“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
— Oscar Wilde
The most important thing about English at Peterhouse is that it’s centred around your interests. Whether you’re into Conan Doyle or Coleridge, you’ll get the chance to study your existing favourites and will hopefully graduate with a few new ones too. The course covers over 800 years of literature in addition to various theoretical approaches to the texts; the great thing about this degree is that it’s actually a mix of philosophy/history/classics/language and literature, which means there’s always plenty to keep you interested.
The English Tripos is divided into two parts, the first of which you'll study over two years. During this time you’ll look at five different periods of literature, from Medieval to Modern (with Shakespeare getting his very own paper). There is also a Practical Criticism paper which will runs alongside which teaches you how to analyse texts and introduces you to critical theory. Additionally, you have the option to pick up a language paper such as French or German or even to learn a language from scratch, for example Italian. At the end of these two years you’ll be examined on everything you’ve learnt so far. In your final year you’ll start Part Two which involves a Tragedy paper, a dissertation and another Practical Criticism paper, as well as several other optional papers. These additional papers range from American literature to Chaucer (and everything in between) meaning you get to specialise in whatever you enjoy most. For more detailed information, see the Faculty website.
Peterhouse really is a great place to study English. Despite being the smallest college, we are lucky enough to have three excellent fellows who between them are some of the University’s leading experts on Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Dickens…the list goes on. There are rarely more than seven or eight English students per year at Peterhouse, which means that there are always plenty of people to contribute in classes but not so many that you have to fight over the books. Speaking of books, the college library is more than fully equipped to cater for your needs, and if you do ever find yourself in search of a more obscure text then the college will often buy it for you. Overall, Peterhouse’s size is definitely a bonus – everyone gets to know each other really quickly, including students in the years above (helpful if you ever need advice/second hand books).
For most of the week you’ll be busy working on a period paper essay set by your supervisor, which is usually between 1500-2000 words long. Each week you’ll cover a particular author or theme within a period, so for example during the Shakespeare paper you’ll look at the comedies one week, tragedies the next etc. It would be physically impossible to read everything by a given author, and indeed you’re not meant to. Instead, you choose a couple of poems/novels/plays that appeal to you most and write your essay on those. At the end of the week you’ll have a ‘supervision’, a meeting with an expert in that particular topic. Supervisions are either be in small groups of two or three people, or one-on-one, and will give you the chance to talk about your essay and ask questions. Supervisions are a great way to find out lots in a short amount of time, and to really get to grips with the more difficult topics. Lectures run from Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm (roughly), but by no means will they all be relevant to you. At the beginning of the term you’ll be given a lecture timetable and you’re free to choose whichever sound the most interesting or useful. Your supervisor might also point out some of the most important ones, especially for papers like Practical Criticism.
If you’ve made it this far, well done! I hope that this hasn’t been too off-putting, and you’re still keen to apply for English. When you’re making your application, try to read widely and outside of your school’s syllabus – the interviewers will want to see that you are pursuing your own interests and have lots to say about them. The most important thing is that you sound passionate and genuinely interested in what you’re reading. The interview process really isn’t as scary as you think. Sure, it’s a bit nerve-wracking but when it ends you will have hopefully enjoyed it and without a doubt will have learnt something new. Your interviews involve having two conversations with fellows and the admissions tutor, where you’ll discuss what you’ve said in your personal statement and what interests you most. Try to enjoy it; the fellows want to get know how you think and are not expecting you to be an expert already – that’s their job! You might also have to do a short test on the day of the interview, which will consist of a comparison of texts and is there to find out how you would approach a text you haven’t read or studied before. You will also be asked to send in a portfolio of essays, probably ones you’ve already written for coursework.
Good luck with your application, wherever it may be for – and hopefully see you soon!
Here are a few tips which might make your first few weeks as an English student run a bit smoother: