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This article is about the Tripos course system at the University of Cambridge. For the computer operating system, see TRIPOS.
Tripos results are still posted publicly outside departments and the Senate House.

At the University of Cambridge, the term Tripos (Listeni/ˈtrpɒs/, plural 'Triposes') refers to undergraduate examinations which qualify an undergraduate for a bachelor's degree.[1] It also refers to a course taken by an undergraduate. For example, an undergraduate studying mathematics is said to be reading for the Mathematical Tripos, whilst a student of English literature 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 or Scottish universities. In practice, however, degrees 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; the Natural Sciences Tripos is especially designed to allow a highly flexible curriculum across the sciences.


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 (confer tripod).[2] 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 derives from the three brackets printed on the back of the voucher.[3]


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, who was then Regius Professor of Civil Law. 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.[4]

The origin and evolution of the Cambridge Tripos can be found in William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origin of the Research University.[5]


Mathematical tripos results are read out inside Senate House and then tossed from the balcony.

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.[clarification needed]

Students are examined formally at the end of each part and are awarded a degree classification for each part. The Part II classification is usually, but incorrectly, considered to be the classification for the overall degree. Most subjects are examined in all three years; for example, the Natural Sciences Tripos has examinations for Part IA, Part IB, Part II, and in some subjects, Part III. The English and History Triposes have preliminary rather than full examinations at the end of the first year.

Degree regulations state that, to be awarded a degree, a student must have passed two honours examinations (i.e., two Tripos examinations) - this could include a Part I and a Part II, two Part I exams, or (in some cases) a Part I and a Part IA. From October 2011, students can only be awarded an honours degree if they have been awarded honours in a Part II or Part III examination;[6] a combination of Part I examinations will allow a student to graduate with an Ordinary degree.[7] All students must complete at least 9 terms of residence (three years of study) - making it impossible for students to simply complete two 1 year tripos parts. This makes it easy for an undergraduate to switch out of a subject. So a one-year Part I (or Part IA) must be followed by a two-year Part II, and usually vice versa. More exotic combinations are possible, with the permission of the student's college and prospective department, but some combinations create a four-year bachelor's degree. A few subjects - e.g. Management Studies, and Linguistics (prior to October 2010) - exist only as Part II, and can be preceded by any manner of Part I subject.

Students who already possess a bachelor's degree or equivalent from another university are generally permitted to skip Part I, and thus can complete a Cambridge bachelor's degree in two years or less. Students already holding a BA degree from Cambridge are not permitted to collect a second BA from the University.

A student requesting to graduate (technically, 'admitted to a degree') is assessed mainly on two criteria: not only the Triposes they have completed (requirements laid by the statues and ordinance of Cambridge), as recorded in the Cambridge University Reporter (Cambridge's Gazzette newspaper), but also the number of terms kept (at least 9 required for a BA; 10 for an undergraduate master degree). A student's requests to graduate should also be approved by their college, and be unopposed by the regent house, one of the university's governing bodies with vetoing powers.

List of Triposes[edit]

Below is the list of Triposes offered by the University (Latin numerals in brackets indicate the Parts available):

Proposed triposes (approval pending)[edit]

  • Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (I, IIA, IIB)

Triposes recently abolished, renamed or restructured[edit]

  • Oriental Studies Tripos
  • Education Studies Tripos
  • Linguistics Tripos (Old Regulations)
  • Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos
  • Politics, Psychology and Sociology [PPS] Tripos

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Jargon | Queens' College". Queens' College, Cambridge. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  2. ^ "Structure of our courses". University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ "Essay on Triposes" in The Classical Journal, Volume 13; p. 83; No. XXV, March 1816.
  4. ^ Smith, Jonathan C. (2002). Teaching and learning in nineteenth-century Cambridge. Ipswich: Boydell Press. pp. 207–208. ISBN 0-85115-783-1. 
  5. ^ Clark, William (2006). Academic Charisma and the Origin of the Research University, chapter 4, University of Chicago Press.
  6. ^ "Joint Report of the Council and the General Board on the requirements for the B.A. Degree by Honours". Cambridge University Reporter, Thursday 23 July 2009. Retrieved 30 March 2011. 
  7. ^ "Joint Report of the Council and the General Board on the future of Ordinary Examinations and the Ordinary B.A. Degree". Cambridge University Reporter, Wednesday 24 November 2010. Retrieved 30 March 2011.