• History at Oxford

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History at Oxford

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History is one of the largest faculties at Oxford. More importantly, it's also one of the most flexible courses in the university, offering its students a broad choice of papers over the three years and encompassing a wide variety of chronological periods and geographical foci. Oxford historians work alongside, and under the guidance of, leading world experts in their fields and have access to some of the world's best library resources.

The history courses offered at Oxford are:

  • History
  • Ancient and Modern History
  • History and English
  • History and Economics
  • History and Modern Languages
  • History and Politics

Virtually all colleges will offer straight History, but joint schools are a different matter, so prospective applicants should check out which colleges offer their particular course. You can find this information here: [1]

Admissions criteria

Tutors at individual colleges will decide who to admit based upon all the information provided to them as part of the application process. However, tutors follow the general selection criteria set out by the faculty:

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Conceptual clarity
  • Flexibility - the capacity to engage with alternative perspectives and/or new information
  • Accuracy and attention to detail
  • Critical engagement
  • Capacity for hard work
  • Enthusiasm for History
  • Evidence of historical imagination and understanding, in particular, the ability to speculate and compare, alongside the possession of appropriate historical knowledge and the capacity to deploy it.

Tutors make decisions based on multiple different sources of information supplied by applicants:

  • UCAS forms, including, in particular, personal statements, school reports, qualifications achieved and qualifications predicted
  • Relevant additional information supplied on, or with, the Oxford application form (for example, concerning candidates’ special circumstances)
  • Performance in the History Aptitude Test (HAT)
  • Written work submitted by candidates
  • Performance in interviews
  • Comparison, in all these areas, with other candidates

History Aptitude Test (HAT)

Oxford has introduced the History Aptitude Test as part of the admissions process for History and its associated joint schools. The best source of information is the faculty website, which has an overview of the general criteria for assessment and examples of past papers and mark schemes: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/prosundergrad/applying/hat_introduction.htm

Generally, the HAT initially seems much more daunting than it in reality is. Most people find that it's actually vaguely enjoyable once they get into the paper, as it's intended to allow people sitting it scope to express their individual ideas, rather than regurgitating what you've learnt at college. You'll need a certain amount of base material to work with, but the general idea is to create a level playing field that allows tutors to get an idea (although by no means a complete picture - that's what the rest of the application process is for) of 'aptitude' for History as a discipline.

Ultimately, the HAT is used to help tutors work out who to interview but, from my experience, you don't necessarily need to ace it in order to get a place. It remains the case that Oxford still interview a significant majority of students (the precise proportion changes from year to year depending on the number of applications) and if you make it to interview then your performance in other areas - particularly the interview, but also in your submitted written work - can compensate for a HAT score that is (to quote my euphemistic feedback) "not outstanding".

N.B. Unlike aptitude tests for some other subjects, scores are not released automatically but apparently you can now request them from the Faculty.

Course outline

Over the first two years, students have to study one Medieval, one Early Modern and one Modern period of History. This isn't really a limitation, as there are so many different ways in which you can tick each box, and it encourages students to study things which they might not necessarily have considered before. In the first year, students take four papers:

  • History of the British Isles - choice of seven chronological periods
  • General history (primarily European) - choice of four chronological periods
  • Historical methods - choice between Approaches to history (focusing on two or three of the following disciplines: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, Economics, Gender and Sociology); Historiography; Tacitus to Weber; Quantification; one of seven foreign texts
  • Optional subject - subject to change year by year, but generally a choice of around sixteen different topics

First year students take four exams (each lasting three hours) at the end of the summer term, but marks don't count towards your final degree. So no worries there.

In the final two years, students take another period of British history, another period of General history (although there are eighteen options rather than four, covering a broader geographical area), a Further subject paper, a Special subject paper based on primary sources and Disciplines of History. Assessment is based on a 12,000-word thesis based upon personal historical research into a subject totally of the student's own choice (written in the third year), an extended essay (written in the third year) and exams taken at the end of the third year, known as Finals.

