So, you want to study history? Top tips from a graduate

We explore the highs, lows and daily reality of studying for a history degree: what A-levels do you need? How much reading is involved? And what jobs and careers might a history degree prepare you for? Recent history graduate George Evans-Hulme shares his top tips…

(Image by Getty Images)

Why study history?

A history degree is great fun – your primary occupation over the three (or four) years of your course will be to read, learn, talk about and debate topics you enjoy.

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In studying history you’ll gain extensive training in areas that will be applicable to a wide variety of careers – be they related to history or not. You will learn how to present and conduct research and you’ll hone your writing skills, preparing you for a potential career in broadcasting and journalism; administration; finance; the heritage sector; politics; research; or further study, to name but a few.

Moreover, the ability to analyse and to think critically and objectively will be invaluable in a world where we have greater access to information (and mis-information) than any generation before.

An 1824 cartoon depicting the drinking escapades of Oxford students. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

What A-levels do I need?

There are no specific A-levels required for a history degree, but common choices include history, English literature, classics, and ancient history.

I myself took maths and physics (as well as history and English literature), which is testament to the fact that there is noset formula required for a history degree. Even a history A-level is not essential.

It may be worth considering taking a language if you know that you want a study the history of a particular country (French, for example), as this will help you with primary source work. But this is not essential for history undergraduates.

Adopt a 50:50 balance between academia and social life at your university, George advises. (Image by Getty Images)
Adopt a 50:50 balance between academia and social life at your university, George advises. (Image by Getty Images)

Top tips for your history personal statement

Your personal statement is where you show the university admission staff why you want to study history. They are looking to see why you are passionate about the subject and why you will make a good history student.

To do this, you should highlight examples that demonstrate your interest in the subject. This could include:

  • Discussing history books that you have read (whether academic or not) and what you found interesting about them
  • Mentioning historical sites (museums, castles, battlefields, etc) that you have visited and explaining what you liked about them
  • Highlighting your role volunteering at a local museum/historical site (if you’ve done so)
  • Talking about a particular time period you find interesting and explaining which areas of it you would like to study further. This may be useful if you know you want to study a particular period at university, especially if there is a lecturer there that specialises in the subject. Potential military historians should consider highlighting any military experience they might have gained in the cadets or a similar organisation

But your personal statement should also show that you are a rounded individual and that there is more to you than just your A-levels. The greatest emphasis should be on demonstrating your passion for history and highlighting any relevant experience that you have to prove this.

Admission staff want to know why you will make a good history student, so be prepared to demonstrate why you are interested in the subject. c1938, undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Admission staff want to know why you will make a good history student, so be prepared to demonstrate why you are interested in the subject. c1938, undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

What is the day-to-day like for a history undergraduate?

The short answer: you have a lot of spare time on your hands. Compared to your A-levels, studying for a history degree will see a dramatic decline in contact hours (ie lectures and seminars), with many humanities students having as few as six contact hours per week.

The great thing about university is that you will have the freedom to choose how you utilise these spare hours. However, the steep learning curve that all history undergraduates have to face is balancing that freedom with being self-disciplined in order to fulfil your academic commitments.

It is important to study hard because it is, after all, what you are at university to do. You will be wasting £9,000 a year if you choose to spend all of your time partying! But you should adopt a 50:50 balance between academia and social life. Everything is good in moderation – you would miss out on amazing opportunities and potentially damage your mental health if you did nothing but study. An essential part of university is the opportunity to meet new people, and you can’t do this from your room.

An essential part of university is the opportunity to meet new people, says George, and you can’t do this from your room. In this illustration from magazine The Graphic, c1882, a college student studies at Oxford. (Image by Getty Images)
An essential part of university is the opportunity to meet new people, says George, and you can’t do this from your room. In this illustration from magazine The Graphic, c1882, a college student studies at Oxford. (Image by Getty Images)

How much reading is involved?

