Studying History at University ......
People who study History have an interest in the past, in all sorts of ways; studying the past helps us to understand our present, and to see it in perspective.
The study of History is a wonderful training for people to learn how to evaluate evidence and bring it together to form a considered and well-argued judgement. The skills that people acquire when studying for a History degree can be used in all sorts of jobs and are much valued by mainstream employers.
It is worth doing some reading about what History is as an academic subject. It will reassure you that you've chosen the right subject and give you some 'bigger' ideas for inclusion in your Personal Statement (PS) or at interview. The study of the history of History as a subject is called Historiography. There are lots of books about it but one that is a fairly easy-to-read introduction is : "Studying History" by Black & MacRaild (Palgrave Study Skills). You can see some of its pages on the Amazon site : http://www.amazon.co.uk/Studying-History-Palgrave-Study-Skills/dp/1403987343 It is worth getting a copy of this book as it will be useful now and once you get to Uni.
Studying History at University involves vast amounts of reading. This might sound a bit obvious but lots of applicants forget this crucial bit. If you don't enjoy spending hours in the library working on understanding a complicated text or getting to grips with the fundamentals of an unfamiliar historical era then you do need to rethink this as a possible subject. On the other hand if you enjoy the surprises that history throws up, the detective work involved in research and the thrill of discovering new ideas, then it could be the start of a fascinating three years of study.
Universities offering History
Most universities offer some kind of History course. Some courses are very specialist, others more broadly based but they are all different so read this bit carefully .......
A Very Important Point - Not all History courses are the same. Degrees do not have some sort of universal syllabus in the way that A levels do and each University will teach their degree very differently with different optional units and a different focus. Make sure you read the course description carefully and apply for the course you really want to do. There is no point in applying to a University everyone says is 'wonderful', but whose History course doesn't actually interest you. If you are interested in Medieval History then picking a course with a 20th Century focus on International History is clearly a bit silly.
Ignore League Tables, 'rankings' and Student Satisfaction surveys - its no way to pick a Uni course. If the course at a particular University is the one you want to do because it offers options in Medieval History or a work placement or a Year Abroad or whatever, then do not be overly influenced by 'reputation', 'prestige', League Tables or any other nonsense. It may sound good saying 'I'm going to Durham/Exeter/Manchester' but remember you will spend 3 or 4 years studying that course, not the Uni. If you get there and discover that the course doesn't interest you, then pretty architecture is not going to make that better. If you'd be happier doing the course at Sussex/Leicester/Portsmouth, don't let 'University snobbery' stand in your way. Useful article about using League Tables etc here.
For joint subjects, you will find courses offering History as a course 'with' or 'and' a vast range of other subjects. Some Universities specialise in joint subjects - Oxford Brookes, Keele and Essex as examples. Some subject combinations are obvious - History and Politics or History and English are good examples, but would History and a language (French, Arabic or Chinese?) give you the advantage of an obvious job skill on graduation, or could you combine two less obvious subject like History and Business Management, or even History and Biology?
Remember, 'history' will also feature in courses called things like 'Liberal Studies', 'Cultural Studies', 'American Studies', 'Humanities', 'War Studies' etc. Make sure you read the course entries for these as well.
The best places to look for course listing are either the UCAS webite - or of you want to search on criteria like area of the country or your predicted grades, try http://www.whatuni.com/
- History is one of the most competitive courses to get into, especially at Russell Group or other leading Universities. It is not unusual for applicants for History and some of the joint honours courses (History and Politics in particularly) to find themselves with more rejections than offers, regardless of predicted grades and strength of Personal Statement. It can happen that people end up with only one offer, or even none. To avoid this happening to you, it's essential to do your research and to pitch your applications sensibly and include a couple of courses with much lower grade requirements.
- Applying to five "high risk" choices (ie. all asking AAA/AAB grades) is not a good idea for two important reasons. 1) You risk getting 5 rejections (see above), 2) if all your offers are essentially the same, how will you choose a realistic Insurance choice?
- The usual advice is to have 1 'risky' choice (above your expected grades), 2 or 3 at the same level as your expected grades and 1 or 2 well below that. Remember - it's one thing getting an offer, you then have to get those precise grades. Applying to mostly AAA courses when you know very well you won't get above ABB is a waste of everyone's time, mostly yours.
