Student Perspective: Abdulla

Abdulla is from Bromley in South-East London. He did the International Baccalaureate with European History, English and Chemistry at Higher Level. Abdulla has just finished studying History here at King's College, