Applying to History at Cambridge University

Cambridge University has one of the largest and best history faculties in the world, and their course reflects the quality and breadth of interest of its teaching staff. A History degree gives students the opportunity to explore the past from many different angles – including political, economic, social and cultural history – and to explore  the interaction between history and other disciplines, such as politics, anthropology and archaeology.

There is ample scope throughout to pursue personal interests and experiment with different historical approaches. Some paper options are shared with other courses, such as Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Classics, and Politics and International Relations and specialist papers allow students to work with a variety of source materials as varied as Hollywood movies and Renaissance art.

Academic Requirements:
- A-levels: A*AA
- IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

How did you decide between Oxford and Cambridge?

Initially, I was going to go for Oxford as I thought I'd have a better chance of getting in there (dodgy GCSEs and all!) Visited a friend of mine at Oxford and was not as taken with the place as I thought I'd be. Spent some time in and around Cambridge and gradually realised that it was the place for me, so agonised over which college to go for and eventually applied. Very much an informed decision. (Profile 269)

Cambridge seemed more like a 'people's place' (i.e. a lot more friendly), had a better syllabus and Oxford had an awful representative at a 'University Day' in Manchester. (Profile 262)

Aside from everything else, I really want to be highly active in the theatre scene at university and Cambridge is renowned for the opportunities it presents to its undergraduates for Theatre. (Profile 271)

Greater breadth in history syllabus, better reputation for research and MUCH nicer city (Profile 278)

Why did you choose this college/make an open application?

After some careful thought, I decided it was between Peterhouse, Trinity and King's. An odd combination I know, but those were the three that seemed to strike a chord. In the end felt Peterhouse would perhaps be too small for me, Trinity was perhaps a bit too traditional (although I liked the size). It was actually on the day I went to look around Trinity that I passed King's (in the middle of June, birds singing, sun shining) and was absolutely taken with it. I don't think it was a particularly spiritual experience, more a case of the place being absolutely stunning and John Maynard Keynes had been there. (Profile 269)

1- Accepted post-A-Level applications
2- Accepted AAB for History
3- The theatre there is excellent (Sam Mendes is part of the Alumni!)
4- The History department there is excellent and it takes on more undergraduates for History than most other colleges. I learn best through debate and discussion and thought having more Historians in my college would give me more chance to do this. (Profile 271)

It's modern, and seemed both lively and friendly in the prospectus. Also, it was not right in the middle of the town, so there are far fewer tourists.

It is worth visiting the college to which you apply, since this is the best way of finding out whether you might feel comfortable there. Equally, some find differences between colleges almost imperceptible - you find this out by visiting friends in other colleges. (Profile 279)

Do you have any advice for future applicants in terms of preparation?

Don't prepare or predict or hope, the odds are that you will answer questions you weren't expecting better than those you were. There will be unexpected questions, but they won't be impossible, just questions that require you to think. You are not hurried. (Profile 269)

Read up on histriographical issues around your topic, feel confident about the essays you sent in and be prepared to answer questions off them and same goes for what you say in your personal statement (Profile 271)

Know a lot! Sounds obvious, but the dons really will expose false claims to be a world authority on 19th century Peckham. I had quite an uneasy moment, when they asked for some listed empirical evidence to support broad sweeping statement I had just made about the Vienna settlement, at which point I had to confess I didn't really know that much about it... Also, try to get genuinely interested in period outside A-level syllabus - I'm doing the 17th century for the exam, but have spent most of the year reading about the 9th - 13th centuries, and could thus talk fairly knowledgably in response to quite detailed questions. (Profile 278)

Did you have to take any exams as part of your interview(s)?

