Studying English at Oxford and Cambridge

Why Oxford and Cambridge?

The programs in English at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have, over the last three years, consistently ranked the top two in the world. Naming among their alumni some of history’s most famous writers, as well as hosting some of the most prestigious professors in the field, these universities offer unrivaled opportunities to study literature in English and the English language.

What will I be studying?

The English programs at Oxford and Cambridge cover the breadth of literature in English, from the earliest medieval poems to the most experimental contemporary literatures. You should definitely expect a compulsory module on William Shakespeare. However, both programs offer students the opportunity to choose topics and texts that most interest them. Alongside this, students gain a grounding in critical theory, and in philosophies regarding the nature of language and reading.


When studying English at Oxford and Cambridge, students should prepare to read a lot, and to write a lot about what they read. On average, English undergraduates produce two essays a week (roughly 4,000 words). This is on top of the necessary readings for seminars and tutorials.

However, very little of this work is formally assessed. The universities rather base assessment on one or two dissertations on a chosen topic, combined with a number of examinations in which students answer a variety of unseen essay questions. Examinations take place at the end of the first and final years. You will submit all coursework in the final year.

Applying to study English at Oxford and Cambridge.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have notorious application processes. These can be intimidating and often require specialist training. Both universities require the submission of a personal statement and a sample essay, and expect applicants to achieve the very highest results at high school. Both Oxford and Cambridge require an exceptional score in the IELTS for those applicants who are not native speakers of English.

A major part of the admissions process is the completion of an English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT). This is an examination, taken before your interview, which tests your ability to analyse critically prose, poetry, and drama. Importantly, Oxford and Cambridge insist that it is the applicant’s responsibility to register for this examination.

The interview – or sometimes interviews – is the final part of the application process. The University of Oxford provides statistics highlighting the interview’s importance. These show that offers are ultimately made to less than a quarter of interviewees. Applicants should expect to answer questions on anything from the form and content of a text. They should prepare for more obscure topics too, such as the relationship between music and language. These questions, however, are not intended to scare applicants.

Admissions processes for other undergraduate degrees usually emphasise extra-curricular activities, as a sign of your broader strengths. However, English programs at Oxford and Cambridge are much less interested in this. They want to see proof of academic excellence and the capacity for critical thought in unfamiliar contexts. For this, you need practice, and a real passion for your subject.


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