- Not all Universities offering History require top grades. You will find lots of Universities requiring BCC or lower, 240 UCAS points or lower - What Uni is a useful website for this sort of search.
- Also look at courses that offer History as a joint or combined subject ('History and .....'). These usually have lower entry requirements simply because fewer people apply for them.
- Many Universities (like Bristol and Exeter) are now offering a new 4 year degree called MLitt 'Liberal Arts' where you can select different units from a range of Arts subjects (including History) and spend a year abroad.
- Look carefully at what particular Unis are looking for in their admissions requirements - they will all be different (some for instance don't require an A level in History). If there are specific requirements that you don't meet (A level subjects or GCSE grades) it is pointless applying. They will get hundreds of applications from people who do meet the criteria; they won't need to be 'kind' to anyone who clearly doesn't.
- One Russell Group University states in its Admissions Criteria for History :
"We seek evidence of serious interest in, and commitment to, the active study of history. We are particularly eager to identify applicants whose interest in the subject extends beyond the A2 History syllabus, who are keen to engage in independent research, and who wish to learn how to undertake such historical research at university level. We expect evidence of wider reading and of a critical engagement with such reading. Applicants who have gained a relevant broader experience of the practice of history (e.g. volunteering at a museum, independent research projects, etc.) will be well-regarded."
- A useful place to get a general idea of what range of grades are expected at which Universities is What Uni.
- Some 'higher' Universities will ask for an A grade in History. Other Universities will have lower grade requirements. Just because a Uni asks for an A grade does not make it a 'better' course.
- Not all Universities will require A level History but they will require evidence of ability in another 'essay based' subject like English Literature.
- Universities that use the UCAS 'points' system will normally include points from additional AS levels in the total.
- Entry requirements should always be checked on each individual University website for exact grade/subject requirements. Do not assume that websites like WhatUni or UCAS are always correct.
- Make sure that you have established whether there are specific subject requirements (including any GCSE requirements).
- Many Universities will specifically exclude A levels like General Studies or Critical Thinking, and may be sceptical of the academic worth of light-weight subjects like Dance Studies or Accounting.
- It also important to remember that the entry requirements are set at a level to attract a broad range of applicants, and that the 'required grades' are the minimum required - many of the people actually getting offers will have or be predicted grades well above that.
- Grade ranges (ie. AAB/ABB) - standard offers will always be at the higher range. The lower range is usually only available to those eligible for Contextual Offers.
- Contextual Offers - in an attempt to widen access to University many Universities make lower offers to candidates from low performing schools and/or those without a family history of University entrance. If you are a high achieving student from this sort of background ALWAYS contact the Dept before you submit your application.
Choosing your Courses
- No two University courses for History will be the same - they may have the same course code but the content of the course and the way it is taught will be different at ALL Universities.
- It is an essential part of your research to make sure you know what each course is about, what it includes or doesn't, and if this matches your interests. Read everything you can about the course on the University website and download any 'course booklets' etc.
- Never assume that all History courses will cover 'Tudor history', 'the Holocaust', the Civil War' or any other particular area - OR that whatever is on offer will automatically interest you because its all 'History'.
- Check - what are the compulsory modules and how much choice will you have about any optional units. Read the descriptions of all the optional units, for all three years of the course. Is there enough to interest you?
- If you can't find the unit information easily, email the Dept and ask for it - they won't mind.
- Avoid choosing a course based on one particular feature that interests you. Ask yourself how you would feel about that course if a particular module was withdrawn. It happens - especially with specialist subjects, if a lecturer leaves/goes on sabbatical/goes on maternity leave and there's no-one else to teach it. You might get very little notice and your choice of alternatives will be limited. So make sure that there lots of units that interest you not just one.
- Avoid studying exactly the same material you did for A level. University is about new experiences and challenges. If you just do Tudor History again, it's likely to get very dull. What other units about power, gender or empires are there that would extend your knowledge into different eras and areas of study?
- Charismatic academics who have been on TV are great but also it would be just your luck to pick the year that Professor Flankingirons, the international expert who leads the module on "Mill Workers in the 1830s: Their Lives and Times" decides to go off on sabbatical or to make a TV series in Australia. Don't pick a course because Mr Big might teach you.