College Choice

All colleges offer History. Joint schools, as previously noted, are a different matter. However, as a History student at Oxford, your college choice will not impact upon the papers you choose to study, as lectures are provided by the faculty and your college tutor will arrange for you to have tutorials elsewhere if your chosen period doesn't fall within their area of speciality. The only slight exception to this is that some tutors prefer to keep their freshers 'in college' during their first term in Oxford, and so might offer you a more limited choice of options for the British history paper you take in the first year. There is no advantage to picking a college where the listed Head Tutor's research interests correspond with your own. You will be able to study whichever periods you wish during your time at Oxford, regardless of your own tutors specializations. Tutors move about, go on sabbatical, take time out to do research etc. so basing your college choice on this above other factors is no advisable. N.B. There is no college which is particularly reknowned for History.

Typical week

Historians are largely free to work as and when they like, as there are comparatively few timetabled contact hours. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Although historians, unconstrained by labs and lectures, can generally get up whenever they want and work wherever and whenever suits them, the lack of definitive structure means students have to be self-disciplined and have a strong commitment to their subject. It's very easy to fall into the habit of leaving everything to the last minute and then having to pull all-nighters in order to get the essay done. However, if you can organise yourself relatively efficiently then the workload is generally very manageable and historians have plenty of flexibility to get involved in a multitude of other activities and interests.

The weekly tutorial, where students can expect to discuss the work they've done over the previous week with their subject tutor, will provide the focus of a historian's working week. Tutors will generally give students an essay title and a list of recommended reading, after which students will be responsible for finding the relevant materials (really not a problem with Oxford libraries), structuring their day around the reading they need to do, making notes and eventually planning and writing an essay. From personal experience, most essays will be somewhere around the 2,500-word mark, but this is by no means set in stone.

Tutorials can vary from tutor to tutor; some tutors will ask students to read aloud their essay and then allow that to form the basis of discussion, others will discuss general themes and ideas before handing back marked essays at the end and some will ask students to give presentations. Over the course of the three years Oxford historians can therefore expect to be taught in a variety of different ways; tutorials are supplemented by lectures but also in some courses (particularly in the Final honours school) by seminars and classes. The majority of tutorials involve 2-3 students and 1 tutor, although many students will have one-to-one tutorials at some stage of their course.


After the bar, libraries are the historian's best friend, and resources really don't come much better than the Bodleian and the myriad other resources open to Oxford historians.
The Bodleian
  • The Bod - pretty much every book you'll need for your course will either be on the shelves in the Upper Camera Reading Room (the Radcliffe Camera), in another part of the main Bodleian building or in the Stacks (i.e. you request them online and they are delivered to a reading room of your choice, normally within a couple of hours once you get into the habit of ordering them at the right time). These books cannot be borrowed and must be read in situe; some people love working in the Bodleian, some people not so much, but as a student resource it is incredible.
    The Upper Reading Room
  • College libraries - normally the first place a history student will go when presented with their weekly reading list. Being a substantially book-based subject, History is generally very well provided for. The major benefit of college libraries (apart from their proximity) is that books can normally be borrowed, although how long for will vary; different college libraries will also have variable opening hours (some will be 24/7, others not) and different amounts of funding available for the provision of new books. With many other libraries available, however, it's not a major concern.
  • History Faculty Library - normally fairly reliable for most of the less specialised texts on a reading list. Books can be borrowed for a week at a time and renewed once online, but the key texts tend to get taken out if you don't get in there quick, so sussing out the reservation system can make your life a whole lot easier.
  • Other libraries - historians can find themselves using texts from many different libraries scattered throughout Oxford. The Oxford Union library collection has been really useful on several occasions, particularly because books are borrowed for two weeks at a time, rather than just one. From personal experience and that of friends, a first year student can end up plundering from many different places: the English Faculty Library, the American Institute, the Philosophy Library, the Theology Faculty Library and the Social Sciences Library to name but a few.
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