Studying Multiple Subjects at Oxbridge
“Do I have to choose only one subject if I apply to study at Oxford or Cambridge?”
This is a common question from students who come to us wanting to explore multiple interests or approach their studies from alternative perspectives.
Since you are going to be studying to a very high level for several years, it is imperative you choose a course that you are interested in and will really enjoy studying. Sometimes there may be more than one field, or two closely related subjects that inspire you and you may find that you have trouble making a clear-cut choice in your Oxbridge applications. The good news is – you may not need to! Oxford offers joint honours courses, and one of the most distinctive characteristics of the courses taught at Cambridge is that they cover a subject area very broadly in the initial years and then offer a wide range of options in which to specialise later. Indeed, both universities offer the chance to study a combination of subjects, but their course structures are rather different.
Each Cambridge course is called a Tripos and is divided into ‘Parts’ with each Part lasting one or perhaps two years. In each Part, you take several ‘papers', some of these are compulsory and some are optional, meaning you choose a certain number from a range of optional papers available that year. Courses can incorporate material from several subjects and indeed some degrees offer the opportunity to take papers in a subject other than your own if they are relevant to your degree; for example, some Classics and language papers are available in the English course. This means that, beyond any compulsory papers, you can tailor your course to your own interests, and you may not be limited to those within your immediate subject field. As such can delay specialising until you’ve had the chance to fully explore the breadth of your subject and developed your interests.
There are also courses that are organised by multiple faculties and as such are extremely broad in their scope. For example, the Natural Sciences course offers a wide range of physical and biological science subjects from sixteen departments whereby a broad first year is combined with increasing specialisation in the second year and the possibility of total specialisation in the third. This is a hugely popular course since it reflects the blurring of boundaries between the different sciences and allows for the study of a variety of subjects, some of which may be entirely new. Similarly, the Modern and Medieval Languages course is hugely flexible and offers a multifaceted approach to the study of language and culture. Although all students study two languages, it affords them the opportunity to pursue interests in many areas. You can combine a Modern Language with a Classical Language for example, study linguistics or even incorporate Arabic and Hebrew by applying for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.
If after a year or two of study you feel your educational interests lie in another subject area, there may be the opportunity for you to transfer to another specialty. For example, I completed two years of Geography before transferring to Management Studies for Part II of my Tripos. To be able to change courses you would be required to evidence that you have the necessary background in the subject and in some cases you may be required to undertake some catch-up work. That said, you should never apply to Cambridge with an active intention of switching course.
Oxford offers joint honours courses whereby certain subjects may be studied in various combinations. Joint courses at Oxford are carefully chosen to provide opportunities to explore different subject areas and examine the connections between them. Combining subjects in this way reveals insights that you might not find by studying the individual subjects alone. As such these courses explore the entire breadth of a subject(s), and they also let you probe deeply into areas that interest you.
Like at Cambridge, all courses have some compulsory papers, plus plenty of options. For example, the joint courses containing Philosophy are broad and comprehensive. It may be paired with a Modern Language, Theology, Psychology and Linguistics or even Physics. Philosophy may also be studied as part of the ever-popular Politics, Philosophy and Economics course; an example of a highly flexible degree which allows you to shape your own path through it. You may choose to specialise in two subjects at the end of the first year or continue with all three; within each subject there is also a broad base of options; for example, you can specialise in Sociology or International Relations by choosing the relevant Politics option.
MAKING AN APPLICATION
When it comes to Oxbridge applications, the standard processes of checking the entry requirements still applies. You may not need to have studied your chosen subject(s) before, however there will be prerequisites to entry, and it is important to know that you are meeting the most basic subject requirements. It is extremely likely you will need to sit a specific Oxbridge admissions test of some form.
Regardless of whether you apply for a broad-based course or a joint honours course your personal statement will still need to demonstrate your enthusiasm for and commitment to your chosen field(s) in your Oxbridge applications. Since all admissions decisions are based solely on academic criteria and consider your potential aptitude for study, it is important to show how you have actively engaged in your subject(s) and evidence how you have pursued your interests in your own time. My students often find that the process of writing a personal statement helps them to better understand their own academic interests and intellectual motivations, thereby better preparing them for discussions at interview.
When you apply to a joint honours course or indeed for courses that are organised by multiple faculties, it is likely that you will be interviewed in all subjects in your chosen course. This may take the form of several interviews or multiple tutors from different faculties may be present at one interview. This is very much dependent on College and subject choice.