Weekly reading could be anything between 100–300 pages. To put that into perspective, the average length of a journal article is roughly 20 to 30 pages, which took me two hours to read when making detailed notes. Of course, individual experiences will vary.

Journal articles and edited volumes will become your best friend during your time at university. These resources are short and focused pieces that will give you specific insights into different facets of history as well as greater access to a wider historiography (see below), and they will serve to pad out your bibliography. Make sure to look at websites like JSTOR for online journal articles.

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

Historiography – what is it?

It is true that no one goes into history for the theory. Nevertheless, historiography is the essential theoretical concept that every history undergraduate will have to get their head around at university. Fortunately, it is much simpler than it sounds.

Historiography is the study of how history has been interpreted, or, the evolution of historical interpretation over time. In other words, how have different generations of historians viewed a specific historical period and what different interpretations have emerged as time has progressed? One example might be the difference in interpretations of the French Revolution between historians in the 1930s compared to those in the 1990s.

A first-class student will also be able to identify why a difference in interpretation has developed.

Historiography is the essential theoretical concept that every history undergraduate will have to get their head around at university, says George, though fortunately it's much simpler than it sounds. (Image by Getty Images)
Historiography is the essential theoretical concept that every history undergraduate will have to get their head around at university, says George, though fortunately it’s much simpler than it sounds. (Image by Getty Images)

Where can I find examples of historiography?

The introduction of most academic history books will provide an overview of the historiography of its subject matter. Similarly, the introductions or first sections of most journal articles will also provide an overview of the historiographical trends of the subject of the article.

What other opportunities might I get studying history?

At university, you have the potential to do things you may have always dreamed of doing.

Here are some of the activities my friends and I experienced at university as a direct result of studying history or military history:

  • Travelling abroad with the university (destinations included Athens, Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, Rome and Waterloo, among other places)
  • Travelling to local historical sites (the British Museum and Dover Castle, among others)
  • Interacting with world-leading historians in both a formal and informal setting (during lectures, guest lectures and while conducting podcast interviews)
  • Organising events within the School of History including a humanities ball and a School of History meal with students and faculty
  • Undertaking original research projects that were later published
  • Participating in sports teams with weekly matches for 24 weeks a year
  • Presenting weekly radio shows
  • Writing and producing theatrical productions
  • Acting in films (one friend featured in Star Wars Episode VIIIand another appeared in a First World War docu-drama!)

This list gives you an idea of the things you can do at university if you choose to be proactive!

A degree in history might offer the chance to travel abroad and, if you're lucky, destinations could even include Athens (pictured), Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, Rome and Waterloo. (Image by Getty Images)
A degree in history might offer the chance to travel abroad and, if you’re lucky, destinations could even include Athens (pictured), Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, Rome and Waterloo. (Image by Getty Images)

University challenges – how best to progress

The best advice I could give an aspiring history student is: do not be afraid to make mistakes.

Many students ‘play it safe’ at university: they don’t socialise very much, they don’t speak up in seminars and they don’t engage with the views of other people. This is a terrible waste of an opportunity!

The students who come out of university with the most fulfilment are those who made the effort to talk to new people; were brave enough to risk being ‘wrong’ in seminars and asked questions; and, most of all, those who took the opportunity to have their views criticised and use it to their advantage.

I would encourage you to listen carefully to any feedback you receive, even if does initially upset you. Lecturers have your best interest at heart, and it might even be considered a privilege to have your work critiqued by a world-leading academic. Listen to what they have to say and take it on board – you will undoubtedly progress as a result.

My final thoughts?Undertaking a history degree has its challenges, but it is also an immensely rewarding experience – I would recommend it to anyone.

George Evans-Hulme is a recent history graduate of the University of Kent. Like many graduates, he is not quite sure where the immediate future will take him, but he is seeking opportunities to research and write about history and politics.

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This article was first published on History Extra in August 2018