Study History: Tips from an admissions tutor

Dr Alice Taylor, admissions tutor and medieval history lecturer at King’s College London, talks to Charlotte Hodgman about what university admissions tutors want to see from prospective students.

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Students at the Royal High School celebrate their A-Level results outside school in August 2007 in Bath, UK. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

What does an admissions tutor actually do?

University admissions tutors all have slightly different responsibilities. In my role at King’s College London, I spend my time reading UCAS applications and making recommendations to the central King’s admissions office, running open days for applicants who have received offers, participating in pre-application open days, and running ‘taster days’ for Year 12 students who are interested in studying history at a higher level. This is quite a substantial role, so the department also has a deputy admissions tutor to share the load.

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How can candidates make the most of a university open day?

Try to do as much as possible while you’re there! If there are sample seminars running, participate – it’s the best way to get a sense of whether you’ll enjoy university-level teaching. If there are sample lectures running, go to them – again, they provide 

a taster of the types of subjects and issues you might be learning about. And ask questions, either of lecturers or of current students. Visit as much of the campus as possible to have a look at where you’ll be taught and, perhaps, the type of places where you’d be living. The aim at an open day is not just to pick up the free bag and pens (though these are, of course, great!) but to get a feel for the university, and to find out whether you’d like studying there. 

What qualities do you look for in potential history students?

History students need to be able to write fluently and cogently, and to have the ability to distil complex information and arguments into clear analytical points. Studying history is not just about learning – it’s about understanding and asking new questions of the past, and investigating themes, places and periods that will be new to our students. So we look for fluency in writing, an interest in reading and curiosity – asking questions about how and why things happened, and how and why the past is continually invoked and manifested today. 

How much weight do you place on personal statements when selecting candidates? 

It’s part of the application process, so it’s given some weight. Personal statements have to be very concise; this makes writing them a good test of an applicant’s ability to synthesise. 

What can each student do to make their personal statement stand out?

The best personal statements are the ones that show that the applicant has engaged in the subject. You can do this in many ways – for example, by writing (briefly) about a historical work that’s interested you, and why. Writing about books you’ve read is quite a hard task in a personal statement but, when it’s done effectively, it really does work. 

All historians, whether popular, textbook or academic, are trying to say something about their particular topic, and one of the jobs of a reader is to understand what that something is. What is this particular historian saying, overall and on what do they base their argument? Are they using new sources, or are they using a different method to produce a new interpretation of a particular subject? If an applicant can show not only that he or she has read books (either as part of or outside their sixth-form course) but also that they have understood them, then that is a pretty good indication that the applicant will be able to do this at university level – which is what we want.

How can you prepare for an interview?

Think about what you have submitted as part of your application. University lecturers may base the content of the interview on issues and subjects that you’ve raised in your application materials. So read through your UCAS personal statement – remind yourself what you’ve said, and why you said it. 

If you’ve said on your statement that you’ve read particular books, make sure you’re familiar with those books. If you’ve sent in an essay, re-read it and ask yourself what you find interesting about it and what questions you think it raises. This is essentially the meat of a history degree – reading, thinking and talking with other people about what you’ve read and thought – so interviews are one way of showing that you can do this! Other universities may ask you to undertake an on-the-spot task. They might give you a small primary source extract and ask what you think about it. 

In both of these scenarios, it’s important to relax (as far as possible) and answer the questions. Most of the time, interviewers are interested more in how you think than what you know. So if you’re given an extract from a period or place you’ve never studied before, just remember: you’re not necessarily expected to know about its content – but you are expected to think about it. Bear in mind, though, that not all universities ask applicants for an interview.

How do you decide what grades to offer?

It differs according to institution. Some will give a standard offer of the same grades to nearly all successful applicants – this is what we do at King’s. Often this is to encourage a borderline student to achieve the higher grade. Some institutions will give an offer within a range (ABB–AAA, for example, or BCC–BBB), while others will give different offers depending on whether you select them as your ‘firm’ choice or your ‘insurance’ choice. So it’s important to check on the website. For mature students and those applying after A-levels, of course, the offer is made on the basis of grades already achieved, so it’s a simpler yes/no response.

Is it all about grades?

No, it’s not all about grades – although grades are important. Different universities may require additional application material in addition to the standard UCAS form, and some even ask you to send in work beforehand. The grades may determine where you decide to apply, but they don’t determine acceptance. 

What’s the competition for places like?

History is a popular subject, and it is competitive, though competition varies from institution to institution. Make sure you check to see what the average applicants-to-places ratio was for the previous academic year, but don’t be put off if the ratio looks daunting. If you have the required grades and a strong personal statement, you always stand a chance!

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11 tips for writing a personal statement

You have 4,000 characters to play with – what should you do with them?

✓ Show you understand the subject

Explain why the subject excites you, and perhaps how it’s relevant to the career that you hope to follow.

 

✓   Demonstrate your interest in the subject

Has the subject inspired you to write a project or undertake work experience in the area? If so, write about it.

✓   Explain what makes you a good candidate

How have your education, work, interests or other experiences made you a good fit for the subject you want to study at university?

 

✗   Don’t use complex language or clichés

Be as clear and concise as possible when explaining your interest in the subject and why you’re well qualified.

✓   Paint a picture of you as an individual

Your non-academic interests and activities give a flavour of your personality. Use them judiciously to demonstrate your unique set of skills and qualities, and why they’re relevant.

✗   Don’t waffle

It’s better to explain what you learned from one particular experience than to list 10 irrelevant details.

✓   Show that you’re a critical thinker

Use examples from your studies or other areas of experience.

✓   Plan the structure

Open with a punchy paragraph showing your interest in the course.

✗   Don’t be negative

Be enthusiastic and focus on your strengths and qualities.

✓   Proofread carefully

Check your statement as many times as possible before submitting it.

✗   Don’t lie or copy

Enough said!

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Famous history graduates

A degree in history can lead to all manner of careers, as these celebrity graduates proved…

1) Jonathan Ross – Broadcaster
University of London

Jonathan Ross, best known as a TV presenter, studied modern European history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, then a college of the University of London.

jonathan-ross_0-e0a9fe9

(Credit: Rex)

2) Simon Mayo – Radio presenter
University of Warwick

Having graduated from Warwick in 1980 with a degree in history and politics, Simon Mayo forged a successful career as a BBC Radio presenter.

 

3) Penelope Lively – Writer
St Anne’s College, Oxford

Penelope Lively studied modern history at St Anne’s College, graduating in 1956. She found success as a writer of books for children, then of literary novels including Moon Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 1987.

4) Gordon Brown – Former Labour prime minister
University of Edinburgh

Gordon Brown graduated in 1972 with a first-class honours degree in history, and stayed at Edinburgh to complete his PhD, which he gained 10 years later with his thesis titled The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918–29.

5) Sacha Baron Cohen – Actor, comedian and writer
Christ’s College, Cambridge 

Golden Globe winner and Oscar-nominated writer and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen graduated from Cambridge in 1993 with an upper second-class honours degree in history. He is now one of Britain’s best-known comic actors, famed for creations such as Ali G and Borat.

sacha-baron-cohen_0-ec2a561

(Credit: Getty Images)

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Dr Alice Taylor is lecturer in medieval history as well as being an admissions tutor at King’s College London.