Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.
Today we have Laura and Molly talking about their experiences of applying for History, and Ariane talking about her application for Ancient and Modern History.
The PS is where you can inject a little personality into your otherwise quite generic UCAS application. Everyone will have their own style and way of approaching it, but as a general rule, the statement should be used to demonstrate that you have an interest in History beyond the A-Level textbook. You might want to talk about a particular book you read, place you visited or period which really interests you, anything as long as you can show that you’ve engaged with historical thought and perhaps have begun to make your own conclusions about particular historical issues.
It doesn’t matter what you read (contrary to what some schoolteachers will tell you, not everybody else applying will have read In Defence of History by Richard Evans), as long as it’s reasonably academic and you’ve spent time thinking about the issues involved.
Don’t worry too much if you don’t have relevant work experience or your other A-Levels aren’t particularly related to History either. And don’t worry if you don’t think your statement is perfect by the time you have to submit it – at the end of the day, tutors assess your application by lots of different means, and the PS is just a small part of your overall dossier.
THE History APTITUDE TEST (HAT)
After you submit your UCAS application, you get an email asking you to take the History Aptitude Test (HAT). Make sure to let your school know so they can get the paper and set up a space for you to do the exam – as far as I know, schools don’t get automatically alerted when students need to take Oxbridge aptitude tests, and you don’t want to miss it!
The HAT is another factor that the tutors use to assess candidates, and, because it’s an aptitude test which requires no specific knowledge, it helps to level the playing field. You can find plenty of full past papers (and, even more usefully, mark schemes) online, and it’s worth reading through at least a couple to get an idea of the style of questions.
There are three questions; a comprehension question based on a piece of secondary literature, an essay title which can apply to any period or location in history (often dealing with “themes” such as power and a source question which asks to you infer information from a single source). Make sure to pay attention to the weighting – the final question has the most marks, so spend most time on that. Also remember to answer the questions set, considering them carefully, and don’t be tempted to simply regurgitate an AS essay for the second part. The tutors want to see how you think when trying to engage with history in a new way, so don’t be put off by it being very different to normal history exams.
This applies to straight History, so if you’re applying for Joint Schools, make sure to check on the Oxford University website for the test requirements for your course.
You’ll also be asked to send in an essay written as part of your A or AS level course. Although you obviously want to pick something you’re proud of, don’t worry about it being perfect! The tutors are likely to use this as part of the interview process (see below) or to get a sense of how you write, but the most important thing is that what you send in should be a normal piece of classwork. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, but be aware you might have to talk about it for quite a while, so pick something you’re interested in!
Depending on your UCAS application and HAT, the college you’ve applied to (or been allocated to if you made an open application) will contact you about an interview. The History interviews take place (typically) over three days, and you’ll usually have two interviews at your allocated college during this time.
The tutors at each college will follow a slightly different format depending on their personal preference, so there’s no “model” for an interview. In my interviews, one focused on the submitted essay (tip: revise the topic your written work is on before you get to Oxford – I didn’t realise I’d be interviewed on it, and so had a panicked morning before my session cramming facts!) and one on sources which I was given some time to read beforehand. Having at least one source-based interview is pretty typical, so get used to engaging with totally new material and being ready to talk about it at length. Your history teacher might be able to give you some suggestions for reading and discuss it with you afterwards.
It’s unlikely that whoever is tutoring you will be an expert in what you’re currently studying or are interested in, so the interview is very likely to drift away from specific knowledge into ideas and themes. The questions aren’t there to “catch you out” – tutors want to stretch you and see your potential, not knock points off your application because you couldn’t remember a particular date.
There’s only a limited amount you can do to prepare for the interview, particularly in academic terms. Be confident on your submitted essay and anything you put in your personal statement, but you shouldn’t need to specifically revise too much. If you can, try and get some practice just discussing things you’ve found interesting in what you’ve read; talk to your parents, baby siblings, cat, anyone, and just get used to articulating your ideas.
