There is a lot of questions people get asked when they first come to Cambridge that others use as a sort of preliminary mechanism to put new acquaintances into neat little boxes. The three main questions are: subject, College and country of origin.

While the first and the third of these questions get asked less and less as one’s Cambridge life goes on, one’s college is a label that sticks. This is interesting when you take into account that college choice is perceived as largely random. However, the choice of a college, though at the application stage ignored by many, is of crucial importance. I disagree with a lot of what is put forward on Cambridge related forums or advice websites, assertions that you are going to love wherever you end up and that everyone is convinced that their college is the best. After having countless conversations with people regretting not putting more thought into their college choice, I decided to put together my own version of a ‘College Guide’, if you will.

For me, choosing a College was a tedious process involving a lot of spreadsheets and open tabs and it essentially consisted of the following steps (revised to include insights I gained once already at my College):

The Preliminary Stage

Everyone is able to apply to almost all Cambridge colleges as almost all of them offer all of the subjects. However, there are still some barriers. At the start of your College search, first strike out those that you are technically not able to apply to: mature Colleges, all-female Colleges et cetera.

The Money Considerations Stage

The most important step that goes unmentioned in most of College choice related articles and videos is the availability of financial support. Although there is some University-wide support, College based bursaries can often exceed this quite noticeably. Therefore if you are in need of financial support, you should definitely look at the website of all of the Colleges and compare. In general, older Colleges like St John’s and Trinity can offer more support due to having a larger net of donors and wealth in general.

Size and Location

The first two stages should limit the number of possible Colleges and within the remaining ones we can start looking at more personal characteristics. Size is an important one as if a College is very small, get ready for an environment prone to gossip but also a close-knit community which can be comforting, especially at the beginning of your studies. On the other hand, if a College is too big, one can get lost among the hundreds of people. However, you can easily avoid people you don’t get along well with. The Hill colleges (Churchill, Murray Edwards, Fitzwilliam, St Edmund’s) are a nice compromise: they are friendly and small but also interact with each other a lot and organise joint events. Lastly, in a small college there is probably not going to be that many people doing your subject so if you prefer having a large group of classmates to rely on that is something to keep in mind.

Location is an aspect that everybody tells you to disregard as Cambridge is quite a small town and it is argued that location makes little difference. I, however, disagree with this. Life at central Colleges involves a lot of mixing with people from other central colleges, more trips to cafes and restaurants. On the other hand, remote Colleges such as Girton are more self-contained and people from there tend to hang out more with one another. Also, if you don’t cycle and don’t plan to (this could be a wise decision considering the Cambridge traffic and the high rates of bike theft), you would want a College near your faculty or lecture site.


This category is very personal but aspects to keep in mind here are sporting facilities, holiday storage (or if you can keep your room over Christmas and Easter holidays like at St John’s), free laundry, 24 hour library, College cafes or bars.

The ‘Vibe’

If you can’t accept a Cambridge experience without the Harry Potter-esque architecture, go for one of the older central colleges such as St John’s, Trinity, Pembroke, Peterhouse et cetera.

There you go! If you follow this guide, you should minimise your chance of disappointment once you get to Cambridge. Good luck!

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