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