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Lucinda, graduate of Classics & Modern Languages at Oxford, gives the low-down on applying for a joint honours degree at Oxford.

What is a joint honours degree at Oxford?

As well as all the single honours courses you can study at Oxford, the university allows you to combine courses and study two different subjects (run by different departments) together.  There are many combinations, including History (with English, Economics, Politics or Modern Languages), Philosophy (with Modern Languages, Psychology, Physics, Maths or Computer Sciences) and you can combine two subjects from Classics, English or Modern Languages together, as I did. You apply for both subjects together, need to be accepted by both departments, you split your time fairly evenly between your two subjects – you are allowed to focus on one of your subjects in more depth towards the end of your course – and you are looked after by two different faculties.

Cambridge allows you to combine subjects in a different way – through the Tripos system

Cambridge doesn’t really offer you the chance in the same way to apply for a combination of different subjects – except Greek or Latin with a language – as part of the Modern & Medieval Languages programme.

What Cambridge does offer, which is worth exploring, is the chance to take some different papers in certain subjects as part of the Cambridge Tripos. In some respects, Cambridge gives greater flexibility than Oxford in terms of students being allowed to study papers from different disciplines, if these can fit in with your programme of study and alongside your compulsory papers. Philosophers and Scientists can find themselves rubbing shoulders in the Philosophy of Science lectures and English students can turn up with the Modern Linguists in the Literature in a Foreign Language paper.

The Tripos at Cambridge allows students to change course while studying at university. The undergraduate courses are divided into two parts, each part lasting one or two years. Students, with the consent of their college, are allowed to switch course for part 2. One of my colleagues was accepted at Cambridge for Law, completed her part 1 and was able to change course and graduate with a History degree.

If you’re interested in pursuing two subjects at degree level, it’s worth researching whether applying for a joint honours course at Oxford or having the flexibility of the Cambridge Tripos system will work best for you.

What are the advantages of joint honours at Oxford?

From my experience at Oxford, the advantage of a joint honours degree is that you get to continue with two subjects that you really love at degree level through a course which is tried and tested.  You can explore the subjects from an interesting perspective as the subjects that you are able to combine have been carefully chosen to complement one another.  Physics & Philosophy may, at first glance, seem like a slightly strange combination, but some of the big problems that Physicists explore – from the notion of time to the universe constantly expanding into nothing – are closely linked with the questions that Philosophy is concerned with.

What are the disadvantages?

There are a few problems with studying combined honours when you get up to university: firstly, your workload will be greater than that of your friends doing single honours because you are grappling with two subjects  – something your tutors from each faculty sometimes forget! You may also find that your options of which modules you can study is restricted and your degree is largely made up of compulsory papers, which you haven’t chosen. History & Modern Languages students, for example, don’t get to do a dissertation – which can be a disappointment if you’ve found a really interesting subject that you want to research in detail.

The biggest disadvantage for an applicant, however, is that joint honours degrees accept a very small number of applicants, and are hugely over-subscribed. History and Economics, for example, only takes 12 applicants a year, and sometimes has as many as 10 very strong applicants going for each place. The other problem is that colleges don’t have set quotas for the numbers of joint honours students they take – and frequently don’t take any students for joint honours at all.  This means that you could be applying for Modern Languages & Philosophy to a college which says in its prospectus that it offers it, but in reality hasn’t taken a student for the last five years – something that really damages your chances of success.

What will give you the greatest chance of success in your application?

Firstly, be really sure about the reason that you want to read for a degree in joint schools – it shouldn’t  just be a case of you not having been able to choose between two subjects, but rather an interest in their common ground and a desire to study them together.

Next it’s really important to follow this path in your preparation. You need to be accepted by each faculty so you really can’t afford to neglect one of the subjects, or only look at it through the lens of the other.

College research, whilst not make or break for other subjects, becomes more important when you are applying for joint schools.  Try to find out from the colleges that you are interested in whether they have taken applicants for your subject in the last couple of years and research the tutors to see whether they are likely to be receptive to the idea of taking you for joint honours.  I chose my college at Oxford, for example, because the Classics tutor there was German and had done research into the classical tradition in Germany, which fitted in well with my subject combination and my interests.

Although competitive and hard work, if you’re applying for joint honours for the right reasons, it is a very rewarding degree programme.  I loved studying Classics & German together and I think that combining these subjects really added to my enjoyment of and interesting in each as separate subjects.

Best of luck with your application!

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