Discover the 10 Best Colleges at Cambridge

The world-renowned University of Cambridge has rightly earned its reputation through more than 800 years of educating some of the world’s brightest and boldest minds.

The fourth-oldest university in the world, Cambridge opened in 1209 and had more than 24,000 total students in 2020. 

The university consists of 31 colleges that admit their own students, giving them a place not only to live but also to eat and spend time with one another during their studies. For undergraduates, colleges provide “supervisions,” a type of teaching method in which students learn in small groups.

Most Cambridge colleges have both undergraduate and graduate students who study at one of the university’s six schools, which encompass fields such as the arts and humanities plus technology and various sciences. 

A degree from Cambridge leads to great things for recent graduates, too; within six months of earning their degrees, 90% of alumni were working or pursuing additional studies.

Unsurprisingly, competition for admission to this prestigious school is steep. In 2019, Cambridge received nearly 19,400 applications for its 3,500 open undergraduate places.

Here, we break down the 10 best colleges at the university, ranked according to where each school stands in the Tompkins Table, an annual ranking of the best colleges at Cambridge that ranks schools based on their finals performances. 

This article is based on the 2019 Tompkins Table ranking.

Here are the 10 best colleges at the University of Cambridge.

10. Trinity Hall

Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge
TrinityHall, Front Court Trinity Hall, Cambridge, CC BY-SA 4.0

About 650 students belong to this riverside college that’s the fifth-oldest at Cambridge.

Centrally located, Trinity Hall was founded in 1350. Its buildings date back centuries, but the last few decades have seen modern updates come to the college. It added a new 30,000-volume library in 1998 and a few years later updated its sports facilities, which now include two squash courts. Other parts underwent a restoration in 2009, giving undergraduates updated housing as well as new lecture spaces, a music room, and more. 

Trinity undergraduates have nearly 30 subjects to choose from, including a mix of sciences and the humanities. The approximately 260 postgrads, meanwhile, pursue research and taught master’s degrees and doctorates. The college also admits part-time postgraduate students.

Housing is available for undergraduates and full-time postgraduates. Some spaces designed for couples are open to postgrads as well.

9. St. Catharine’s College

St. Catharine's College
Public domain photo by Alexander Czuperski via Wikimedia Commons

St. Catharine’s College takes a multi-subject approach toward learning, welcoming students majoring in a wide range of subjects and giving them a space to mingle and grow with one another.

The college, aka “Catz,” accepts students in every major but architecture, education, linguistics, and art history. Thanks to Catz’s central location in Cambridge, its students don’t have to go far to reach their department of study or its faculty, either. 

Like Trinity, St. Catharine’s features a bit of the past and present, with newer facilities and upgrades mixed in with the college’s historical buildings. 

As the student body grew, the college added more housing in the 1960s, ’80s, and ’90s. 

More recently, St. Catharine’s opened the new McGrath Centre, which includes not only a lecture room but also a bar and common area. The college guarantees housing to first- and third-year students, and second-years live together in a modern building, St Chad’s.

8. Selwyn College

Open since 1882, Selwyn College has a storied religious history but has grown into a diverse, multidisciplinary home that welcomes students from schools that don’t usually send alumni to Cambridge.

Selwyn accepts both undergraduate and postgraduate students, who study practically everything from archaeology and engineering to history and music. The college describes its postgraduate community of about 200 students as diverse and cosmopolitan, international students making up over a third of that number. Selwyn provides housing for all postgraduates for the duration of their studies.

Students can participate in activities such as the college choir and different sports teams, and each weekend they can gather in the common room for Sunday Tea. One of the highlights of the college’s year is the annual Selwyn Snow Ball, the only annual winter ball at Cambridge.

7. Emmanuel College

With approximately 500 undergraduate and 150 postgraduate students, Emmanuel is one of Cambridge’s largest colleges.

Located in the city center, Emmanuel opened in 1584 at a former monastery, pieces of which remain on the campus. 

The undergraduate population is overwhelmingly British and European, with more than 90% of students coming from those regions. However, the postgraduate level is much more diverse, with approximately 60% of students coming from the United Kingdom or European Union. 

Environmentally conscious students will appreciate the college-wide “Green Duck Scheme,” so named for the numerous mallards that frequent Emanuel’s two ponds. 

The program aims to increase recycling and energy efficiency at the college. The college has added energy-saving light bulbs to rooms and installed recycling bins for different items, and students receive a special reusable shopping bag, among other efforts.

6. Queens’ College 

Queens' College, University of Cambridge
Cantab12, Walnut Tree Court, Queens’ College Cambridge, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nearly 1,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students call the centuries-old Queens’ College home.

Situated along the River Cam, the college is centrally located in the city, with a bus stop providing convenient access to the university’s Clinical School and West Cambridge science departments. 