You also might end up having interviews at other colleges, and if you apply for Joint Schools, you’ll have interviews with tutors from each subject. If you do get transferred around, don’t worry – just relax (as much as is possible!) and continue to engage with the ideas the tutors through at you. Having interviews elsewhere doesn’t mean anything specific, so don’t be too thrown by it.
I applied to study History in 2013 and I’ve just graduated this past summer. History applicants sit an entrance examination called the HAT prior to interview. The rationale behind the HAT is that you theoretically shouldn’t be able to prepare for it, but I did work my way through 3 or 4 past papers beforehand. Going to a Comprehensive school with no real history of sending students to Oxbridge, I marked these papers myself using online mark schemes. Overall, I didn’t spend too much time preparing for the exam, but I did take the time to read over my GCSE and A-level notes as well. Having had no feedback on my past papers prior to the exam, I found it difficult to gauge how well I did in the actual exam. In retrospect, I did pretty well though, so I would advise prospective applicants to try not to worry too much about how well you did/didn’t do once the exam is done.
Following the HAT, I was then invited to interview at Wadham College. Wadham is where I initially applied, but I was asked to interview at St Hilda’s College on my final day of interviews. All in all, I had 3 interviews, and they were all very different. In one I was given a picture and asked to talk my way through any thoughts or questions, and in another a tutor went through my personal statement line by line and asked me to defend some of my comments and claims. Having spoken to other applicants, my impression is that the latter example isn’t too common, but I do think it’s worth having a really firm understanding of what you’ve said in your statement just in case. Just talk through your thinking and don’t be afraid to change your mind, or to stick to your guns either.
Overall, I found the application process challenging. I was ultimately offered a place at St Hilda’s college. I often hear it said that the interview process is a way for tutors to see how you’ll cope in a tutorial situation, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Whilst I found interviews stressful, I’ve always felt very relaxed in tutorials. The process can feel a bit drawn out, but it does end eventually so keep going!
Ancient and Modern History is the degree for you if you love history and classics and somehow want to combine the two. Although the course title says ‘modern’ history, this is just used as a term in opposition to ‘ancient’ history, referring to all of history after roughly 500 AD. What I love about the course is the sheer number of options, over seventy different choices across the degree, which means you should never feel as if you have to do something you dislike. Indeed, I wish I could take more options!
Ancient history only covers the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds and starts in roughly 800 BC, so there is no opportunity to cover Egyptology or the pre-historic world. It is important to note that you don’t need any knowledge of Latin or Ancient Greek, the course does offer the option of studying both if you want to, but it is optional. You just need to demonstrate an interest in ancient history, as you might not have had the opportunity to study in school.
If you are more interested in archaeology, then you might prefer CAAH (Classical Archaeology and Ancient History). You can study some aspects of material culture in the AMH course, particularly when they are the foundation of our evidence, but CAAH covers it much more systematically.
There are around fourteen-sixteen AMHers per year, which means it can be difficult to find them across the thousands of people in the university. However, the faculties are trying to change that and there is now an AMH group on Facebook and a few events each year to make sure that we know each other. Not all colleges offer this course either, I know that Brasenose, St Anne’s, St John’s and Magdalen do (among others): there are quite a few colleges that do but if you’re finding it hard to choose this can definitely help narrow your selection down!
In terms of applications they are very much the same as for History, but make sure you stress why you’re enthusiastic about both parts of the course on your personal statement. You only submit one essay, which can either cover a period of ancient or modern history. The only difference is at the interview stage, when it is likely that most of one interview will be dedicated to ancient history. It is difficult to generalise the interview process as different colleges interview very differently. The important thing is to get some experience of what it might be like, have a couple of mock interviews e.g. discussing your essay with your teacher.
I absolutely love the course and would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves both the classical world and history and wants to be able to have the best of both worlds!
You can find more about the technicalities of the course here:
If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!