Disclaimer: The answers to these questions should not be taken as definitive. Official information can be found in the University's Undergraduate Prospectus, the various College's Prospectuses and by directly contacting your preferred college. The University is not responsible for any action by any person consequent to any access of this information.
- How do I contact the Department of Natural Sciences?
- How does the College system at Cambridge work?
- How many people apply for the course?
- How much teaching is there each week?
- What is a "supervision"?
Actually, there is no such thing. The Tripos (which, in this context, is the Cambridge name for "course") is taught across sixteen Departments of the University. Some of the administration for the Tripos is carried out centrally but by and large each course is managed independently by the Department or Faculty that teaches it. One of the strengths of the Tripos is that you can tailor your education and choose the sciences you want to study. As you progress, it is likely that you will become more linked with one Department.
If you have a particular specialism in mind, then it would be worth looking at the appropriate Departmental or course web pages for further information on course content and research activities.
If you have questions regarding admissions, you should direct these to the Cambridge Admissions Office or to individual Colleges. More general queries about the Tripos, how it works and suitable subject information can be found on this website. Alternatively, you can email us and we will try and answer your questions - or point you to the right people.
To understand how Cambridge University operates, it helps to keep the historical origins in mind. The University was established in about 1209 to examine and to confer degrees. The first Colleges, each autonomous and independent with its own Governing Body and Charter, were established later, from 1284, principally to teach and house students at all levels. Today, the Colleges are mainly concerned with the teaching of their undergraduates and the academic support of both graduate and undergraduate students, and of scholars and research workers of outstanding merit. Over the last hundred years, the role of the University has hugely expanded through the provision of facilities, such as teaching and research laboratories, which it is only practically possible to provide centrally.
The University determines what is taught and provides the appropriate lectures and practical classes through the various Faculties and Departments. It also sets and marks the examinations and awards you your degree at the end of your course. To do this, the University employs Professors, Readers, Lecturers and other teaching and administrative staff to provide this formal teaching (lectures, seminars and practical classes).
The Colleges determine who is actually taught by the University; they have the responsibility for selecting, admitting and accommodating students. A student cannot enter the University (and attend classes or examinations) unless he or she is a member of a College. It is the Colleges who determine their own policies on admission and select students accordingly, although the University lays down the admission qualifications and has certain controls over the statutes of the individual colleges.
The Colleges supplement the University teaching with supervisions, arranged by a Director of Studies who will be assigned to you, and given by Fellows or others appointed by the College. Although some Departments may arrange the supervisions, it is formally conducted through the College of the students concerned. Each College also provides library and other learning resources exclusively for its own members.
The College is also the social and pastoral centre for students. It can provide accommodation, food and other facilities involving sports and other student activities. In cases where students encounter difficulties - of any nature - the College provides support through the Tutor system; this may include counselling (informal or formal), financial support and medical help. Colleges consist of a wide range of students, to help you to mix with students other than Natural Scientists.
You can find this information (for the last three years) and a lot of other information relating to the course on the University's website CamDATA: Course information and Statistics.
In the first year, you study four courses (three experimental subjects and mathematics). Each course gives three lectures per week for eight weeks a Term. In addition to this you are likely to have one supervision and some practical work for each course. It does vary between subjects a little.
A supervision is the Cambridge name for a small-group teaching session. These are usually one hour in length with 2-4 students and (usually) a member of your College who is a specialist in the subject you are studying. Supervisions are arranged by your College and are your best opportunity to explore the course material in a much greater depth than lectures allow. They are designed to clarify any points brought up in lectures, to engage in in-depth problem-solving and allow you to discuss those aspects of the course which interest you most.