How I Chose My College

First of all, I apologise if the posts in the next few weeks will address more student life in Cambridge than art history. My exams are quicly approaching, and the daily 10-hour sessions in the library make me want to find some thirty minutes to discuss something that is not my subject. Indeed, in this post I’d like to talk about the choice of my college when applied. I am a student of history of art at the University of Cambridge. Yet, no student at Cambridge is merely a member of the university: in order to access it, it is necessary to become member of one of the thirty-one constituent colleges.

The colleges provide accommodation, catering, and other basic facilities for the students. At the same time, through the director-of-studies system, they provide academic support, and ensure that each student progresses in his academic path in the best conditions possible. Moreover, as most of the students live in college houses, the college becomes a hub for socialisation and networking. The students of the local student union (there is a university-wide one, but each college has its own) take care of organising events in the first weeks of the term so that the new freshers can fit smoothly into the system, and know new people before the academic work gets intense.

Jesus College chapel seen from a desk of the Quincentenary Library

I am a member of Jesus College, founded in 1496 by Bishop Alcock of Ely, after the dissolution of the monastery of St Radegund (the college chapel, indeed, is the former church). Each of these institutions has a pretty distinct history, from the foundation to the notable alumni that decade by decade have cast an aura of excellence over the whole university. For example, Trinity College (the biggest of all colleges) saw among its students Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, while Churchill College had had 32 Nobel Prizes among his fellows. Regarding Jesus, notable figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Malthus were among its members.

Chapel Court

Overall, every college can count several prestigious past students and fellows, so that it can be hardly a good criterion to choose among them when applying. In fact, all the colleges have their own peculiarities. There are some basic distinctions: there are smaller and bigger colleges (Jesus, admitting roughly 140 students a year, is a medium-size one), there are mature colleges (for over-21 applicants), three admitting women only (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish), and postgraduate-only ones. This necessarily leads to eliminate from the array a few names (banally, I could not consider for obvious reasons mature and women colleges, but I also did not want a small-size college such as Corpus Christi).

What I did was pointing out a few “candidates”, and come to Cambridge for the July open-day the year of my application. I arrived with these names in mind: Pembroke, Jesus, Churchill, Magdalene (although I was not sure as it is a pretty small colllege), Christ’s. Churchill was soon discarded as I found out that, by statute, they accept only 30% humanities students. This would not necessarily mean harder competition, but I wanted an adequate humanities-sciences ratio. Magdalene was the second to fall, as I was unsure about the size and did not find the tour of the college particularly appealing (given that I was going to live there for three years I wanted also to consider the overall impression). Pembroke was strategically excluded, as it has a high number of applications each year for my subject.

Bronze Horse by Barry Flanagan in First Court

I arrived at the conclusion that Christ’s might be a good choice, since Jesus had the same problem of Pembroke, and I was worried of facing an excessively large number of competitors. Then, fortunately, I met one of my current lecturers. It was a positive talk: when you arrive in Cambridge for the first time, it is very difficult to assess the colleges, each of them having a very definite, but yet obscure for external people, atmosphere. She suggested Jesus for two reasons: first, the college has a great collection of statues in its grounds. After a few months studying art history, I can confirm the quality of the exhibited works, varying from Henry Moore to Barry Flanagan and Eduardo Paolozzi. Secondly, the fellow of Jesus College is a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, which is pretty close to my interest in Mannerism and Baroque.

I had not visited Jesus yet, giving up for the statistics matter. Yet, I still had some thirty minutes before my train for London. I decided to take a look. Jesus college is very central, yet it is somehow hidden from the very central colleges such as King’s, St John’s, or Trinity. Arriving there, I was pleasantly surprised by the calm atmosphere of the gardens, and the incredibly wide views across the lawns. Jesus is central, in fact, but on the outskirts of Jesus Green, one of the city’s main parks. There is a wonderful calm, and the feeling of a retired, suburban enclave. Furthermore, the college is third richest one in the whole university (a notion, at the time, but a notable source of support as I became a student), which might mean some benefits such as partially paid language lectures, travel grants, and more generous bursaries.

Daedalus on Wheel
by Eduardo Paolozzi in Chapel Court

All colleges, in truth, look pretty amazing for a high-school student visiting. Yet, Jesus simply felt right to me. It was a natural sense of ease while walking in the grounds, and mostly the eager desire to become part of that reality. I admit some naïveté, as a young student. Nonetheless, I definitely confirm the good of my intuition, and I would repeat that choice immediately. As I stepped on the train, I opened my UCAS account. I had already selected Cambridge, but the college slot was still empty. I remember easily searching through the list, and selecting Jesus. It has become, I do not exaggerate, a second home.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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