WARNING! King's as of 2002 have introduced tests in all Humanities subjects, these last approximately 1 hour. One cannot revise for these, just trust that if you can think (and write) analytically you will get through it, they will be general questions related to the subject you have applied to read. 'Is political history the history of government?' was the one I chose of three options. (Profile 269)

A test comparing three documents (Profile 271)

Hour long essay question based around three short biographical sketches of monarchs. (Profile 278)

Comprehension of a passage of historical writing from a choice of maybe half a dozen. We were encouraged to make notes and think about date of creation, provenance, etc. (Profile 279)

How was/were in general your interview(s)?

There were four History fellows in all, I had two interviews with two fellows in each.

- The first was initially painless I was allowed to speak for some time on the US Civil Rights Movement and thought I sounded fairly clever until I was interrupted and asked about the class system in Britain. Questions about class in Britain can take 2 directions, one is fairly straightforward where one can talk about class barriers diminishing in recent times, the other will allow you to claim class barriers have broken down, but you will then be asked to elaborate on that. I was asked to elaborate at length. The final question was 'So how would a Marxist view your opinions on class?' At that point I very nearly confused Marxism with Fascism and all of the nerves I hadn't felt (surprisingly) up to that point came flooding in.

- The second interview was however, more intimidating with both interviewers looking like stereotypical Cambridge professors. I was actually asked easier questions, but was MUCH more nervous. (Profile 269)

The first only touched upon my essay and turned into debate on Chartism; the second was more general, as the essay I submitted was not in a time period covered by the interviewer. (Profile 262)

First I had a test comparing three documents. Then I had my first interview, almost totally history based. They asked me about one of my essays, histography based on the essay topic (the Holocaust, excellent to talk about in terms of histiographical debate) then some questions about my British History course and comparing figures from both periods.

Second interview had some questions like this as well, as well as one of my other two essays. I would say this interview was harder as the two guys doing it gave little way as to how I was doing, you have to stick to your guns and believe that you are doing well, even if they don't indicate either way. (Profile 271)

I had 2 interviews at Queens, one about my written work and one general one. I had one interview at Newnham. The interviews were all in offices. When I went to Newnham I got to meet current students as well which was really helpful (Profile 266)

What questions were you asked during your interview(s)?

The first interview has been mentioned above. The second interview asked all the questions I had been hoping for on International Relations following WW1, but I couldn't answer them properly despite knowing plenty about the period. I saved myself in the end by talking at length about Jews and Blacks in America, obviously a wild question that they thought I wouldn't be able to answer. Thank God I have random areas of interest! (Profile 269)

"What do you think of when you hear the word 'England'?" "Why do you think the west has gained cultural imperialism in recent years?" "Name an academic theory you are interested in and your take on it." (Profile 262)

A lot of different things, some about what I had studied and some more general. Some were a bit weird. Not really at all what I had expected to be asked to be honest. (Profile 266)

The first interview was the 'general one'. I was expecting questions on my interests and hobbies, but apart from one question on voluntary work I have done, it was history-orientated. I was asked (roughly): what does History teach us? why is History important to you? if you could keep objects from the present for the future, what would they be? 

I can't remember the other questions, except I did talk about the uses and abuses of History, so there must have been a question on this! Just before the second interview, which was the 'subject' one, I had to read and annotate a passage of text. I was led by one of the students through the garden and into a house with the widest front door I have ever seen. The interview itself was with the tutors who share the Director of Studies post. I was asked to summarise the work I had sent in, and then was asked specific questions (roughly): did Henry's usurpation in 1485 mark the start of a more modern monarchy? did the participants of the Indian Mutiny look back on history to justify their aims or actions? did you read all the books mentioned in your extended essay? For this, I said 'no', because firstly, I had listed about 12 books in my bibliography so reading them all would have been stupid and taken way too much time, and secondly, I know that's not the aim of the History degree. I said that I was selective, using the books in a reference-type way to counter arguments that I came across. I think he liked this answer :-) Also, I was asked to summarise the argument of the author of the passage I had chosen. I got a bit of it glaringly wrong, although the other interviewer helped me through it. I'm sure I was asked a few other questions, but I can't remember them at the moment! (Profile 279)