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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions (mostly about admissions)

Do I need to have Philosophy A level to apply? Is it an advantage to have Philosophy A level? No, it is neither a requirement nor a particular advantage. You will need of course to show at interview that you have read some philosophy and have some sense of what you are applying for! But private reading is fine (and someone who has merely stuck to the A level treadmill probably won't impress).

What about other A levels? Is there any combination that is particularly looked for? Again, no. Some philosophers are admitted with maths and sciences; some are admitted with all arts subjects; some with a mix. Since philosophy involves a lot of close critical thinking and logical argument, it probably helps to do at least some A levels which involve accurate thinking (but that could be maths or it could be a subject like history where evidence needs to be carefully weighed and assessed).

What, then, should I read before interview? For some suggestions, look here. There are no particular books that an interviewer will expect you to have read; but you will need to show that you have read and thought about some philosophy (and preferably some philosophy in the broadly 'analytic' style of the books in list of the suggested reading, as that is what the Cambridge course focuses on).

What happens in interview? Normally, you will have at least two interviews, one by an admissions tutor for the College you have applied to, the other(s) by philosophers more or less closely attached to that College. As far as the philosophy interview is concerned, you will probably be asked about what you have read (if you mention in your application form some particular book that aroused your interest, don't be surprised to have that followed up!). If the College sets a written test, then your answers might well form the basis of a mini-tutorial. You may also be offered a menu of familiar philosophical problems (like the 'free will problem', 'scepticism about the external world' etc.) and asked to pick one to discuss.

What are the interviewers looking for? Not the 'right answer'! Don't be surprised if you find your interviewer coming up with objections to what you thought was a well-respected, widely accepted view, and challenging it. It isn't that he or she is eccentric or holds a daft position: they are just trying to see if you can think how to defend your position -- they are trying to see, in other words, how good you are at following an argument and responding to criticism. It is quite OK to confess to be stumped (interviewers are not trying to catch you out, and will be more impressed by someone who sees difficulties and realizes the complexity of philosophical issues than by someone who blusters or waffles).

Is there a written test? What is in it? Most Colleges ask applicants to sit a written test set by the Faculty. This test is designed to evaluate thinking skills and lasts one hour. You can download an explanation of the nature of the test, including some sample questions here.

How could I prepare for any logical questions? Look at the opening chapters of a very elementary text like Samuel Guttenplan, The Languages of Logic (Blackwell). It is not the case that you are expected to have any technical logical knowledge; but it can't but help to have encountered the idea of a 'valid' argument, etc. Books on 'informal logic' or 'critical reasoning' will also help (for general A level purposes too).

What Colleges should I apply to? The number of applicants per place varies a fair bit from College to College (though there is also a 'pool' system which aims to even things out a bit). Because numbers are small, some of the differences are just statistical quirks, with the differences varying unpredictably from year to year. Still, there are reasons for some of the variations. For example, a particularly appealing picture of one College recently appeared on the front cover of the university prospectus featuring a friendly snow-man -- and applications for that college more than doubled! So it is really worth pausing to think: if you are tempted to apply to College X because it is particularly famous, or particularly beautiful, or has an exceptionally attractive prospectus entry, then maybe lots of other people will be swayed in the same way! Do some homework (e.g. try to contact people who have been to Cambridge from your school or sixth-form college in recent years) to find out about Colleges other than the two or three you have heard of.

Is there an advantage in applying to Colleges with lecturers in the philosophy faculty as Directors of Studies? Not especially; a College might have its own College Teaching Officer in philosophy, or a philosopher attached to the Classics Faculty or to History and Philosophy of Science, or a philosopher who lectures in the Open University.

Can I apply to combine philosophy with another subject? There are no dual honours degrees in Cambridge. But you can follow Part 1A or Part 1B in philosophy with Part II in another subject (and vice versa). However, a candidate should probably apply only for the subject he or she wishes to read first. This is because (1) many people who come up saying that they want to do X followed by Y often stay with X, or change to Z instead, and Colleges usually let them where the choice is realistic, and (2) if you apply for two subjects you may have to run the gauntlet of two College Directors of Studies, one or both of whom may suspect the candidate of lack of commitment to their subject.

Do Colleges look disfavourably on deferred entry applications? No. But College admissions tutors like to hear about sensible and contentful plans for spending your planned gap year.

Does Cambridge welcome mature student applicants? Yes. Though if you are more than two or three years over the normal age of application, then it is worth grativating towards one of the colleges that admits only mature students (Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish [women only], St. Edmunds and Wolfson), where there will be more support and a more congenial social life with other students who are similarly placed.

If I get to Cambridge do I have to do formal logic? Yes. But the reality is nowhere near as scary (or as boring) as the prospect might seem to some!

If I get to Cambridge, how hard will I have to work? Philosophy students, of course, don't have long laboratory hours; and they have the advantage that arguments and discussions can be continued in the pub! But don't come under any misapprehension. Like all Cambridge students, you'd have to work very hard. The terms are shorter than elsewhere and a lot more is packed in. But students survive and mostly enjoy their time immensely.

At the end of it all, what jobs can philosophy graduates get? Many and various. The analytic skills that philosophy develops are much sought by the civil service, and by the financial and business worlds; they also provide a very good foundation for conversion courses in law, and other kinds of professional training. A small but not insignificant number get the bug and go on to graduate work.