Peterhouse Essay Competition 2015

All Year 12 or Lower Sixth students at school in the UK are welcome to apply, while applicants who would like to take part from outside the UK should contact Peterhouse to establish their eligibility.

All three competitions have a top prize of £500 and a second prize of £250. Several further essays will be highly commended.

The competitions are organised by Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest College, and offer students the opportunity to consider an unfamiliar topic of their own choice in depth, to carry out their own research on it, and to have their work assessed critically by Cambridge academics.

Mr Scott Mandelbrote, Admissions Tutor for Peterhouse, advises that in order to write an essay that impresses, entrants should:-

  • Think carefully about your choice of question: choose something that you are interested in and that you think you have the skills and resources to investigate further in the time available.
  • Make good use of school and public libraries, rather than relying exclusively on the internet.  When using the internet, if possible consult databases of published and refereed material, such as JSTOR, rather than relying on open websites.
  • Read critically and assess whether your research gives you the basis to take a balanced, informed and critical view.
  • Plan your work carefully and write to the word limit.

In addition to the cash prize, all winners and highly commended entrants are invited to a presentation and celebration lunch at Peterhouse in the summer, where they will have the opportunity to discuss their essays with leading academics.

Last Year's Winners:

  • The Vellacott History Prize 2013 was won by James Wells, from Tonbridge School. James considered whether population growth was the principal cause of economic change in early modern Europe.
  • The Kelvin Science Prize 2013 was won by Alice Rogers, from Maidstone Grammar School. She discussed the quote 'Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more.' (George Bernard Shaw)
  • The Thomas Campion English Prize 2013 was won by Abigail Scruby, from Nonsuch High School for Girls. Her winning essay considered what effects novelists achieve through the manipulation of time and/or point of view.

“Carrying out a piece of independent research and presenting your findings to Cambridge academics in an essay gives a small taste of what it is like to study here,” explains Peterhouse Schools Liaison Officer Carrie Boyce.

“The standard of entries is always high and it is very hard to choose our winners.”

"We hope that schools will make it even harder for us by joining in and encouraging their high-flyers to take part in the competition this year.”

Entries can be submitted until 21 March 2014.

Further details are available online at www.pet.cam.ac.uk/prospective-students/essay-prizes, and from the Admissions Office by email or on 01223 338223

Punting on the River Cam

A few months ago I decided that I would put some time into writing an essay for the Peterhouse College, Cambridge Kelvin Science essay competition for the sake of being productive over christmas. Keep in mind that this was at a time when I thought AS-levels would be a walk in the park like GCSEs and that revision that early would be an utter waste of time. Turns out that AS-Levels were not as I had thought, hence the grand total of 194 past papers done in the run-up to the exams! A word of caution: do not underestimate the A-Level!

In any case, after several weeks of work, researching and writing the essay, I finally sent it off and began the long-overdue panic for the end of year exams. A bit of background to the competition: Peterhouse College, based in Cambridge, run annual science, english and history essay competitions, with set titles and a 4,000 word limit. The winner of each competition receives a cash prize, and, along with the second place and highly commended candidates, are invited to attend an awards luncheon at the college.

One day in June, I received a letter with the Peterhouse College letterhead. Tearing the envelope apart, they informed me that my essay had been highly commended, and that I was invited to the awards luncheon and to stay the night in the college’s accommodation! As you can imagine, it was all very exciting! So on the 26th of June, I made my way to Cambridge from Kings Cross Station in London, found my way to the college and was directed to my room for the night. Unfortunately, I had arrived late, so I missed the dinner, but Cambridge offered a host of places to eat well for a decent price. I managed to find some other prizewinners in the accommodation later that evening, and we stood in the hallway discussing universities, our essays and how one individual believed it to be disrespectful to a book if it is read in the late evening, when one cannot fully focus on it. Fascinating stuff, I have to say. We stood and chatted until about 12:30am.


After a restful nights sleep and a rather large breakfast, we loitered around a bit and waited for our guests to arrive. I had invited the head of the Chemistry department at my school. Peterhouse admissions staff then invited us into their offices, where we were able to ask them a whole host of questions relating to courses, admission policy, suggested reading and such fun. Current Peterhouse students then took us around on a tour of the college, which was also very informative. The fact that they had a full croquet set laid out on one of the lawns was a real plus for me!

The lunch was delicious, the company, entertaining, and the mood of the event, joyous. After the prize giving, myself and two other prizewinners went punting on the River Cam. For the unaware, punting is where an individual stands on the back of a narrow barge and uses a long pole to push the barge along the river by pushing it against the river bed. It was very funny to watch one of the prizewinners to try and punt, seeing as she had never done anything of the likes before! Then again, I probably could not have done any better, so my hat off to her! After that, it was time for me to catch the 19:15 express train back to London Kings Cross station, thus ending my first trip to Cambridge!

What surprised me the most while I was up there was the sheer variety of essay styles that made it into the top selection in all the competitions. One had written their essay as an extended conversation with God; the first place history essay was written by someone not doing a single humanity for A-Level, and others wrote theirs as an extended standard school-type essay. I wrote mine in the form of a truncated literature review. So for those reading this about to start on future Peterhouse essay titles, remember that there is no one specific style they are looking for! They are looking for absorbing, informative, well-researched essays.

Another thing that I enjoyed was the company of the other prizewinners. They all came from such different backgrounds and locations around the UK and Ireland that I, as a Londoner, would never have heard of otherwise – you see, the UK is very London-centric. The conversations we had were gripping and fascinating, and if these are the sort of students Cambridge seeks to admit, I think I would be very happy there. Coming straight from the Imperial College London open day on the 26th, the difference between the two colleges was very noticeable. I cannot comment on the differences in the courses yet, as I have yet to go to the Cambridge open day, but in terms of living in Cambridge, I could see myself there. I still have an issue with the ageing accommodation, seeing as I am used to well-insulated and modern constructions, but I am sure I could oversee something like that to be studying at an institution like Cambridge! Besides, modern accommodation is in fact offered.

Of course, and as ever, this whole event has served to make my decision about which university to go to even harder! The UK is seeming ever more attractive, and I am now less sure of my prospects of entrance into a US university, seeing the essays they want me to write on a whole variety of topics, made even harder seeing as I have not written a humanities-stye essay in over a year now, are very challenging! I am a British writer – meaning that I intuitively try to present information in a subtle way – which is not what these questions implore one to do: be boastful, but in a modest way. It’s a hard thing to do, but as ever, its a challenge. And I do like a good challenge!

Cambridge was a lot of fun. I am heading up there next week to see it all again, so we will see how I like the engineering course. Undoubtedly, it will only complicate my eventual decision, but better to make a decision based on all the information than not to. In any case, to all those thinking about entering future essay competitions, please do! It is a great experience, writing such an essay, and even if you do not end up being a prizewinner, the skills learned from such an experience are invaluable in everyday life!

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