The course

Part I of the English Tripos is taken after two years. Undergraduates from across the University prepare for this hurdle in a variety of different ways: here at Pembroke, students are encouraged to encounter English literary history in a more or less chronological fashion, starting with Medieval and Renaissance studies in the first two terms, with a University Preliminary examination at the start of their third term, in which they will study Shakespeare and then studying the long eighteenth century and modern  papers in the second year. Throughout Part I, the emphasis is on the study of English literature in its contexts: linguistics, literary, cultural, intellectual.  The flexibility this offers to students is immense.

Undergraduates write six essays in every eight week term, with the essays discussed during supervisions, usually in pairs. In addition, there is a weekly class in practical criticism and critical practice, a close-reading exercise which also allows us to discuss issues and traditions in literary criticism, and classes to complement the period papers. Insights into the language of literature are developed using an online course designed by the English Faculty.  For students with a particular desire to continue study of a modern or classical language and its literature, there is the option of substituting a paper from the English Tripos with a paper borrowed from the Modern and Medieval Languages or Classical Tripos.

Study for Part II occupies the third and final year of the undergraduate course, and is designed to build on Part I. Two papers are compulsory, on Practical Criticism and Tragedy (to include Shakespearean and Greek tragedy); in addition, undergraduates combine work on two options drawn from a variety of topics with the writing of a dissertation on a literary subject of their choice. Part II provides an opportunity both to spread your wings by encountering new material and to revisit some of the material covered in Part I in greater depth.

If you are applying for entry in 2020, please note that the paper options for each Year will be different. Details of the papers available can be found on the Faculty of English website.

Pembroke English

The College has four English Fellows with research and teaching interests in English. Dr Katrin Ettenhuber, Director of Studies for Part I, is primarily interested in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. Dr Mark Wormald, who is Director of Studies for Part II, and Dr Alex Houen both specialise in literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century and in contemporary writing. Dr Mina Gorji, works on eighteenth-century writing and on Romantic literature and culture.

All these Fellows teach fairly broadly, going beyond their specialised areas of study. We are also lucky to have one research-active Emeritus Fellow, Mr Colin Wilcockson, who works on Chaucer and the poetry of David Jones. Between us, we do our best to ensure that a Pembroke undergraduate’s experience of the subject is rich and varied: we are all dedicated to ensuring that our students find the course as rewarding as it is stretching.

We encourage undergraduates who are interested in creative writing to pursue this. Pembroke undergraduates have often won the University’s creative writing prizes.  We are proud of being in a college where (as undergraduates or Fellows) Edmund Spenser, Thomas Gray, Christopher Smart and Ted Hughes have lived. A volume of poetry written by Pembroke Fellows and students over the 650 years of the College’s existence was published in 1998, and the College hosts regular Masterclasses by the National Academy of Writing. There is an active College Poetry Society, in which undergraduates write, read and discuss their own poems; the best are published in The Pem, an arts magazine.

We also maintain ties with our more recent English alumni and we ask eminent Pembroke writers to judge our annual creative writing prize.


Between ten and twelve undergraduates read English at Pembroke each year, reflecting the quality of the applicants. It is one of the largest arts subject in the College. The College has a strong academic record in the subject; our Tripos results have in recent years usually been among the best in the University. The ratio of applicants to places in recent years has been between five and six to one – a measure of the College’s reputation in the subject.

The admissions process consists of the Admissions Assessment, the ELAT, taken in November, and two interviews. Candidates must be taking English Literature (or English Language and Literature) at A-level. No other A-level subjects are stipulated or deemed inappropriate. The interviews will invariably revolve in large measure around discussions of texts familiar to the candidate, and it is important to be able to talk about several. Candidates are encouraged to explore across a variety of genres and periods. But we are also keen to gauge candidates’ ability to respond to texts that are new to them, and candidates can expect to be presented with short poems or extracts from longer works before one interview and during the other. The majority of texts studied at Part I were composed before 1850, and candidates should acquaint themselves with some earlier forms of literature. Many of these texts are now easily accessible: The Norton of Anthology of Poetry offers a wide selection of texts, from Beowulf to Carol Ann Duffy, for instance, while the Luminarium website offers a wide range of texts from the period 1350-1785 (as well as useful introductory essays on individual authors, genres, and styles of writing).

We don’t expect you to have previous knowledge of any of the texts you will be asked to write or talk about over the course of the day. The exercises we set are not designed as a test of technical knowledge; rather, we want to get a sense of your ability to think, reason, and develop clear lines of argument. For a quick training session in literary criticism, you might like to visit “Converse“, the literary website of the Cambridge English Faculty, which provides sample readings of poetry and useful tips on how to hone your close reading skills. “The Virtual Classroom“, also hosted by the English Faculty website, offers literary exercises and quizzes, as well as a sample class on Medieval literature. “Converse” and “The Virtual Classroom” can be accessed via the web resources section of the English Faculty home page. Pembroke’s own virtual classroom, on Critical Practice, can be found at http://www.pem.cam.ac.uk/prospective-students/undergraduates/virtual-classroom/english/

As part of the admissions process you will also be asked to submit two recent school essays.

Enquiries about admissions requirements for studying English at Pembroke should be directed to the Admissions Office by emailing: adm@pem.cam.ac.uk

Further subject inquiries should be addressed to Dr Katrin Ettenhuber or Dr Mark Wormald at Pembroke.

For further information about the course, please see the page about English on the University website.