Hannah is from Durham in the North East of England. She did A levels in History, English Literature and Religious Studies and has just finished her second year studying History here at King's College, Cambridge.
Why did you want to do a degree in history?
When I was applying, initially I was really torn between a lot of subjects I enjoyed. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to do Politics, History, Law or Philosophy. I was also overwhelmed by the amount of courses out there. There were so many subjects I had never heard of!
At open days I went to loads of different talks, from Anthropology, Politics and I think even Mandarin at one point?! Ultimately, despite finding the others really interesting, my decision came through realizing that history was always my favourite subject in school. I love history and I’ve always come out of my history classes excited about what I have learnt. I thought to myself: what is the subject I’m going to get up everyday and want to study, and what interests me the most? Ultimately, you're going to have a timetable full of that subject, so picking something that you enjoy was the priority for me.
Quite a few people asked me, ‘What do you want to do with history? Isn’t your only option going to be teaching?’. I really think this is the wrong way to think about it. Around 80% of graduate jobs don’t require you to have a specific degree, they just care that you have a degree! I have a friend who has just graduated with an Anthropology degree, and she’s now taking a year out to do chemistry A-level and is going to do a post-graduate Medicine course. I still don’t know for certain what I want to do when I leave university, so doing history has allowed me to do further study and gain valuable and versatile skills from critical thinking to time management.
What's the Cambridge history course like?
At a fancy dress 'superstition' themed King's Mingle
I really like the Cambridge course for the vast array of periods offered and the freedom of choice you get. A lot of history courses, especially in the first two years, will have fairly strict regulations about doing specific periods like medieval and modern so that you get a broad range of different types of history. The Cambridge course is great because although you have to take one pre-1750 paper and one post-1750 paper, you then have 3 other papers in your first two years to choose from. There are over 20 papers!
I’ve done everything from Bill Clinton in modern America to the fall and decline of the Roman Empire. The one downside of the history course at Cambridge is that it is, especially in the first two years, quite Eurocentric and can have quite a male focus. Although this may not be one of the strongpoints of the course, it is getting a lot better. The individual nature of the course allows you a lot of freedom week to week to study what you’re interested in. I have done at least one gender topic in every term and every topic. I’m also doing an Africa paper next year and have friends doing India and World History so it's not that the options aren’t there, it's just there is one paper for ‘Africa’ and ‘India’ whereas Europe has quite a few.
What about the college system?
The college system is so great for settling in when you first arrive. Obviously each college will have slight differences in accommodation or sports facilities, but on the whole you will get the same experience at every college. I love the college system, especially for making friends. It’s a proper community and genuinely feels like one big family!
When we arrived on our first day we had dinner with our college ‘parents’. Sounds really weird, but they are second and third years who may or may not do your subject and they look after you and introduce you to life at King’s. It’s great because it’s such a nice way to meet people and make friends across all year groups. You meet people from all different backgrounds and places and mix with loads of people doing different subjects to you! I don’t think that for anyone leaving home and moving to university where you don’t know anyone isn’t a little bit daunting, so the family and college system is great because your parents introduce you to how everything in college works. They can also calm any of your worries and fears at the beginning. I’m now a college parent with two children and we have family dinners every now and then!
Making badges for the rent protest
Another thing that is great about the college system is that I know I can go down to eat dinner, or just swing by the coffee shop, and there will be someone there to talk to! King’s has such a strong community and is so welcoming. I find if I really need to do some work I tend not to go to the King’s library. It's great for procrastinating because there are so many friendly faces and so many people to talk to - which is great for getting to know people, not so great if I’m having an essay crisis!
My other favourite thing about King’s is that it is a very politically active college. We just had a rent protest where we made banners and badges and managed to get a reduction in the proposed rent rises.
How do supervisions work for history?
Supervisions for history tend to be one-on-one. At first, this can be a bit daunting because you feel as if there is nowhere to hide! But actually, I find it most helpful when there is something I don’t understand. You have the sole attention of the expert in the subject and they have the time to talk through and explain a concept without you feeling like you’re wasting someone else’s learning time.
Also, the discussions on the essay can be so interesting. The most interesting I think was a supervision where we got on to discussing whether American patriotism is a form of religious expression, necessary for any form of US political power. In terms of the essays, they tend to vary. I have written essays on everything from the importance of property in Locke’s political thought, to whether the Roman Empire can be classed as a divine being, to debating whether Thatcherism is dead. The essay I found most interesting was for my 17th century British paper, where I was looking at the gendering of private and public spheres. It’s great when you do a topic you find interesting because writing the essay can actually be quite fun!
Where do you normally work?
Working late in the King's library
The workload is a step up but is totally, totally manageable. The only reason that I will be in the library very late is because I’m brilliant at procrastinating! I know friends who will get up early, work efficiently and have every evening out of the library.
I love studying in the college library because it’s really homely and is open 24 hours (which can be incredibly helpful!!). Cambridge has so many different workspaces, so I tend to try out new ones every now and then. The faculties can be great because you get to try out a different space and often they're quite big so you can get loads of space to work.
What was the hardest thing about history intially?
The hardest thing about history was getting used to doing a 2,500 word essay a week. It is a step up, and at first, you feel like you’ve been thrown in at the deep end! My history and English coursework at A level was 2,500 words, so I remember the first week thinking 'there is no way I can write this in a week'! But the essays are only marked with comments, which is actually really nice because you’re not focused on the grade. Then at the end of term, you get a report where your supervisor advises you on the grade you’ve been working at over that term. This takes the pressure off if there is a week when you find the topic a bit more difficult or if you have a lot of extra-circular activities that fall in one week, for instance.
