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 have few prescribed elements, and are generously conceived as regards the kinds of questions 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 subjects 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, American literature, the medieval supernatural, early modern drama, lyric, Victorian literature, literature and visual culture (including film studies), postcolonial literature, English and European ethical thinkers, contemporary literature written in the last 15 years, the history and theory of literary criticism, 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 long 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:

Studying English at Clare

Clare is well placed geographically: the English Faculty and English Library are on our doorstep, as is the University Library. Our own College library, the Forbes-Mellon, gives you access to much of the primary literature as well as expert guidance with electronic resources.

Teaching goes on through lectures run by the English faculty, and classes and supervisions which take place within college. 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.

Classes are with some or all of the others in your college year-group; there will normally be between four and ten 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, another involving an exercise in practical criticism, and a third 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. We introduced these classes as an experiment some years ago, and students have liked this way of doing it.)

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 on some aspect of his work that has caught your attention. A weekly essay is normally an exploratory, experimental piece of writing, in which second thoughts, interesting muddles and wild surmises can be all to the good; it is meant to focus perceptions and to try out arguments which can then be developed, qualified, or challenged in discussion with your supervisor.

Fellows in English at Clare

Clare is a college that gives a high priority to undergraduate teaching, and there are five Fellows actively teaching in English:

Dr Ian Burrows

Dr Tamara Follini Director of Studies (Part II)

Dr Fred Parker Director of Studies (Part I)

Dr Anne Stillman

Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas  Director of Studies (Part I)

You can learn more about us by following those links. We all teach widely and enthusiastically beyond our own specialisms, 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.

English at Clare extends beyond formal teaching. Fellows have been known to arrange subsidised visits to theatres in Cambridge and London; to turn seminars into communal play-readings; to invite directors to discuss their productions; to arrange for film evenings introduced by specialists in film studies. On two memorable evenings one summer, Dr Stillman and the English third-year students took over the college gardens to produce a site-specific, multi-media performance for voices of Tennyson’s poem Maud (complete with original music and the arrival of Death on a punt). The Clare Actors company and the college Literary and Writing Society flourish in line with the enterprise of the students who run them. The tradition has sprung up of an annual English dinner. But perhaps most valuable are the wholly informal ways in which students interact with each other – sharing literary enthusiasms, discussing ideas, reading each other’s writing, and appreciatively responding to the special qualities, intellectual and creative, which each English student brings, in her or his own way, to the table.

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 gender studies, or historical context, or philosophy, etc – 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. Last year we made offers to one in four of those applying. Two-thirds of our students are from state schools, including schools that do not send many people to Oxbridge. 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 school exams 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 (unless that is not an option at your school). A few applicants prefer to take a gap year before beginning their degree; this makes no difference to their chance of getting in.

Written Assessment

All applicants to study English at Cambridge are required to take the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), as Oxford applicants also do. 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 (almost all applicants are), 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.

See Student Profiles: Rachel Dewhirst