• History at Cambridge

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History at Cambridge

This page (which you can edit) is part of The Student Room's information and advice about Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. Our information on the application procedure and interviews applies to both.

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Look at Personal Statements used to apply to Cambridge


General Information

History at Cambridge is studied both in college and in the Faculty. Your Director of Studies in college, or DoS, will assign you supervisors and will help teach the HAP or Historical Argument and Practice paper. Lectures and seminars are organised by the faculty.

The Faculty itself is located in a Stirling-designed red brick and glass building on the Sidgewick site. It houses administrative offices, lecture and seminar rooms, and the Seeley Historical Library.

History is made up of two Parts; Part I and Part II. Part I is taken in the first two years, and Part II in the third. For students switching Tripos to History from another subject with a one-year part one, there is a special extended two-year Part II.

At the end of the first year, Prelim exams are taken. Standing for "Preliminary Examination to Part I", they don't actually count towards anything and some colleges don't enter their students. Hence your first five terms are completely free of exam worries. Part I exams are taken in the summer term of the second year, and whilst they are important in terms of internships, summer jobs, self-confidence, and other reasons they don't count at all towards the final degree. Your final class will depend entirely upon your Finals results.

In Part II, generally 5 papers are taken (detailed below).

Why Cambridge?

Cambridge is exceptionally well-regarded for History. It is frequently ranked above Oxford and the 2014 QS rankings place it top in the world.

Whilst league tables are indicative of some facts, they don't tell the full story. History at Cambridge is an extremely rigorous subject. Cambridge's exceptionally high reputation for History attracts the most high-profile academics, from Quentin Skinner to Gareth Stedman-Jones, Richard Evans to Rosemary Horrox. The Faculty has an extremely talented range of Historians.

The degree is also exceptionally well regarded; many famous politicians, public figures, and not-so-public figures have History degrees from Cambridge.

In terms of facilities, Cambridge is exceptionally well provided. The three tiers of book provision- University Library, Faculty Library, and College Library- mean that the exceptionally large numbers of books needed by Historians can always be found. The Seeley Library is as large as some universities' libraries in itself! The extent of library provision means that the books and journals are always to be found. The Faculty also subscribes to a very large number of electronic journals and services; Cambridge Historians come to love Jstor, a huge database of journal articles. Large numbers of original books and manuscripts are also available; any book one could require is generally available. Cambridge historians are very spoilt for the provision of books. From my room, I can generally get my hands on any book I require within 10 to 15 minutes.

In addition to the facilities, College environment, and prestige of the degree, Cambridge offers a very good atmosphere for History, as the city is in itself historical.


History at Cambridge is highly competitive. Most people will have identical qualifications.

However, the colleges look for more than just A*s and UMS marks. They look for potential in the applicants; for ability, passion for the subject, and the wish to learn. Generally, two interviews will be given, with one asking general questions about History, the other asking specific questions about essays you have previously submitted; History tends not to have a "General" and a "Subject" interview. You will generally be asked to submit pieces of work before interview; the number requested varies from college to college. Some colleges, too, like to have applicants sit the college specific exam for History.

If you have a demonstrable passion for History and the wish to study it at the highest level, then History at Cambridge is for you.

http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/ugadmissions/index.html is a collection of VERY useful pages.


Official teaching for the History tripos involves lectures, supervisions and seminars. Unofficial teaching comes from clubs and societies.


Lectures are arranged by the Faculty. They are designed to give a background to each paper, and to offer hints to some of the questions and areas that are likely to come up on the exams.

They are in no way compulsory. History students are notorious for not going to lectures, and it's easy to see why; some are a lot better than others. They tend to be delivered in a very traditional way with little use of multimedia and the handouts given range from fantastic and useful to poor and shoddy, requiring a lot of note taking.

At least try to go to lectures at first; they will give you useful background material. Some students go to all lectures, and have the background, as they find the lectures useful, whereas others don't. Find out which series you like, and which you think will be most useful. If you've studied a period at A-Level, you're less likely to need the lectures. SImilarly, if the lecturer is awful and you keep falling asleep, you'll probably learn more from an A-Level textbook.

The lectures are reported in the Reporter, which is published every term by Cambridge University Press. You will inevitably get clashes between lectures; prioritise.

Lectures can be useful for some; you won't find out how useful unless you try to go. The most successful candidates will be selective and canny in which lectures they attend, without wasting time on ones they do not require.


These are the central part of life at Cambridge, and make up the bulk of the History teaching. Every week you will have a supervision, 8 per term, and every week you will submit a supervision essay of 2,000-3,000 words that will have taken you anything from 5 to 50 hours to research, plan and write- depending on how conscientious you are!

