If you’re interested in studying history at Cambridge and you aren’t sure about how to approach the application process, here are some tips to help you prepare for each stage of your application.
Firstly, do your research
Before applying to study make sure you look at the faculty website for the course structure and content. At Cambridge for example, there are going to be major changes to the History Tripos in 2022. Think about what time periods or regions you are interested in and find out if these courses are offered. Cambridge offers a wide range of ‘Papers’ (courses) and with the supervision system there is a lot of flexibility in choosing individual topics you want to study. Keep in mind that it is a very individually structured course, with a lot of independent research which differs from some other universities’ way of teaching.
Your Personal statement for History at Cambridge
This is a chance to show what makes you an interesting potential student: avoid formulaic or clichéd statements and references. Quoting a well-known historian such as E. H. Carr doesn’t say much about what makes you distinctive, instead use the limited space you have to show your specific interests, how your extra reading prompted you to think about new themes or raised new questions, and what sort of topics your studies and personal reading have inspired you to want to learn more about. Your personal statement will be more compelling if you are genuinely interested in what you’re writing about. Aim to show your awareness of historical issues, framed by examples that you’ve enjoyed learning about.
Writing samples for History at Cambridge
Writing samples are another opportunity to show potential professors that you are a good candidate. They show your writing style and calibre of work, so don’t underestimate their importance! Pick work that you’re proud of and would be comfortable discussing if it was brought up during an interview. If you’re thinking about applying, plan ahead and consider what type of essays or research projects you could submit to show your best schoolwork – talk to your teachers and get their advice too. You may be asked to send in this written work on short notice, so you should have good-quality work on hand prior to applying.
Preparing for interviews: Research
There is a great deal of general advice available for preparing for Oxbridge interviews, and much of it applies to History at Cambridge interviews. Be familiar with your personal statement, and if you’re able to do some wider reading around the themes or topics you discussed, that can be beneficial. When doing this reading, you should be thinking less about direct facts and more about the approach taken by the historian, the sources they used, your thoughts on the arguments or themes raised. This is likely unfamiliar to you, and that’s ok! You aren’t expected to be an expert, just to show an awareness that you’ve thought about the kind of work historians do. It is also useful to do some reading about using different forms of primary sources: in school, you’re most likely to be presented with written sources, but historians also work with images, material culture, oral histories, museum collections, and more, and in an interview, you may be asked how you would approach studying an unfamiliar primary source.
If the College you are interviewing at provides you with the names of the professors who will be interviewing you, look them up! Every professor has a profile on the Faculty website which describes their research interests, and oftentimes the questions they ask you in interviews are influenced by their personal research interests, so being aware of their specialty can be useful.
Preparing for interviews: Practice
Practice explaining your thoughts out loud – whether this is to friends, to teachers, or to family, do as much as you can to practice speaking about history and articulating your thought process in a clear way. This helps to build your confidence before the interview. However, expect the unexpected during your interview. You will almost certainly be asked about time periods or topics that you haven’t studied before, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t have an answer right away. It’s perfectly normal to be daunted by the questions, but there is no right or wrong answer – the interviewers simply want to see how you respond to challenges and to see that you can think about new historical themes or approaches in a logical way. It’s helpful to try and draw connections to topics you are familiar with, as this will make you more comfortable and give you a starting point for discussion with your interviewer. Approach the interview as a practice Cambridge supervision, a chance to chat with an expert historian about topics that interest you. They’re challenging, but they can be a real chance for learning too!
**Note about History admissions assessments: from 2020, the admissions assessment has changed, and certain Colleges require an at-interview written assessment. Check the Faculty website to keep up to date on the assessment requirements for your application year, and for practice tests, as these may be subject to change.