- Also look at the unique features of the courses you are checking out. If there is a compulsory foreign language element for instance and you gave up languages after Year 9 with a big sigh of relief, then do you really want to do languages at degree level?
- Some Unis offer work placements within archives, museums of heritage sites - these are an invaluable addition to your CV.
- Some Unis offer a Year Abroad as part of the course. You don't have to be 'good at languages' to do one as many Unis now offer YAs to the States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The chance to live abroad. on your own, in another culture for an entire year will be invaluable both to you as a person and in terms of study.
- Finally....... Go to Open Days. It is daft applying to a University you haven't even seen. Do not use the old cookie of 'I live too far away' as an excuse or think its 'pointless'. It will give the best possible idea of whether or not its the sort of Uni where you will feel 'comfortable', if the course really is what you want - and you'll get a far better idea of what makes Uni different from school. If going to all five choices isn't realistic then choose your top one or two initially - you can always go to later Open Days if your offers eventually come from your other choices.
- Make sure you spread your 5 choices across a wide range of grade requirements. The usual advice is - 1 risky choice, 2/3 sensible ones at the same level as your grade predictions and 2/3 lower that that. This gives the best chance of having several offers to make your Firm and Insurance choices from.
Your personal statement is the most important part of your application. If you are applying to a 'top' Uni (ie. anywhere asking for AAB or above), stellar grades are not enough to guarantee offers. So it is really really really important to spend time on this: do not leave it until the last minute!
When drafting your PS consider the following:
- The most important question to answer is 'Why do you want to study History?' - this might sound obvious, but many applicants skip around this and don't actually address it at all, which Admissions Tutors (especially at top Universities) understandably find irritating. If you can't answer this question in a sensible fashion then it suggests you either aren't up to going to Uni yet, or you aren't that keen on History. Your answer doesn't have to be profound or 'deep' - just what is it about studying the past that you find interesting/absorbing/intriguing.
- Make sure your opening sentence is original without being pretentious/cheesy/arrogant/too clever by half
- Avoid "I've been interested in history since I was two" or using words like "passionate" and "fascinated"
- You have not 'always been interested in History'. You did not come out of the womb shouting 'I'm interested in History!".
- Don't repeat information from the rest of your application like your predicted grades or how well you did at GCSE; you haven't room
- There's no need to run through all your A2 subjects just for the sake of it; the Admissions Tutor isn't that interested.
- For the top universities particularly, you need to demonstrate engagement and understanding, so its worth talking (briefly!) about a topic that caught your interest and especially where you did work outside the basic A level syllabus to find out more, or any project that involved you doing research that wasn't just based on Google
- Don't list the academic books you have read - apart from being very boring, the Admissions Tutor has already read them and understands them far better than you do.
- Do NOT mention that your interest in History is as a result of watching a TV series! 'Downton Abbey' and 'The Crimson Field' are both fiction and 'The White Queen' and 'Call the Midwife' are both historically inaccurate. It suggests your real interest is watching populist telly rather than having the necessary academic aptitude for University level study. And don't ever mention 'Horrible Histories' - it's aimed at 9 year olds.
- Be careful about talking about TV historians - many are controversial, and not all Historians like their work or, in the case of David Starkey, their bombastic approach.
- 'Academic stuff' should take up at least two thirds of your PS if you want to be taken seriously.
Extra-curricular and Work experience
- extra-curricular activities are useful but don't just list them - explain what you get out of them in terms of skills, experience, maturity etc. The most important ones are those you do outside of school, and involve you 'stepping up' in terms of responsibility, maturity etc.
- if you need something non-school to add then think about volunteering at you local library or museum, or doing something like training for a 5km charity run. Explain what you got out of doing it - commitment, knowledge, ability to set a goal and stick to it etc.
- work experience is only worth mentioning if it is relevant (and don't panic if you haven't got any, it isn't expected in the same way as it is for some other more vocational subjects). Again, volunteer work can be useful here.
- if you have some idea of what you'd like to do after you graduate mention it by all means, but do not give the impression that you only want a history degree in order to be able to move seamlessly into investment banking and earn lots of money: it looks far too calculating and mercenary, and gives the impression you aren't that interested in History.