This essay is the bulk of your work at Part I, and the bulk of the specified subject work at Part II. Supervisions will generally be one-to-one; you and the supervisor. This is the biggest benefit of the Cambridge system; you learn from tuition from the world-class academics.

Academics vary as to how flexible they are. Normally, at Part I, they will set a time each week for the essay deadline, and a fixed supervision day, location and time. At Part II, you will be expected to organise things on a more week-by-week basis.


Group seminars are taken for Themes and Sources at Part I, HAP in both Parts, and for the Special Subject at Part II. Their utility varies according to who's taking them. They are generally specialised and very useful at Part II. You will be expected to de preparatory reading and occasionally do exercises (almost like homework) for seminars. For Themes and Sources in the first two years, you have seminars and supervisions for the Long Essay that you write.

Unofficial Teaching

Cambridge is replete with societies and clubs that offer lectures, discussions, films, and many other things that are useful for the Historical tripos. Clio, the university history society, hosts many visiting academics for a variety of stimulating talks, as do college history and politics societies.. The Cambridge Union also sometimes has debates that are relevant to the History tripos. In short, there are many events in the evenings that are worth attending.


These will become the bane of your life! An essay a week is expected for the supervisions that demand them. They can take between 5 and 50 hours to write; you're expected to spend about 30 on them, although this will vary according to your interest and extra curricular activities! You will generally be given a reading list at each supervision, or expected to print one off for each paper from the Faculty website; pages for each paper, wth reading lists, are below.

It takes time to adapt to History at university level and your essays will reflect this. Some people adapt quickly, others take two years- or more!- to gain what is required. The central difference between degree- and A-level is that you're required to think and not merely regurgitate facts. You will be expected to challenge the question and the status quo, to say something (nearly) original, and to absorb a wide variety of primary and secondary texts that contradict each other.

It will make you question your sanity when awake at 4am finishing an essay for the deadline. Everyone experiences at least one "Essay Crisis" as this situation is known. However, they will motivate you to work and to think; your essay will be criticised by an expert in the field, after you've had a week to cover what normally takes years. As a result, a cynical arrogance, almost, develops. Don't be put off by this!

In short, essays are perhaps the best and the worst part of the Cambridge system of teaching History. Few other institutions will make you write as many in as short a space of time; but few other institutions can offer supervisions and the one-to-one tuition. Expect to develop very fast!

Part I

Part I consists of six papers. The five period papers (Papers 2-24) are examined by means of three-hour exams in late May and early June of the second year. The compulsory Themes and Sources paper is studied through Faculty classes in Lent and Easter of the first year, and examined by means of a Long Essay that is submitted at the beginning of Lent term in the second year.

Students take three papers in the first year from sections B, C, and D, one from each. They take Themes and Sources and the occasional HAP class (which isn't assessed in Part I) over the period also. In the second year, they may take any two papers from sections B, C, D, E, F, or G.

These choices must fit in with the following requirements:

  • One (or more) papers wholly before 1750
  • One (or more) papers wholly after 1750
  • One (or more) Political and Contitutional paper
  • One (or more) Economic and Social paper
  • One (or more) European or Extra-European paper.

Each paper can fulfil more than one of these five requirements.

Section A

Paper 1: Themes and Sources

Themes and Sources papers are taught by Faculty classes. These involve a different style of study from the weekly essay. Teaching takes place in classes at regular intervals in the last two terms of the first year. Undergraduates choose one from the list of options. These typically take a broad theme in comparative history (such as gender, democracy, Christianity or music) and investigate continuities and changes over time. Several options are based on a close reading of primary source material, and examine the problems involved in using such sources. Other options explore big themes over long periods of time; or there may be a combination of theme-based and source-based approaches. Some options may also involve the use of visual material. Those who have followed source-based courses at school will find these approaches quite familiar. During the course, undergraduates write a short 'practice' essay. They are then formally assessed by means of a Long Essay (5000 words) which they produce at the end, on one of a variety of set questions. This involves extensive individual research. It is set in May of the first year and submitted in January of the second year, so most of the work for it is done in the intervening vacations.


Section B

British Political and Constitutional History

Section C

British Economic and Social History

Section D

European History

Section E

Political Thought

Section F

Extra-European History

Section G

Additional Historical Subjects to be set from time to time

Part II

In Part II History, four papers are taken in the space of the year. One of those is HAP, from Section F below. One paper from Section A or B is taken (known as the "special subject"), and at least one paper is taken from the other sections (specified subjects). A dissertation of 10,000-15,000 words can be submitted, or another Specialised Subject paper can be chosen. Papers are taken concurrently, with special and specified topics, and the dissertation, studied simaltaneously; this calls for great organisational skills.

In addition to the normal (optional) lectures and (compulsory) supervisions, there are compulsory seminars and classes for the Special Subject; however, these take the place of weekly essays for that paper. You will still be submitting weekly essays for the specified subject/s, along with dissertation drafts and work.

