In recent years a number of students from the department have gone on to study undergraduate History at either Oxford or Cambridge. What follows here is an article by one recent successful candidate – Ryan Kemp, discussing the process. It should be remembered that one advantage of studying undergraduate History is that there are many excellent places to study, and divergent types of History course to undertake. In short, Oxford and Cambridge are only two, of many really exciting places to study undergraduate History. You should also visit the University Page of this site, and if you serious about an Oxbridge application, do please come and see me.
Advice for candidates considering a Oxbridge application for History
From my own experience the single best piece of advice I can give you about applying to either Oxford or Cambridge to study any subject, not just History, is to never apply simply because it is Oxbridge. From advice I received on the Sutton Trust Summer School and from advice from admissions tutors, the main thing they want to see throughout the application process, from personal statement to interview is a love and interest in your subject. If you are applying to do History at Oxbridge, simply because you want to go to Oxbridge you will be found out very quickly. That said if you love and are greatly interested in your subject, it is certainly worth a shot. However always keep in mind that there are many other equally outstanding History departments at other universities throughout the UK. Your main aim should be to study that subject at degree level, rather than setting your sights on a particular university.
As for long term preparation, you will of course want to have a good set of exam results from your GCSEs and AS levels. As soon as possible it is also a good idea to exploit as many opportunities as possible to enhance your personal statement. An interest in history can be shown well through further reading, various history magazines and by visiting events such as lectures at Reading University or ones organised through your Head of Year. It is also a great idea to research the various summer schools on offer from different universities. The Sutton Trust Summer schools for both Oxford and Cambridge in particular are aimed at state school students, and are fantastic for giving you an experience of university and advice on your application.
The personal statement
You are likely to receive an abundance of advice about your personal statement from your teachers and UCAS. It is important to remember though that Oxbridge admission tutors often state that they want to see a constant specific focus on your actual subject. For instance a tutor I spoke to on an open day claimed he found it very interesting that his applicants volunteered for charities and had endured tough expeditions on DofE, and yet for him it was meaningless as it did not contribute towards why they should be given a place to study explicitly History. It may be worth still putting in, but make sure the balance is heavily weighted in favour of subject specific reasons. When writing my statement I also wish I had given myself far more time, so give yourself the opportunity to go through many drafts. This will likely be spelled out dozens of times elsewhere but do try and make it unique and sound like you too. If you are lucky enough to receive a interview, make sure you can back up everything you have said in great detail.
The interview and preparation
In preparation for my interview I found it helpful to again do as much as further reading as possible. The more history you can encounter through books, films, drama, or documentaries, the more ideas you will have and the more valid points to bring up in a discussion. This will also help you be more original in your answers. For instance, one of the tasks I had to do in my interview was discuss a period of my own choosing for 20 mins with the tutors. Every other candidate I spoke to couldn’t wait to discuss Stalin’s USSR, whereas a deep knowledge of far less typical periods (in my own case the American Revolution) can help you stand out. Many other interviews also involve you dealing with primary source analysis, so any source evaluation and exploration practice would also be helpful. You also will find any practice you can in speaking and taking part in discussions very useful. Grasp every opportunity to do public speaking in debating clubs or mock interviews whenever you can. Literally each conversation will improve your ability to coherently form ideas and think about your subject more. Closer to the interview I also found it personally helpful to go through everything I had sent through already such as my statement, written work etc and think of any questions I might be asked. ON NO ACCOUNT DO THEY EVER WANT PREPREPARED ANSWERS. That said it is useful to have a few ideas in the back of your head. Finally the most helpful thing to do in the actual interview is relax. All the tutors who interviewed me and I’m sure will interview you, are people who have been trained for this and only want to get the best they can out of you. Rather than being intimidating, the interview more felt like just a warm conversation about a subject we were all deeply interested in. Try to be as enthusiastic about History as you can. They will inevitably push you hard, but the more relaxed you are, the easier it will be to answer their questions. Take your time and think about your answers, they do not mind you taking a few moments to think; in fact they encourage it greatly. Throughout the interview period try to always remind yourself that going to Oxbridge is not the most important thing about going to university. I realised on my first day of interviews that although Oxford is a fantastic place to study, I would be equally happy at any other university studying History. You will inevitably have a fantastic time at any university you manage to get in to; the most important choice is not whether it is Oxbridge but rather what you have chosen to study. Remembering this should help you relax and put the interview in the right perspective.
Perhaps one final reminder is that your application for Oxbridge will be time consuming, at least compared to applying for other universities. As such you should take care to ensure that it does not at any point interfere with your more important studies for your A Levels. I wish you luck with your university application wherever it might be, and if you have any questions I’m sure Mr Kydd could provide you with my contact details if there was any specific questions I might be able to answer.