What to expect when you choose to study History at University

A student's guide from personal experience to challenges you may have to face

By Alice Borman

Challenges you may have to face include:

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I don't know about you, however when I studied History at A Level there was a textbook for each module; a comprehensive book that covered all the compulsory material that you would need to learn for your exam. Real life is not like this. No such books exist when you arrive at University. As much as it pains me to tell you, your teachers are right when they tell you that "You won't be spoon fed, like you are now, when you get to University."

University history truly is about independent thought, requires the skills to think independently, you cannot depend on one author who wrote one book. After all, that is simply one person's opinion. You need to read around. To gauge a true understanding of a historical topic you will need to question the author's thoughts themselves, argue with their conclusions and evaluate their reasoning. You will gain these skills by reading widely and gaining a wider breadth and depth of knowledge. 

Themes NOT chronology

You might think when studying history, that chronology would be the most vital part of your study. Oh, but no. When you get to university you will soon realise that themes within history are as equally important. There have been several occasions when I have attended lectures and about three centuries have gone missing, or rather, the lectures have gone against everything natural and jumped back a few centuries. Not to fret, this is primarily because University is about giving you breadth of knowledge.

For example, you may be studying the Tudor Reformation. However, in order to truly appreciate this historical ‘event' within its context you may well have lectures dating back to the 1300's and the Crusades. Don't worry, you haven't slept through any lectures, this is University history providing you with an extensive range of knowledge that will soon bear the £9,000 fees. The heart palpitations when entering said lecture, of course, come for free. 

Essay questions on unfamiliar topics

Another challenge that I faced, and perhaps you will too, is random and unfamiliar topics in essay questions. You will be expected to go to the library, find half a dozen or so books and journals, and complete the essay. At no point will you get an ‘essay plan' from your tutor, you will just have to use your intuition, read a lot and make your own judgements.

The main thing to remember when writing a university standard history essay is that you are presenting an argument. I know that in secondary school there is emphasis on providing a balance in your argument; however at this level, this may be mistaken as indecision. Further to this, your argument may not be presented to you in your essay question. The questions can be extremely vague, however this is as I mentioned before, to make you think independently. My advice: Pick a stance (not an unreasonable and unarguable one of course) and stick to it, but being careful as part of your argument to discredit other possibilities or ideas. 

Historiography over History

This caused me the most trouble and frustration; I still grapple with it now. Basically a considerable emphasis of any history degree will be on the historiography of a topic. This will most likely be touched on at A-Level, however at University you will study historiography in much more depth. Essentially, for those of you who don't know, it is the study of what the historian has said and why they have said it. For example, let's take the Cold War as a case study. One historian may argue that the Cold War was caused by the aggressive policies of the USA, such as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Other historians however may argue that it was the fault of a hostile USSR or the pressures of the power vacuum that had developed in Europe. Studying historiography is to study these reasons and why these historians have come to these different conclusions. You will need to ask yourself several questions: When were these authors writing? Are they politically biased? What sources did they use? Is there a pattern? What is the author's background? Can this explain their conclusions?

Although this may seem reasonably simple, trying to identify an argument within a text can be extremely difficult. Don't be embarrassed if you can't figure it out straight away, practice really does make perfect. In my first year of History for example, my study group was given a particularly obscure topic. We were to write an essay on the historiography of death during the Reformation. After days of reading, head scratching, some tears and several cups of tea we came to the conclusion that the Reformation only changed religious beliefs towards death to a veneer-like level. Some historians argued that the Reformation was welcomed with open arms and thus rituals in death swiftly changed, whilst others stated that the Reformation was slowly and sullenly accepted which meant attitudes towards death remained covertly Catholic. Identifying why these different historians thought differently wasn't exactly easy however we realised that opinions began to change in the 1970's, a time of renewed thought, political change and questioning. It is these patterns that you will need to identify when studying the historiography of a specific topic.

Reading, reading and more reading

Lastly, one thing I feel I must prepare you for is the amount of reading. There has been many a time where I have been simply incapable of reading a certain article or document, not necessarily because of its contents but because of what I call "reader's block": a mental block where words on a page/screen will simply appear as gibberish due to excessive reading. This will happen, however don't fear, it is simply your brain adjusting to the influx of information that it is perhaps not accustomed to! Chocolate, a nap and some socialising tends to cure this one. Take breaks, but do keep on top of the reading!

Good luck!