Find the Best Cambridge College for History

December 4, 2023
5 min read
Cress Warnell

You'll find some of the world's sharpest history experts and teachers in all of the 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge. Finding the best college for studying history at Cambridge really depends on what you want from your time at the university.

To make the best choice of college, it helps for you to have put some thought into your expectations and ambitions for your time as an undergraduate. You'll also need to understand something of how Cambridge University operates. As one of the world's elite places of learning, it functions quite differently to many other universities, and has its own language, customs and culture.

Cambridge University is one of the very best places to study the subject and theory of history. Times Higher Education and other university ranking systems consistently place Cambridge as one of the top three or four institutions, alongside Oxford University, Harvard and Stanford. By choosing Cambridge, you're already aiming to learn among the very best in your subject.

To help you think through the benefits of choosing Cambridge, and selecting a specific college within the university, we've put together this short guide. It will prompt you with the issues you'll want to think about when making these important decisions.

Why you need to choose a college at Cambridge University

Becoming a student at the University of Cambridge also means becoming a member of a university college. Having a collegiate system sets Cambridge, along with Oxford, apart from almost all other universities in the United Kingdom. Both the university and your college play important, and sometimes overlapping, roles in your time as an undergraduate.

Your college is where you live and do much of your work. It's where you'll do much of your socialising and have opportunities to explore interests outside of your studies. It's your home for the three years of your degree.

The university provides the history faculty where you attend lectures and seminars. It determines the structure of your course, sets your exams and awards your degree.

The college and the university work together to provide the teaching and support you need.

Your choice of college will be influenced by its facilities, location and culture. All Cambridge colleges have an outstanding reputation for education and all are home to a number of history students.

Selecting a college at Cambridge University

When you apply to Cambridge you're also given the opportunity to select a college. This isn't mandatory - if you don't have a preference, you can allow the university admission team to choose one for you.

Some people want to attend a particular college because of its reputation, its location or because they want access to its learning or recreational resources. That said, every college has its own library, study rooms, common rooms for events, sports facilities and teams, music groups and other clubs and societies.

As a student of history you may prefer to study in a college that's been around for centuries, allowing you to live and work in ancient buildings. The oldest college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284 and its hall dates from 1290. Queens' College has the famous Mathematical Bridge, originally built in 1749. Emmanuel College has a chapel designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren.

Take some time to research the locations, facilities and culture of the 29 Cambridge colleges open to undergraduates. Bear in mind that three (Hughes, St Edmund's and Wolfson) only take students aged at least 21, and two (Murray Edwards and Newnham) only take female students.

5 Excellent reasons for studying history at Cambridge University

Studying a history degree at Cambridge gives you skills that will make you highly desirable to a wide range of employers.

The capabilities that the learning process teaches and sharpens include:

  • Excellence in verbal and written communication.
  • Analytical and critical reasoning skills.
  • Independent working and self-motivation.
  • Methodologies for studying and interpreting human societies.
  • Leadership, time management and project management.

Every essay and exam that you take at the university tests not only your knowledge of history, but also how well you've learned to manage yourself and the resources around you.

Structure of a History degree at Cambridge University

Your history degree at Cambridge takes three years to complete, which each year develops different areas of learning and historical methodology. Overall, the degree deepens your historical knowledge, your understanding of the craft of history, and your capacity for historical thinking.

The degree course is often referred to as a tripos. This is broken down into different papers, or modules.

  • Year 1 - Outline papers, getting you familiar with historical sources and skills.
  • Year 2 - Topics papers, including a research project.
  • Year 3 - Advanced topics papers, focused on your special subject and a dissertation.

As with all degrees at Cambridge University, your history degree teaching is based around the supervision system. The history faculty provides lectures, classes and seminars, where students learn in groups. 

Some of these, such as seminars, give space for you to participate in discussions. The supervisions are very small group sessions (no more than three students) with a subject expert.

Supervisions, also known as tutorials, take place in colleges. They're intense, interactive, and they complement the learning in the history faculty, providing a rich learning environment that's produced many leaders in different areas of our society.

Every Cambridge college accepts applications from those wanting to study history, and each has its own fellows and specialists in history.

In summary: How to find the best Cambridge College for history

Every college at Cambridge accepts students choosing to study history as a single subject, or as a joint subject, such as history and politics or history and modern languages.

Finding the 'best' college for you is about discovering those that give you what you want. This means taking into account factors such as:

  • Location in the city and ease of travel.
  • Sports and social facilities, such as teams and music groups.
  • Whether you want a more or less formal environment for studying and socialising.

Your choice of college will influence your student life. However, every history student at Cambridge University gets access to the dozens of highly respected professors, fellows and experts who teach and work there. You'll find it intellectually stimulating, challenging and highly rewarding. Whichever college you choose, you'll leave Cambridge with a wealth of knowledge, and a lot of highly useful and desirable skills to help you develop your career.

Learn more about Cambridge and studying history with Summer Schools

The more you can learn about Cambridge and its colleges before you apply, the better placed you'll be to make the best choice. Through Summer Schools you have the opportunity not only to visit Cambridge, but to study in one of its historic colleges, and to work with those who also teach today's undergraduates.

Through us, you can access a wide range of summer courses both in history and many other subjects. Some are based at Cambridge, others are run in other world-class centres of learning around the world.

Taking a Summer Schools course helps you decide what subject you may want to study at university, and where you may want to attend. It helps prepare you for university life, introduces you to a community of like-minded peers, and can be an excellent foundation for your future career.

We have a huge choice of courses and locations on our website. Take the time to explore what's available - there's something for everyone.

Cress Warnell

Cress is a skilled copywriter who transforms ideas into captivating content. With a passion for words and a keen eye for detail, she crafts compelling copy for Summer Schools, helping students explore their options in education.

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