Joint/combine subject courses :
- if you are applying for joint honours or any combined subject course, it is usual to have a fairly equal balance between the two subjects. Don't bother trying to make connections between the two subjects is there isn't an obvious link (ie. History and Business Management), but do talk about why you want to do these two subjects, not just one.
Published 'Admissions Criteria'
- Finally, if you know that particular Unis are looking for specific things in applicants, make sure that these are covered. Some Universities (such as Bristol) publish their application assessment criteria online. It's worth reading these.
Helpful article from The Guardian (2013) on writing Personal Statements specifically for History HERE.
Life as a History Student
History students have to be self-starters; disciplined and organised. You will be expected to do a lot of work by yourself, as most history courses are based on contact time of only 6-10 hours a week - this includes lectures, seminars, and tutorials. Tutorials (classes) will require advance reading of several full length texts, and you'll also be required to research and write essays, plus prepare group work and project work.
Most of your study time will not actually be in a lecture or in a tutorial, but be be spent either searching for relevant books etc in the library or reading the material you got from there, taking notes and writing assignments. To do well as a History student, it is important to keep up with the reading - there's an enormous amount of it - and become a skilled note taker. It isn't a degree for those who 'don't like reading', who find writing essays boring or who expect to be told what to do next all the time.
This is from the a guide for new History students as they start their first term at the University of Bristol : 'You will already be aware that University teaching is different from that provided by secondary education establishments. You are expected to be much more proactive in the acquisition of knowledge and thus there are fewer commitments to attend classes than you are likely to have experienced previously. The whole point of a University education is that each student should develop an individual critical intelligence, and this cannot be adequately fostered by attending a large number of classes in which you are spoon-fed information. The onus will be on you to structure your time in order to develop an independent approach, guided to this end by the members of staff who will teach you.'
How can I get an idea of what studying History at Uni might be like?
The University of Cambridge's History Dept has a good page called 'Virtual Classroom' - here you can get an idea of the sort of methods/ideas/experiences you'll come across as a History student.
Another way to get an idea of what 'academic' history is all about then go to some of the Public Lectures offered by many Universities (it doesn't have to be the Uni you are thinking of going to) - many of these are now also available as online podcasts so you can watch them on your laptop at any time. Not only are these interesting in terms of 'Is History the right subject for me?', it will also give you an idea of the breadth of topics within the discipline - and give you something useful to mention in your PS that is outside your A level syllabus. Examples of these online lectures - Gresham College, University of Sussex and Queens, Belfast.
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
What can you do with a history degree? Anything and everything, as this 2010 report suggests - teaching and 'working in a museum' are actually not what History grads do at all; as recent studies have shown 'History graduates are found in disproportionate numbers on the boards of the UK's top 100 companies.' This seems to suggest that the skills obtained reading history are highly valued in the 'real world' of corporate management - and a thousand other career areas.
A History degree gives you valuable skills that employers want. They are after the 'trained brain' not the specific subject knowledge. They value things like - analytical skills, research, writing, accuracy, reasoned arguments, presentation skills etc etc
Equally important is the stuff you do outside of your studies - get involved in Clubs and Societies at Uni and any other 'opportunities' for extra-curricular/volunteering at Uni. It all makes you look a more interesting person, gives you useful skills and could make the difference between getting a job interview and not.
Think about placements or internships either during your course or during summer vacations. They can often be a deal breaker in job applications as they are 'real experience' - you don't look quite so 'new'.
University snobbery - mainstream employers don't read League Tables and they don't 'score' job applications depending on where you got your degree. Yes, Oxbridge clearly carries a bit of extra weight but beyond that it doesn't matter if you went to Bristol, Sussex or Leicester. Employers are more interested in a good class of degree (2.1 or First) and an interesting CV than which precise Uni you went to.
Remember - career prospects with a good degree in History are as broad and as good as you want to make them, but employers won't come looking for you. Start filling your CV up as soon as you get to Uni and grab any opportunities that are offered.
Jobs Desk (Museum jobs) run by the University of Leicester - here will give you an idea of the jobs (and career progression) of those working in this area.
Advice from the Museums Association about qualifications needed for a career in that sector - here.