How many colleges in Cambridge University?

5 min read
Cress Warnell

From its earliest days, the University of Cambridge has been one of the world's leading educational institutions. The city of Cambridge has grown up around the university and its colleges, to become a hub of knowledge and research that attracts academics and entrepreneurs from all over the world.

You can't go far in Cambridge without encountering one of the many colleges. From the founding of the very first, Peterhouse College in 1284, there was a gradual addition of more until the most recent, Robinson, was set up in 1977. The twenty-first century has seen one more added, with 250-year-old Homerton being granted full college status in 2010.

The place of colleges in student life

Every Cambridge University student belongs to a college. The college you're in is an important feature in your student life. The first question a Cambridge graduate asks another, when they meet for the first time after leaving university, is: 'Which college did you attend?'

Your choice of college - or the college that's chosen for you - helps to shape your life as a Cambridge student. It can determine who you spend time with and which academics may have the most influence over you. The culture of the college you're in can play a part in forming the graduate you become and your steps in future life.

The college system at Cambridge is almost unique in the United Kingdom. Only Oxford and Durham Universities have something that matches it.

The collegiate nature of Cambridge University

A college is more than a building and a team of academics supporting students. Each college is a community, offering a camaraderie, a sense of belonging and support, that can last long after you've graduated.

There are 31 distinct colleges in Cambridge University. While most are open to most students, there are some restrictions. Of the 31 colleges:

  • Two are only open to graduate students.
  • Three colleges are only open to mature students (aged 21 and over).
  • Two colleges only admit women students.

Most colleges do not restrict entry based on the subject you choose for your degree. Every college has international students, who've come to study for a degree while not normally being resident in Britain.

Being part of a college means you're in a small community of undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics and staff. You're mixing with people of different ages, from different academic disciplines and other cultures. It's an experience that broadens and deepens your education, outside of the course that you're studying.

What colleges offer students at Cambridge

When you study at Cambridge University you are also a member of a college. Each college has its own grounds and buildings, libraries and study rooms, dining halls and common rooms. You can choose to spend much of your student life at Cambridge in your college - it also takes responsibility for finding you appropriate accommodation.

Every college has its own culture and traditions. Some, like King's College, are known for their choir. Almost every college has a boat club and other sports teams. Many of the older colleges allow you to study, eat and even live in attractive ancient buildings. They also have extensive grounds and gardens. Jesus College, for example, has 33 acres of land that attracts a huge variety of wildlife, from deer to nesting sparrowhawks.

Your college isn't just somewhere to live and socialise. Academics are based in the colleges and they provide supervisions, that is, small group tutorials. These intense, interactive meetings of just one or two students with their supervisor, are at the heart of the collegiate approach to education at Cambridge.

What the university provides for students

With your college giving you so much, what's the role of the university? What your college does not do is set and manage the curriculum for your chosen course. This is handled by the university. It also determines the course content, along with organising the lectures, seminars, practicals and projects that are all part of the study programme.

Having set the curriculum, the university also takes responsibility for setting the examinations, and marking them. Finally, at the end of your time as an undergraduate, it awards your degree.

The location of Cambridge colleges

The distance between your student room and the lecture theatre or lab you should be attending can become extremely important, particularly first thing in the morning. Many undergraduates want that distance to be as short as possible, so they can keep travelling time to a minimum.

Easy access to faculties, university libraries and other places of learning are an important aspect of college life. All the colleges are relatively close to the centre of the small city of Cambridge, but inevitably, some are closer than others. It's generally reckoned that students can get around easily by walking, cycling or using public transport.

Choosing which college to join at Cambridge

With so many colleges to choose from it can be hard to know which to pick. You do have to choose one - or allow someone to choose for you. When you apply to Cambridge you can either select a specific college, or make an open application, which means the university selects a college for you. Your application is then considered by the college of your choice.

Your choice could be based on one or more factors, including:

  • The college culture and traditions.
  • Location of the college.
  • The sports or other facilities on offer.
  • How that college performs academically.

Selecting a college means doing some research into which one seems most appropriate. Each has its own website, making it easier to research what's available. However, it's recommended that you visit at least one college before applying.

Colleges ranked by academic performance

It's generally accepted that all 31 of the colleges at Cambridge University offer some of the best education available in the world. However, it's also acknowledged that students from some colleges consistently perform better in exams than others.

In the 1980s a student published the Tompkins Table, which ranked all the colleges based on end-of-year exam results. This unofficial table continues to be published, providing an indicator of how colleges compare with one another for academic performance in exams. In recent years Christ's College has consistently topped the table, followed by Trinity College. In recent years St Catharine's College has jumped up the table.

Discover Cambridge colleges with Summer Schools

Through Summer Schools you can have the opportunity to experience life at Cambridge University, which includes living and studying in one of its prestigious colleges. If you're thinking of going to university, there's no better way to learn what undergraduate life might be like than to be a student yourself, if only for a week or two.

We make it easy for you to access a huge variety of courses based not only at Cambridge, but in many leading universities around the world. These are attended by thousands of students every year, giving them a taste of new places, new cultures and new ways of learning. Having a Summer Schools course on your university application can help you stand out from the crowd, because it demonstrates your commitment to learning and self-development.

Take a look at the many courses on offer through Summer Schools. We know from our long experience that 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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