Part II History is hard work, don't be mistaken about that; but it's no more hard than any other Part II. However, it is considerably harder than Part I, and more stressful because it is the year that defines the final degree classification. However, DON'T PANIC is perhaps the best advice. You have far more choice of papers, in more interesting topics than for Part I, and can study whatever you wish for the Dissertation. In short, you're studying things you'll enjoy immensely and can specialise and follow your interests to a far greater extent than for Part I, which compensates for the larger workload; you don't mind having more work if you enjoy it!

Section A

Papers 1 and 2: Special Subjects

Section B

Political Thought

  • 3. History of Political Thought to c.1700
  • 4. History of Political Thought from c.1700 to c.1890
  • 5. Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought since c.1890

Section C

Comparative and Thematic Studies (Specified subjects)

  • 6. Population, development and environment since 1750: Comparative History and Policy
  • 7. The rise of the secret world: Governments and intelligence communities since c.1900
  • 8. No subject specified
  • 9. No subject specified10. The Greeks and the Supernatural
  • 11. No subject specified

Section D

Topics in English or European or English and European History

  • 12. Transformation of the Roman World
  • 13. No subject specified
  • 14. The Near East in the age of Justinian and Muhammad, AD527-700
  • 15. Jewish Presence in Medieval Society
  • 16. No subject specified
  • 17. No subject specified
  • 18. No subject specified
  • 19. Ireland since the famine
  • 20. The Long Road to Modernisation: Spain 1800-2000
  • 21. The Politics of Gender: Britain and Ireland 1790-1990
  • 22. No subject specified
  • 23. No subject specified
  • 24. Culture and Identity in Britain's Long Eighteenth Century

Section E

Extra European History

  • 25. The history of Africa from 1800 to the present day
  • 26. The history of the Indian sub-continent from the late eighteenth century to the present day
  • 27. No subject specified
  • 28. The History of Latin America in the colonial period c. 1500-1830
  • 29. No subject specified

Section F

  • 30. Historical Argument and Practice


At Part II, you have the option of writing a 10,000-15,000 word dissertation on a topic of your choice, based usually around your research using Primary sources. This is a very popular option; perhaps 80% of students take it. It does involve a great deal of work; research over the summer, and large amounts of time to write it.

However, it is the first time you are able to devote a significant amount of time to a topic that greatly interests you. It can form the foundation of further postgraduate study; many find the dissertation a major factor in chosing History.

Cambridge is extremely lucky to have the University Library, which as a copyright library houses all the books one is likely to need for dissertation research (if they're published in Britain; it is less reliable for overseas material). It also has a fantastic collection of primary sources, from medieval manuscripts to newspapers, magazines, and rare books. These and other primary sources make dissertation research and planning a lot easier at Cambridge.

http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/part2/dissertation.html contains much useful material.


Historical Argument and Practice is a compulsory paper taken at Part II. It is introduced at Part I, and taught, but it is not formally assessed, although it does form one of the three papers that make up prelims, if these are taken. It is, essentially, a paper that asks questions about History as a discipline and examines your knowledge about the subject and the wider issues surrounding it, ranging from issues of popular versus academic history, to topics such as Marxism.

In short, in Part I there are lectures given by the faculty, as well as classes and seminars that are taught within college. How much HAP you are taught will depend on your college; some teach a lot more than others. It's worth asking at open days how HAP is taught in each college.

For Part II, HAP is also taught within college, but there are more lectures run by the faculty.

This paper aims to provide an opportunity for candidates to reflect on broad issues of historical argument and practice arising out of their work for all three years of the Historical Tripos, but especially Part II. The paper is a means of enabling candidates to raise and discuss fundamental questions which relate their specialist knowledge to more general themes of historical inquiry and explanation. The focus of HAP, as distinct from other Part II papers, is on understanding the conceptual, historiographical and methodological dimensions of historical argument and practice. However, the paper also fundamentally requires candidates to develop their understanding of these conceptual, historiographical and methodological issues in relation to their work for their other Part II papers, for example by critically evaluating the merits of different approaches in relation to the more specific and empirical material that they encounter elsewhere in Tripos. The questions will be designed to encourage broad discussion of issues derived from, and relevant to, papers set in Part II, and will also allow candidates to draw upon their wider reading, done within and outside Parts I and II. The paper will offer a choice of questions, from which candidates will be required to answer one.

See http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/part2/hap.html for details

Seeley Library

The Seeley is the Faculty library. It has an extremely large number of books, and you are able to borrow four at a time, the majority able to be borrowed for four nights. The Seeley is a fantastic resource for historians, as it has as many books as some universities' libraries as a whole.


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