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How is it to study at Cambridge?

This is a blog about a question we often get asked. Studying as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge is actually not like studying in any other university in the world! It is even very different from studying in any other university in the UK… except perhaps for the University of Oxford, its main rival, and closest relative.

What surprised me when I first got to the University for my PhD is that the university is clearly split between (1) Faculties and Departments, and (2) “Colleges”.

Faculties and departments are in charge of the standard teaching: large lectures, laboratory practicals, seminars. They have lecture halls, laboratories, and such facilities. For example the Faculty of Mathematics (in which I work, see the picture above) has two departments: Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. Together they organise all the teaching in the Mathematics Undergraduate programme. Some other Faculties have more departments.

Colleges, on the other hand, are in charge of a different (and unique) kind of teaching: “supervisions”. Supervisions are very-small group teaching, usually one teacher for two students (sometimes only one student!) Supervisions are complementary to large lectures and allow for a much more personalised kind of teaching, tailored to the needs of individual students. They usually involve the discussion of some homework, and can be quite tiring for the student and teacher! I have given supervisions to undergraduate students for over five years and I find it very interesting and rewarding.

But colleges are not only about this small-group teaching. They are a kind of “campus” where students often have their bedroom, where they eat, play sports, socialise (for example meet friends at the bar!), or practise arts (such as music). The college staff also look after the students and take care of their well-being (for example colleges have academic tutors, counsellors, and even a nurse!).

There are 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge, and each of them have a unique history, culture and character. When you apply to Cambridge, you actually don’t apply to the “university” directly, but to a college (you can choose which one). In future posts we will discuss other important aspects of the student life at Cambridge.


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