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The University of Cambridge, England, divides the different kinds of honours bachelor's degree by Tripos {IPA-en|ˈtraɪpɒs||En-uk-tripos.ogg}, plural Triposes. The word has an obscure etymology, but may be traced to the three-legged stool candidates once used to sit on when taking oral examinations. An apocryphal legend says that students used to receive one leg of a stool in each of their three years of exams, receiving the whole stool at graduation. Another tradition holds that the name is due to the three brackets printed on the back of the voucher.[1]

An undergraduate studying mathematics is thus said to be reading for the Mathematical Tripos, whilst a student of English is reading for the English Tripos. In most traditional English universities a student is expected to register to study one field exclusively, rather than having 'majors' or 'minors' as in American universities. In practice however, English degree fields may be fairly interdisciplinary in nature, depending on the subject. The multi-part Tripos system at Cambridge also allows substantial changes in field between parts, and the Natural Sciences Tripos is especially designed to allow a highly flexible curriculum across the sciences.



Initially, the only way to obtain an honours degree at Cambridge was the mathematical Tripos examination.[citation needed] Although John Jebb proposed reforms in 1772, these were blocked by various problems such as lack of expertise in the smaller colleges in a wider range of subjects. Classed examinations in law were introduced in 1816 by James William Geldart. Although a classical Tripos was created in 1822, it was only open to those who already had high honours in mathematics, or those who were the sons of peers. This restriction ended around 1850, and Triposes in the Moral Sciences and Natural Sciences were introduced in the 1860s.[2]

The origin and evolution of the Cambridge tripos can be found in William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origin of the Research University.[3]


A Tripos is divided into two parts: Part I, which is broadly based, and Part II, which allows specialization within the student's chosen field. Since a bachelor's degree usually takes three years to complete, either Part I or Part II is two years, and the other one year. The details of this can vary from subject to subject. There is also an optional Part III offered in some subjects, such as the Mathematical Tripos; these are not required to complete a bachelor's degree. Some Part III courses allow the student to graduate with both a master's degree and a Bachelor degree: for example, scientific Part III courses allow the student to graduate with an M.Sci. degree in addition to the B.A. degree which all Cambridge graduates receive. The Engineering Tripos on the other hand is divided into Parts IA (spoken as: "One A"), IB ("One B"), IIA ("Two A"), and IIB ("Two B"), each corresponding to one academic year, and leads to the simultaneous awarding of the B.A. and M.Eng. degrees.

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