You are supported so much at King’s. There are amazing networks! We have a Director of Studies (DoS) and they look after your academic welfare. This is great because they can advise you and support you through your paper choices and if there’s a paper you’re struggling with they are a great person to talk to.
Is there time for things other than studying?
Punting on the river. Me on the left, Ceylon on the right.
Before coming to Cambridge, someone told me that there are three things students do at university: work, play and sleep. But that at Cambridge only two of them are possible! So, I was really worried about balancing everything here. It’s actually so much easier than I thought. It is intense - you feel like you are constantly busy. However, there is still time to relax, go see a play, shop, socialize, play sport, etc.! It’s all about balancing what you’re doing! Also, our terms are only eight weeks long which is shorter than other universities, so its more intense but for a much shorter period of time.
I realized pretty quickly that I succumb to the post-lunch slump; I’m rubbish at concentrating after lunch. I work a lot better in the morning, so I tend to get up to work in the morning after lectures, and then after lunch do any jobs for the societies I’m involved in and then get back to the library after. It’s about working out what’s manageable for you.
What do you do when you're not working?
Taking a walk on the beach between visiting schools in the North East with the Access Bus in March
In the next coming year, I am President of the Cambridge Unicef on Campus society, I’m launching a women’s ministry community with one of my close friends at Kings, I’m events officer for the King’s Politics society and I also represent King’s students as the KCSU Accommodation Officer. I also find time to go to the gym (King’s have their own gym and it's great!) and occasionally play netball for the mixed college team. From time to time I also write for student newspapers. You can do this on a weekly basis but I tend to send in an article every now and then when I have time or there’s an issue I really want to write about!
Ready for Trinity May Ball
I also love formals, which are a big part of college life. They are a bit weird at first, but essentially it’s a fancy meal, you get to dress up a bit fancy and you sit with your friends. It’s great if it’s someone’s birthday or something, instead of going out to a restaurant! King’s formals are great too because we have great entertainment (ents) officers who organize a live band or DJ in the bar after every formal! Even if I don’t go to formal, I always make an effort to go to the bar afterwards because it’s a really nice time to see people from college and relax.
Where do you live in college?
This year I’m living in A staircase, which is just above the bar and coffee shop which may not be great for my finances! Most of my friends are living on the same staircase so I’m excited to live with them. King’s accommodation is really nice because it’s virtually all on site or a few minutes' walk away. This means that the community is really strong and all the rooms are so nice! For second and third year accommodation, the room allocation is done via a random ballot. You can group together, or go alone, and they randomly generate a list of students and this is the order in which you choose. Unfortunately last year my group was the bottom of the ballot! But then the following year the ballot flips so this time we got first choice of rooms, which was really exciting. I had an ensuite in first year, which was so lovely, but I shared bathrooms last year and this year and it is really not a hassle.
My room in second year
How did you prepare for your application?
In terms of my application, I just read some books! I really didn’t know what to read, so I read some books on bits of history that I hadn’t done in school but that I was interested in. My choices were pretty random: I chose to read a book about Abraham Lincoln after I had seen the film because I found it interesting. I also read a book about medieval women because I’d never done any medieval history, but I did do a workshop at a local university in sixth form and that challenged me to read into medieval history. Chances are you’re already doing a lot of stuff that will be relevant to your application. For instance, I was a member of our debating society at school, which links into the skills I use in history, so I mentioned that. Try and read a bit around the stuff you do in school, but also remember that there’s so much of history, so just find something that you’re interested in.
How did you find the application process?
The application process was quite daunting! It feels like there are loads of parts to it but it does all eventually come together. Although I was obviously quite nervous for my interview, in a weird way I actually ended up enjoying it. I had two interviews where essentially I was given the space to discuss and debate about the subject I love. We discussed aspects of my A level work in History, and also a couple of other historical topics that I had read about independently. It felt challenging, and they did stretch me, but the interviewers also put me at ease and wanted to see me at my best. Ultimately, it was a conversation about history with people who also love history! It also gave me a chance to test out a supervision style set up and see if I enjoyed it.
How did you approach college choice?
Painting our banner for the rent protest - me in the middle, Nina on the left
My school didn’t know a whole lot about the colleges. I actually didn’t apply to King’s! I wanted to, but I was advised against it because King’s was a 'popular college', so I was told I’d have less chance to get in. The pooling system sounds quite complicated but actually works really well. I applied to Christ’s College but then on results day just missed my offer. I waited a day and then was contacted by King’s who had taken me from the summer pool! It all worked out in the end and no one knows or cares that you’ve been pooled! Basically, don’t stress too much about which college to pick. If Cambridge wants you, they will find some way to take you!
What do you do with your summer vacations?
Over summer, I worked for six weeks with a summer school in Cambridge looking after young people from all over the world which was so much fun. There are loads of work opportunities if you want to stay in Cambridge over the summer, and sometimes they will provide accommodation, which is great!
Tomorrow I’m going to America for a few weeks to do some dissertation research. King’s have a travel grant which students can apply for, and thanks to this I’m going to Washington DC to conduct interviews with some people who worked in US politics, which is really exciting and I wouldn’t be able to afford it without the help from King’s. As well as research, I also have time to have a bit of a holiday whilst I’m there which I’m going to enjoy!
Do you have any plans for when you graduate?
The cows on King's meadow
I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate. I’m currently looking into the possibility of doing a Gender Studies masters, maybe in England or the US. Alternatively, I’m weighing up doing a law conversion course to hopefully work for a charity or NGO.