Choosing a subject

Students at a library table

At King's academic standards are high, and we take intellectual life and research very seriously. If you come to the College we expect you to work hard and will help you to succeed, but we also hope you will enjoy it. The results can be exhilarating.

To get the most out of your time at King's, it is important to apply for a course that will really suit your interests. This page offers a general introduction to how Cambridge courses work, and raises issues you should think about as you decide if King's is right for you.

A complete list of courses at King's is available on the subjects page.

Cambridge course structure

Many Cambridge courses are designed around the intensive study of a single subject, such as History, Engineering, Music or Linguistics. Courses are usually structured like a pyramid: 'Part I' provides a wide-ranging one or two- year introduction, covering a range of materials that explore the subject in depth, and equip you with contextual foundations for your third or fourth year. Then you specialise in one or more specific areas of interest and explore these in great detail in 'Part II'.

In most subjects there are a number of different routes you can pursue through the course, and papers that can be studied in related courses according to your interests. You choose one course to study at King's, but a Modern and Medieval Languages student may, for instance, choose to 'borrow' relevant papers from Classics, English, History, or Philosophy to combine with other Part II options for the Modern and Medieval Languages degree. Such 'borrowed' papers on, say, European history, political thought, or tragedy (to name a few options) can work very well in combination with the papers offered by an MML student's own faculty. You should consult the detailed course information on the relevant faculty website to explore the options for borrowing papers in each course.

Student reading in the Library

Many single-subject courses will appeal to students with a broad range of interests. If you study Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, for example, your exploration of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures could include the study of history, art, sociology, ethics, economics, politics, literature, psychology, religion, thought, and film, as well as the language work you will be doing. Like most subjects, the course (or 'Tripos', as it's called at Cambridge) allows you to pick and choose, and to focus on areas of particular interest through the small-group supervision teaching we have. So it is worth taking some time to explore the range of what is available within particular disciplines.

A number of our courses focus on an academic field instead of a single subject. Triposes such as Human, Social and Political Sciences or Natural Sciences bring together a range of related, and mutually illuminating, disciplines. A student with an interest in chemistry, for example, will benefit from the opportunity to choose some additional first year options, like materials science or biology, before specialising. They finish their degree with as much specialist knowledge as they would have gained from many single-subject chemistry courses at other Universities. Their perspective has, however, been enriched by their training in several scientific disciplines. As a result, Cambridge scientists are in an especially strong position to work in today's interdisciplinary research and technology environments. Some students enjoy one of their first-year options so much that they end up specialising in an area they only started to explore at Cambridge.

Starting new subjects at King's

Most of the subjects we teach will be familiar to you from your studies at school. Many students are keen to continue with their school subjects at a higher level and this can work very well. You should nonetheless take some time to explore our full list of courses. There are many opportunities to start new subjects at King's that you may never have considered, and you should explore all your options before making a decision.

Don't assume that you already need to be studying subjects like Law, Psychology or Religious Studies to take these courses at University level. In fact, there are a whole range of school subjects which provide excellent preparation for these courses, and we will welcome your application if you are seriously committed to the course.

It is always worth considering your options carefully. Think about Classics, for example. Have you ever really thought about what people who study Classics do? You may already be interested in History or Languages but not have thought of researching Classics because your school did not offer Latin or Greek. We offer a three-year course as well as a four-year course for those who have not studied a classical language before. Four-year candidates undergo intensive language training in the first year of their course.

Changing subjects

Two students chatting

Some students change Tripos between Part I and Part II of their degree. Of course this option depends on the subjects involved, and on the suitability of individual students for the new course. But a change of Tripos can work well – sometimes it is only when students work at degree level that new interests emerge, and they find themselves drawn to related subject areas.

History student, for example, may become interested in Economics after thinking about particular topics in their History supervisions and lectures, and perhaps after discussing their work with King's Economics students. The same might obviously happen in the other direction, as an Economics student comes to realise that the History course would allow them to develop new-found interests.

Thinking about careers

Sometimes students start with a specific career in mind, and try to choose their course accordingly. You should, however, take the time to research your course fully, and to think about the time you would spend working on it at King's. No matter how keen you are to become a doctor or a lawyer, for example, you also need a genuine passion for your subject as an academic discipline. Medicine is a demanding science course with a heavy theoretical emphasis across the pre-clinical undergraduate course. Law involves reading and studying hundreds of pages of legal cases. Both are exciting courses for committed students, but those who focus too narrowly on career prospects in choosing their course may not find the intensive work at King's enjoyable enough, and as a consequence will struggle to retain their motivation.

Many students go on to further study and research, or use the material they have covered in their degree directly in their subsequent career. However, do remember that a large number of employers are very keen to employ Cambridge graduates from any degree background. They are interested in your capacity for study at degree level at a top university, which includes general skills such as the ability to learn quickly, analyse problems, communicate effectively, and meet high expectations under pressure (to name just a few). Whether your degree is in Philosophy, English, or Geography, you will have a lot to offer even if you don't apply for roles that are specifically in your field.

Employment rates for Cambridge graduates are very good, and the University has a Careers Service which organises talks on getting into specific careers, organises meetings between employers and final-year students, houses a careers library, and offers consultations with careers staff, help with CVs and practice interviews.

Academic extras

There are plenty of opportunities at Cambridge to develop academic interests outside your course, though you will need to be careful to balance these with your academic work and any other activities.

  • University lectures are open to all students at Cambridge, so you can attend most lectures offered by other faculties if you are interested. The Lecture List will provide full details at the start of each year. Your Director of Studies can offer additional advice.
  • There are lots of talks organised by seminar groups and societies both in King's and across the University. Often lecturers or postgraduate students present their research, or speakers from other universities are invited. The University's Science Festival and Festival of Ideas are also worth exploring.
  • Whether or not you would be studying a language as part of your course, you can always take a language course alongside your degree. There are a range of Language Centre Courses (as well as opportunities to self-teach using Language Centre resources), Modern Icelandic and Irish, and student societies organise conversation meetings, such as the German Society's Stammtisch where society members meet in the pub to socialise in German.
  • King's has foreign travel grants designed to help and encourage students to experience other cultures or visit sites of particular interest during vacations.

Developing your interests

Students at a library table

Whatever decision you make about the course you would like to apply for, we hope that you will think carefully about your interests, research the course thoroughly, and ask yourself what you would get the most out of studying in depth. Students who thrive in their studies will have genuine curiosity for their chosen course, and will enjoy the process of learning and challenging themselves.

We require applicants to achieve (or be expected to achieve) strong results in school examinations as part of our entrance requirements. It is, however, just as important that you develop your interests in a subject as it is to have good paper grades. Ideally, the two should go together!

We encourage prospective applicants to pursue their interests beyond the standard school curriculum, and to think carefully about topics which catch their attention. So please ask questions and make full use of any relevant resources available to you, such as local libraries, talks, radio programmes, and museums. We try to link useful resources from the subject pages where we can (normally towards the end of the page - look out for the resources section), and we also have a subject resources page. Your teachers can also be an excellent source of advice: if you have enjoyed a lesson, why not ask for some suggestions for material to do further work on the same topic?

Really to develop your thinking and understanding is not something you can do just prior to exams or the admissions interviews at King's. This takes a longer term effort which you should find both rewarding and enjoyable. It is essential that you have a genuine commitment to your subject just because all Cambridge courses are quite tough: we need to select those students who have the potential to benefit from the challenge, enjoy their studies, and get the most out of the academic opportunities at King's.

What do the students say?

See what some Cambridge students have written about how they chose their subject / course:

Further information

Subjects | Undergraduate study | Back to the top