Securing a place to study, or ‘read’ English at Cambridge University is a challenging task. Extremely able candidates from around the world compete for a limited number of places, and it is essential to prepare for this competitive process effectively.
In the article below, Keystone Tutors provide an overview of the best approach to take, some top tips, and even an inside view on the application process from a tutor who read English at Cambridge.
English at Cambridge: The Application Process
- Candidates must submit their UCAS form by mid-October. There is then a small additional questionnaire that Cambridge will email you.
- In late October or early November there is an admissions test (ELAT) that you will take at school.
- In mid-November you will need to submit a piece of written work, ideally a homework essay you have done for your English teacher at school.
- Candidates will hear whether they have been invited to interview in late November or early December.
- Interviews take place in the first three week of December.
- Candidates will be told whether they have been offered a place in January.
Is there an admissions test for English at Cambridge?
Yes: it’s called the ELAT (English Literature Admission Test). It is a 90-minute exam on unseen texts testing your skills in close reading, comparative analysis, and essay writing. It takes place in late October or early November.
Read more about the ELAT in our blog article Preparing for English Literature Admissions test
Tips for a great English personal statement
- Start writing separate paragraphs about your interests rather than trying to write the whole thing at once. You can then pick the best paragraphs for inclusion.
- In each paragraph, try to explain how you became interested in the topic, what you did to advance that interest (whether through reading, attending talks, listening to podcasts, writing essays), and then what new ideas, new conclusions, and new questions came from your investigations.
- Be precise and don’t generalise.
- Remember to describe your intellectual development: what insights you had and what you changed your mind about. Don’t just list things you’ve read.
English at Cambridge interview format
The interview at Cambridge is like a ‘supervision’, the small group tutorials that the university is well-known for. It is a chance for the academics to see what it would be like to teach you and for you to share your ideas.
The interview will almost always be structured around an unseen text that the candidate is given before the interview. This is usually a literary text – such as a poem or an extract from a play or novel – but it could also be a piece of literary criticism or some piece of historical evidence related to an author, such as a letter or a diary entry.
The candidate will be interviewed by one or two academics who teach English at the college. They may also ask about your personal statement and the written work you have submitted.
Example interview question and answer for English at Cambridge
Question: “Charles Lamb claimed that Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be read, not performed. Do you agree?”
Answer: “No, I don’t agree with this. Shakespeare’s plays would lose something if they were never performed since they are, in some way, always about the theatre. For instance, in King Lear, there is an amazing scene when Edgar pretends to lead his blind father Gloucester to a clifftop. Gloucester wants to kill himself, by throwing himself off the edge. But Edgar only pretends that they are up a cliff when in reality they are on flat low ground. When Gloucester survives the “fall”, Edgar can tell his father that a miracle has happened and reassure him that the gods are just. This scene plays with the way an audience uses their imagination when watching a piece of theatre. If we were just reading the play, we might lose this playful take on the expectations of staging and pretence.”
What is it like studying English at Cambridge? – Interview with Keystone Tutor Andy
Prior to joining Keystone, Andy was an academic at Cambridge University (where he also graduated with a double first in English). He took a BA in English Literature at Jesus College (2004-2007) and a PhD in English Literature at Darwin College (2011-2014)
How long have you worked for Keystone?
Since 2015. Almost six years now.
What do you like most about working with Keystone?
I always like seeing students make breakthroughs. Whether that is a major jump in their grade in an exam or a new insight about a piece of literature or a newfound confidence in their abilities. Those lightbulb moments are the best part of my work.
How did you find the application process for Cambridge?
I found the process a natural extension of my love for literature and the arts. I approached it as just another way to channel my academic interests and have a project to work on. This helped it be less daunting. That said, no one in my immediate family had gone to university before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.
What preparation did you do in advance?
When I applied, there was no entrance exam. This meant that my focus was on my personal statement and on mock interviews. I spent quite a lot of Year 12 expanding my understanding beyond the syllabus. For instance, I took one author that I had studied at A Level and read most of his other novels and his biography so that I could demonstrate my capacity to sustain a research project. I went to hear talks by literary authors at festivals. I started reading some introductory works on literary criticism and I continued to pursue my other interests, such the visual arts and drama, which complimented my appreciation of literature.
Before the interview, I did a few practice sessions with my teachers. This helped me get used to the discomfort of being challenged on my ideas and helped me work out how to phrase what I wanted to say.
What was the English interview like at Cambridge?
