Life at Cambridge

The lack of updates and blog posts over the last few months is because I was busy preparing and then living the Cambridge life! To make up for my neglect I have written about life at Cambridge for anyone who is thinking of applying (I’d imagine the majority of points are similar for Oxford and other top universities). If you have any further questions feel free to ask them in the Comment Section below.

Before I start I’d like to point out that my experience is as a Girton economist and actual experiences may vary from college to college. There are over 30 colleges in Cambridge where you live and socialise and also get ‘supervisions’. Lectures are provided by the Faculty of Economics which is what might be thought of as the University.

The Course

This information is for the first term of the first year, I will provide further updates when I have completed the second term:

Michaelmas (First Term) Papers – all are compulsory with no choice

Paper 1 – Microeconomics – Consumer and Producer Theory – a highly mathematical analysis of microeconomics mainly covering Indifference Curves, Income and Substitution Effects Demand, Supply, Monopolies, Perfectly Competitive Firms and Production Functions

Paper 2 – Macroeconomics – covering the economy from a long run classical perspective before introducing short-run phenomena and other schools of thought (Keynesian and Monetarist). Following Macroeconomics by Mankiw for this course.

Paper 3 – Quantitative Methods of Economics – this consists of Statistics and Mathematics which used to be separate papers but have recently be joined. Currently we have a supervision for each per fortnight, and there are also separate lectures. The maths course isn’t actually too difficult and it assumes you didnt learn much at A-Level, mainly going over differentiation, matrices and vectors (not to a high level), and shouldn’t pose difficulties for many people. The statistics is a little more difficult because it is structured different from A-Level stats, therefore pay attention to this! If you are going to do any work in preparation for coming to Cambridge I’d recommend revising or learning stats, people with knowledge of Edexcel S1,2,3 and 4 do much better to start with but after the first term most other people have caught up.

Paper 4 – Politics and Sociology – Britain between 1945-2010 (economic and political aspects of this time period). Labour in the World (a short lecture series on unions and labour). European Integration (another short lecture series on the forms of union and in particular European Integration). This is probably my favourite paper currently, the British aspect covers quite a lot (mainly finishing by the time of Blair) and looks at 3 main different persepctives – the ‘Consensus’ period after WWII and what composed this (the three main pillars were the mixed economy, Keynesian demand management along with a commitment to full employment and the Welfare State along with the ever dominant consensus on foreign affairs, justice and defence although there were changes in foreign affairs towards decolonisation and granting independence); moving on to Thatcher and exploring whether she changed the Conservative party and if she broke down the Consensus, if so what did she create instead before finally moving on to New Labour and exploring how they furthered politics and whether they were a change from Old Labour.

Paper 5 – Economic History – the Industrial Revolution; looking at the possible causes of the IR (Demography, Agricultural Revolution, Consumer Revolution, Transport, Technology), whether there was actually a revolution (some argue that growth wasn’t that great and so it was an evolution not a revolution) along with the effects of the IR – increases in standards of living. There are also links made to today and how lessons from the IR can be applied to current developing economies to increase their economic growth rate.


The supervision system is seen as the comparative advantage for Cambridge. In small groups (the groups vary for different topics but generally there are 3/4 of us Girtonians in a supervision) you work through essays/problem sheets with your supervisor who is usually a leading academic in the field.

In a fortnight you should typically have 6 supervisions (one each for micro, macro, maths, stats – for some colleges these two papers will be joined in to one supervision – politics and history). These will probably be at different colleges (especially for Girtonians! Only 1 of my supervisions is at Girton, the rest are at Claire, 2*Gonville and Caius, the Faculty and Wolfson Court which is semi-Girton). You will be set an essay (Politics and History) or a problem sheet (Stats, Maths, Micro and Macro) a week or two in advance and you have to do reading, use the lecture notes and attempt the sheets. These will then be marked and discussed during supervision. An essay tends to take 2 hours to write with about 8-10 hours spent reading, but this varies enormously depending on how much reading you are provided with, how long it takes you to read, how detailed your notes are and how long you have left until the deadline! A problem sheet can take between 2-6 hours, depending on how difficult it is and if you need to do extra research to complete it.

