How to choose a Cambridge college

Cambridge is a little different from most other universities
in that it has a college system. There are 31 colleges in Cambridge, 29 of
which admit undergraduates. When you apply to Cambridge you have to pick one
college to send your application to, who will look at your application and
decide whether to interview you.

So what is a college? Colleges are where Cambridge students
live during their degrees. They are a bit like mini halls of residence, with
bedrooms, common rooms, bars and libraries. Colleges also have their own clubs
and societies you can join, including orchestras and sports clubs. Some
colleges also have their own unique facilities, like swimming pools or punts
(boats that Cambridge students use to go on trips on the river). You can also
go to formal hall at your college, which is a three course dinner which you
wear your gown to, though most colleges have normal canteens as well. Apart
from supervisions, which are organised by your college, your college doesn’t do
any of your teaching. Lectures and labs take place at your department with
students from all the other colleges.

Most students at Cambridge find their closest friends in
their colleges, although don’t worry – you will meet lots of people from other
colleges too. Also, when you first arrive at Cambridge you will get ‘college
parents’, a couple of students in the year above who will answer any questions
you may have and try and look out for you for the first couple of weeks. This
really adds to the community feel that is present in every college.

The colleges are spread out around the city. Some are very
central, like King’s and Trinity, while some are a lot further out, like Girton
and Homerton. They vary in size from about 90 to 200 people in a year group,
and they also vary a lot in age – the oldest college, Peterhouse, was founded
in 1284 while the newest college, Robinson, was founded in 1977. It’s worth
bearing in mind that a couple of colleges only admit women – Newnham and Murray
Edwards. Some others only take applicants aged 21 or over – Hughes Hall, St
Edmunds, and Wolfson.

So how do you choose a college? People make this decision in
lots of different ways. Maybe you want to live in a small college, so you get
to know everyone, or maybe you want to live in a bigger college so you can meet
a wider range of people. Maybe you want to live close to your lectures
(although every college is near enough to be commutable by bike) or maybe
you’re attracted by a specific feature like the sports pitch or the ducks. Try
making a list of things you want out of a college, then look online to see
which college fulfils most of your criteria. It’s also worth having a look at
the different colleges at an open day if you can travel to Cambridge. If you
can’t make it in person the college websites have lots of information on the
different colleges, and you can even go on virtual tours of some of them. Each
college also has an Admissions Office which you can email with any specific
questions you have about the college.

If you are finding this whole college thing overwhelming, it’s
important not too stress too much about it! Pretty much everyone ends up liking
their college in the end, and you won’t necessarily even end up at the college
you applied to. A scheme called the Winter Pool runs every year after
interviews, where quality applicants for each college who didn’t quite get a
place can be offered a place by one of the other colleges. For example, I
applied to Downing College because it was near to my lectures but ended up
being ‘pooled’ to Newnham College. I was really unsure about this because
Newnham is single-sex, but ended up loving my college (the gardens are
amazing!) Overall, the college system is one of the things that makes Cambridge
special, and my college friends are still some of my best friends now, even
though I graduated almost a year ago. 

Bethany Bartlett
Contributor. Bethany studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and graduated in 2019. She is now a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.
Published on 3 May 2020