What are the differences between different Cambridge "colleges"?

For instance what does it mean to be in Corpus Christi?


Hi Duncan!

A unique feature of certain British universities (namely Oxford and Cambridge, but also Durham, Kent and a few others) is the collegiate system. This means that Oxford and Cambridge refers to the central university, but the university is made up of the constituent colleges (31 for Cambridge and 38 for Oxford) and academic departments. The function of colleges is to act as a source of accommodation (some colleges cannot provide accommodation throughout study), but also as a coordinator for your studies. Within your college, your Director of Studies (at Cambridge) will organise who will be teaching you, and be in charge of your academic wellbeing. You will also have a tutor in college who is responsible for your pastoral wellbeing, and colleges will organise their own support networks and events for students, along with the university student union. Colleges also compete against each other in sports and competitions. It can be difficult to understand from the outside, but the best comparison in my opinion would be like the houses in Harry Potter: bodies of students who live and work together.

When you apply to Oxbridge as an undergraduate, you do not apply to the university directly, but rather apply through a college. So, for example, if you’re wanting to apply to Cambridge you would need to choose a college to apply to. Therefore, if you chose Corpus Christi College, you would apply to Corpus Christi College (Cambridge), not the University of Cambridge directly. The exception is when making an open application, where instead you will be allocated a college by the university depending on which colleges are in need of more applicants. The colleges will then assess your application and potentially offer you an interview and a place.

There is also a system of pooling during application. This basically means if you apply to a very oversubscribed college and there aren’t enough places for you to go there, but the admissions tutor still believes you to be of a high enough caliber to attend Cambridge or Oxford, they will put you into the pool. This means that colleges with less applicants can then make you offers or reinterview you in order to fill their remaining spaces. It should also be noted that Oxford and Cambridge are separate institutions and you can only apply to one or the other; pooling/offers will not be made between them - only within each.


So people choose colleges for a whole range of idiosyncratic reasons, beyond the Tomkins table: (just off the top of my head)

  • a college is more than a place you study at, it is also a place where you live so you are technically choosing your home for the next 3-4 years.
  • someone reading English and is female might feel a certain Romantic attraction to Newnham College and the gardens where Sylvia Plath used to roam?
  • maybe you are interested in joining a choir and Corpus Christi has one of the most fabulous choir groups around and they travel the world to perform?
  • colleges also differ in size, make-up of student body and definitely ‘feel’; they all have their own individual characteristics
  • more importantly, there might just be a professor who specialises in a topic you are especially interested in, which would be in your major; education here being largely tutorial 1-1 system would also mean you will work very closely with certain professors and some of their interests might just perk you up in the cold mornings than others
  • some schools have better funding for research/projects in some areas compared to others
  • the living quarters and the whole atmosphere also differs from college to college
  • some are steeped in tradition, you may like the Great Court Run at Trinity, or like me you love to climb up to the old Trinity clock tower to watch the 1610 old clock mechanisms work? Some are more modern/more chill in comparison
  • other practical reasons could be the distance from town centre, not everybody fancies walking or cycling through the constant drizzle, although some might find it rather quaint (to catch a cold)
  • and most importantly, while admissions is generally similar, there are also still differences in the admissions rates in different subjects across the colleges; pull out the admissions data it is publicly available, check the college/major admission rates
  • and the food served at the different dining halls does differ; important to some, immaterial to others

So if you look at colleges beyond just a place to study and a bed to sleep, you will find a host of differentiating qualities.


Duncan, great question!

There are some fantastic insights from current Cambridge (and Oxford) students on Crimson Hub. All videos are free to watch.


However, the only colleges that have been covered thus far are:

  • Fitzwilliam College
  • Kings College
  • Pembroke College
  • Gonville and Caius College

Degrees that have been covered, comprehensively, from Cambridge are:

  • Computer Science
  • Natural Science
  • Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS)
  • Geography
  • English Literature and Language
  • Architecture

If you like these, you can also check out the Oxford Content :slight_smile:

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