To survive supervisions you need to make sure that you have done the work in advance (all my work has to be handed in the day before) and also go to supervisions with questions that you may have from lectures or the reading. Before going to a supervision read your notes (which you should have made during reading) so that it is fresh in your mind because even if you did the work 3 days ago – thats a long time in Cambridge – and you are bound to have forgotten the detail which the supervisor may question you on.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and contribute to the discussion, but equally don’t feel the need to do this at the expense of other people who might have genuine questions to ask. Supervisions tend to last for only an hour/hour and a half, which really isn’t a long time, so make sure you bear this in mind before asking something you already know!


On average you have two/three lectures a day which is confine to the working week, so no Saturday lectures (unlike poor natscis!). Currently for first years these are all set in the morning (between 9-11AM) and they try to organise them all on to Sidgwick site, not that this is always possible. I haven’t found lectures terribly great so far (but this may change as they increase in difficulty) as they seem to simply go over the lecture notes which they have provided you with rather than explore interesting concepts from this. Saying this, I’d advice you go to all lectures even if it is just to get up and create a structure for the day, you never know, something useful and not contained within the notes may be said!

Whatever you do, make sure you get a copy of the lecture notes! Most of these are available online, but as of yet there isn’t comprehensive video coverage of the lectures.

Reading Lists

The official reading list for Cambridge can be found here (link), however the books I recommend you read before you come (if you are going to do any) are the following:

Microeconomics – Hal Varian (the standard 1st year text book)

Macroeconomics (European Edition) – Gregory Mankiw and Mark Taylor (the standard 1st year text book)

Governing Britain Since 1945 – Nigel Knight (he is a lecturer and there is a lot of overlap between his books and lectures, however reading this will give you a good insight into the Politics module – although there are other components – especially if you don’t know a lot about British politics.

Don’t go purchasing any/many books before you come! I’d recommend getting a copy (second-hand?) of Varian and Mankiw as you will need to refer to these quite often so can be a pain borrowing from the library, but all the other books can be found in the Marshall or your college library.

Other FAQS

Do I need to have studied Economics beforehand, i.e. at A-Level (or equivalent)?

In short, the university doesn’t require this. However during lectures there is the assumption that people have read and studied economics before and so a lecturer may mention a theory without explaining it because they believe everyone has covered it. Therefore if you haven’t studied economics definitely try to read up (see the Reading List above – Varian and Mankiw) over Summer to give yourself a head start, and make sure you make a note of these theories which are mentioned and research them rather than assume they are not important because the lecturer hasn’t explained them (its more likely that everyone else knows what it is and so is very important!).

A lot of supervisors actually say that those who didn’t study at A-Level are actually at an advantage because they don’t have preconceived ideas already!

What A-Levels do you recommend I study to best prepare me for Cambridge?

There is lots of guidance on this from the Cambridge website and in short they’re not terribly fussy. Cutting through the official waffle they don’t like people studying wishy-washy subjects like Media Studies, Film Studies, Business Studies (basically anything with ‘studies’ in it!) but if you chose one of these and do well in it along with other ‘good’ subjects then they shouldn’t mind.

I myself studied Economics (Edexcel), Maths (Edexcel), Further Maths (Edexcel) and did an AS in History (AQA). Lots of other people at university did Physics instead of History and not everyone studied Further Maths (this is definitely an advantage though if your school offers it) nor did they study Economics. Mathematics is a requirement for this course and some people are required to get an A* in it to meet their offer (I didn’t need to).

What grades do I need to get to get in to Cambridge?

Most offers are A*AA which some being specified what the A* has to be in (normally Maths). Oxbridge also looks at your UMS mark through the Supplementary Questionnaire, and these typically tend to be in the high 90s (although mind were only mid to high 80s so dont feel to disheartened if you aren’t 100% grade wise).

Statistically the average candidate also has something like between 8-10 A*s at GCSEs, but again I only managed 3 so grades and subjects aren’t everything. Make sure you do well perceived subjects (see question above) and other things (DofE, head student, volunteering, Target 2.0, debate club, chess club etc – Cambridge say this isn’t important, but they take it into account).

You can read Part II here.

If you have any particular questions ask them in the Comment section below.

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