Studying History at Cambridge

Although History is offered at the vast majority of UK universities, the course content and structure differ greatly. Studying History at Cambridge involves an exceptional degree of freedom to explore students’ personal interests within history; regular opportunities to talk to leading academics about these chosen topics; and a variety of different teaching and examination methods. I’ve listed a few factors which make the Cambridge course unique, and why I enjoy studying it! 

  • Students can personalise their learning to reflect their own specific interests.

First-years choose three ‘papers’ (often called ‘modules’ at other universities) to study from a choice of eighteen. These options range from Classical Greece to twentieth-century Europe, and everything in between! In addition to this, first year students also take ‘Historical Argument and Practice’ (more commonly known as HAP), which requires students to reflect somewhat philosophically on how their range of historical knowledge can be applied to broad topics such as ‘power’, ‘revolutions’, or ‘gender’. It is quite unusual for a History degree to offer first-year students so much free choice in their studies - one factor which dissuaded me from applying to several other universities was the compulsory module on ‘medieval witchcraft’, which didn’t interest me personally! At Cambridge, the opportunity to focus on areas of personal interest continues in second and third year, where students are once again given free choice from a wide range of options, spanning time periods and continents.


  • The teaching methods are varied and engaging.

History students at Cambridge are taught in a variety of ways. First-years will typically have around six to eight lectures per week, which are held in the History Faculty building. Unlike many other subjects, History lectures are quite small, because students are divided between the optional papers, so there is usually no more than thirty to forty students attending a given lecture. Lectures are not compulsory, although many students find they provide a valuable introduction to a topic which they will later be writing an essay on. Lecturers may also offer primary source discussion classes, which involve an in-depth analysis of given source material relating to recent lecture topics.

Much of the teaching at Cambridge takes place in very small groups. Students may attend seminars, in particular for teaching relating to HAP, along with other first-year Historians from their college. Finally, teaching is also administered through weekly ‘supervisions’. These typically consist of one or two students with one supervisor, who is an academic specialising in the students’ chosen paper for that term. Students typically write one essay per week on a given topic, which their supervisor will provide feedback on and discuss further in supervision. I find these sessions are a great opportunity to delve into a particular topic, discuss ideas and ask questions.


  • The Cambridge libraries are invaluable to History students

History students inevitably spend a lot of time reading. Supervisors usually provide a reading list relating to each weekly essay topic, although students are not expected to read everything on the list! With only a week to research and write the essay, it would be impossible to read every book and article ever written on that topic, so selectiveness is necessary. Some of these texts will be available online, but can almost always be found in college libraries; the Seeley Library in the History Faculty; or the University Library. Students can also work at the desks in these libraries, which provide a much-needed change of scene when writing an essay!


  • It’s not all about exams!

While there are inevitably a number of examinations at the end of each year, final grades aren’t based entirely upon these results. Students also take ‘Themes and Sources’ which requires writing a ‘long essay’ between first and second year. This involves extensive individual research and is expected to include analysis of primary source material. Undertaking this project and producing a long essay is a good opportunity for students to decide whether they would like to write a dissertation in their third year. This is another optional element of the course, which involves producing a 10-15,000-word piece of academic writing on a chosen topic, instead of taking an additional exam at the end of third year.

Overall, the History course at Cambridge is varied, fast-paced and enjoyable. It is a daunting task to learn about, for example, British politics in the eighteenth century, in just eight weeks, however students can focus on specific topics and are certainly not expected to be an expert in the topic by the end of term! There is plenty of time for further research and revision before exams come round. Also, the range of skills acquired and developed through studying History means graduates can progress to a variety of professions, including law, policy, teaching, academic research, media and marketing.

To find out more about studying History at Cambridge, and the admissions process, check out the Faculty of History website!

Natalie Thompson



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