I had three interviews. Two were one-to-one interviews with Fellows in English (the College’s English Literature experts). In both of these interviews, the focus was on close analysis of an unseen extract. I found them both really challenging. For the first interview, the extract I was given was unlike anything I had ever studied before: it was a note from the Romantic poet John Clare to his publisher, stipulating the print run and conditions of sale of one of his books. The interviewer was curious about what I thought this piece of archival evidence could show us about Clare and his literary ambitions. At the time, I had no experience looking at historical evidence like this and I found it difficult to know what to say. I suggested that the stipulation of a few hundred copies showed that Clare was rather modest, until the interviewer pointed out that poetry books today are lucky to sell that many.
Before the second interview, I was given a choice of several short poems to discuss. I immediately liked the first text and so I started annotating it without reading the others. It seemed to be about someone reaching the summit of a mountain and surveying the world with a sense of power. I had recently read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and so I saw the poem as a kind of allegory for colonialism. In the interview, however, the interviewer asked me whether I had noticed that all the poems on the sheet were about birds. I hadn’t!
I somehow managed to correct myself after both of these comments from the interviewer. Although it was pretty nerve-wracking at the time, it shows that candidates are allowed to make mistakes in their interviews and should expect to be challenged by the interviewer. It is more about how you react to the challenge than getting absolutely everything right.
My final interview was with an admissions tutor for the arts, who asked me general questions related to my personal statement. Since this was what I was expecting I enjoyed this interview the most.
What was it like studying English at Cambridge? What did you enjoy most?
I really enjoyed the collegiate setting. I was close friends with the other English undergrads at Jesus and enjoyed bouncing ideas off them and talking about books at lunch or over a cup of tea. The “supervision” system at Cambridge – basically small group tutorials – is well-known and rightly so. It was wonderful to have such an intimate setting to discuss your ideas with your teachers and fellow students.
I also appreciated the scope of the course: at Jesus, we did it chronologically, starting with medieval literature in our first week and working up the present day in the second year. But alongside this canonical overview by period, there is the chance to branch off into other areas with optional papers. Highlights for me included studying Italian literature – Dante, Leopardi, and Primo Levi - (and having to learn to read Italian to do so), working on film and the visual arts, spending a term on moral philosophy, and writing a dissertation on the use of biblical metaphors in Richard Dawkins’s pop science books. There are also two notable cornerstones of the Cambridge course that are just fantastic. First is the emphasis on developing the skill of close reading: you do this in weekly ‘Practical Criticism’ classes throughout your three years. And second is the final year paper on Tragedy: an incredible deep dive into Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, war photography, tragic theory, Beckett, and much more.
Finally – although it might sound odd – I really liked the workload. Having to write an essay a week was sometimes a big ask, but it helped me see writing as less of a big deal. I just had to get it done. Sometimes my essays were pretty good. Sometimes (if I was in a play that week or didn’t click with the text) they weren’t. No big deal.
What are your top tips for someone thinking about applying to read English at Cambridge?
Make sure you’re applying for the right reasons. You need to really love the subject first and Cambridge second. If you’re just applying for the university crest, you won’t have the passion and knowledge to impress the academics who interview you, and you won’t be able to sustain your energy through a demanding degree. And if you don’t particularly like Cambridge as a town or as a university environment, there are many other excellent places to read English!
Find your areas of interest. It is great to go into the application process with a specialist area of literature that you have done some research on. For instance, you might have studied Frankenstein at school and become interested in Gothic novels or science fiction. Or maybe you are interested in one author’s work. Perhaps you have a thing for the Modernist movement or for contemporary drama or for the writing of the Harlem Renaissance. Get stuck into a topic that you’re passionate about.
Practise articulating your ideas. The ELAT exam and the interview both require you to put your thoughts into words. You don’t need to use fancy language or special terminology; instead, you need to be precise, clear, and elegant. Writing in any form can help with this: essays, of course, but also articles for a school magazine, a blog or reading journal, even notes in the margin of a novel. Talking about your interests with like-minded friends is also helpful.
Read the work of literary scholars and critics. It is important to remember that you are applying to study literature not just join a three-year long book club! That means you need to demonstrate an interest in what other people have thought about your favourite texts. Your personal statement should include discussion of critical scholarly arguments and what you thought about them.
Annotate your books. Whenever you are reading, always do so with a pencil in hand. Even just underlining here and there can help you focus on details and adopt a more analytic approach to your reading. In the interview, you’ll do better if you can offer a precise example of something you are talking about; if you’ve annotated your books then you’ll have a better chance of remembering these key details.
Tutors for Cambridge University Preparation
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for a tutor to support your English application for Cambridge University. We offer University interview training, advisory support and we have a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching the ELAT.