Queens’ students can participate in the chapel choir or check out the Old Library, home to about 30,000 texts that span seven centuries. Queens’ also has a nursery that looks after the children of the college’s staff and students. 

The college also is in the midst of starting a new program designed to serve as a bridge to Cambridge or other universities for students “who have experienced educational disadvantage.” 

The free, one-year residential program, dubbed the “Foundation Year,” gives students from the U.K. an opportunity to study the arts, humanities, or social sciences. Applications for the first class to participate in the program are due in early 2022.

5. Churchill College

Churchill College University of Cambridge
Cmglee, Cambridge Churchill College, CC BY-SA 4.0

Churchill is Cambridge’s biggest college campus and one of its newest colleges, having opened in 1960 as a memorial to British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Despite only educating students for about 60 years, Churchill College has produced 32 Nobel Prize winners, including nine in physics alone, thanks to its academic emphasis on technology and science. Today, 485 undergraduates and 375 postgraduates make up the student body

By mandate, 70% of the college’s academic staff and students are engaged in the subjects of engineering, sciences, or mathematics. A third of Churchill’s student body also must consist of master’s and doctoral students.

Beyond traditional education, Churchill offers a personalized executive education program through the Møller Institute for Continuing Education, helping business leaders from around the globe develop their skills. Proceeds from the program benefit student support and education at the college.

4. Peterhouse

Peterhouse, University of Cambridge
Public domain photo by Azeira via Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge’s oldest college has produced groundbreaking inventors, Nobel laureates, and other luminaries since its founding in 1284.

Admission to Peterhouse is selective, as it only welcomes approximately 80 undergraduates annually. It accepts students pursuing degrees in most subjects, excluding veterinary medicine, education, and a few others.

Meanwhile, the postgraduate community consists of just over 130 students, including those pursuing master’s degrees and doctorates.

Peterhouse guarantees housing for both undergraduate as well as graduate students, who stay between one and three years, depending on their program. 

The college also has many opportunities for students to socialize outside of the classroom, from different sporting groups to academic societies and outdoor activities. Student singers can join the Chapel Choir, and Peterhouse also has its own Music Society and chamber music recital series.

3. Pembroke College

Pembroke College, University of Cambridge
Jonas Magnus Lystad, Pembroke College Cambridge Clocktower, CC BY-SA 4.0

Cambridge’s third-oldest college, Pembroke, flourishes thanks to what it describes as openness, remaining committed to accepting a diverse group of students who engage with one another, staff, and alumni. 

Founded in 1347, Pembroke has a rich history that includes Cambridge’s first college chapel and a Victorian library building that’s home to 42,000 books plus special collections and rare volumes. 

Pembroke recently renovated some of its facilities, including its hall, giving its approximately 440 undergraduate students, plus postgraduates, historical and modern spaces to enjoy. 

International students from other colleges and universities can even get in on the action as Pembroke welcomes them for its traditional two-semester study abroad program or the Pembroke Cambridge Summer Programme. 

And students who want to get the benefits of a Pembroke education without leaving home can join the Online Summer Research Programme.

2. Trinity College

Trinity College, University of Cambridge
Rafa Esteve, Trinity College – Great Court, CC BY-SA 4.0

Not to be confused with the elder Trinity Hall, Trinity College also has been part of Cambridge for hundreds of years and has an equally illustrious academic history.

Founded in 1546, the college has a student body of about 600 undergraduate and 300 graduate students as well as an alumni roster that includes royalty. 

Each year, the college admits about 200 undergraduates, who have 27 degree programs to choose from. For post-doctoral students, Trinity offers a Junior Research Fellowship, allowing them to work on a scholarly project or research. 

When they’re not in class, students can grab some fresh air in the college’s 36 acres of gardens, including a descendant of the apple tree that supposedly inspired Isaac Newton’s theory about gravity. Newton belonged to Trinity College and graduated from Cambridge in 1665, and the university library holds many of his papers.

1. Christ’s College

Christ's College, University Cambridge
Caeciliusinhorto, Third Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge, CC BY-SA 4.0

Students can join a legacy that includes such celebrated names as Charles Darwin and John Milton when they attend Christ’s College.

Part of Cambridge since the mid-1400s, the college today educates undergraduates in all of the university’s subjects but veterinary medicine. About 100 postgraduate students get admitted each year for full- or part-time study. 

The college notes that it has a preference for research students pursuing doctorates or master’s degrees leading to doctorates.

Students can undertake that research at the college’s libraries, which include more than 90,000 texts. Meanwhile, those with green thumbs can join Christ’s Horticultural and Botanical Society, through which they can help care for the college’s gardens. 

Plenty of opportunities for getting involved in the arts, including music and theater, exist at this constituent college of Cambridge.