Clare in welcoming applicants who propose taking a gap year before coming up; there is no quota limiting these, so applicants have exactly the same chance of being made an offer regardless of whether they are applying for a deferred place. 

Written Assessment

All applicants to study English at Cambridge will be required to take the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), as Oxford applicants have done for several years. Information about this can be found on the university website here and on the ELAT website here. For Clare applicants, this assessment will replace the written test which they would otherwise have taken at the time of interview.


If you are selected for interview at Clare, you may be asked to send us a sample of your school work. You will be called for interview in the second or third week of December, and given two interviews by the teaching Fellows in English. The interviews will contain no trick questions, and no attempts at testing your ingenuity or your range of existing knowledge. What we are looking for is genuineness of response, the ability to read perceptively and to think critically, and evidence of inner motivation and interest that are not merely teacher-led. Beyond these considerations, we have no preconceived ideas about the kind of person we want: the students we admit, and who go on to do well, are a diverse crew.

Potential applicants who would like more information about anything touched on in these notes, are very welcome to contact any of the Directors of Studies in English, by e-mail.

Fellows in English at Clare

Dr Fred Parker Senior Lecturer in English, Director of Studies (Part I)
Dr Tamara Follini
Senior College Lecturer in English, Director of Studies (Part II)
Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas
Senior College Lecturer in English, Director of Studies (Part I)
Dr Anne Stillman
College Lecturer

See Student Profiles: Rachel Dewhirst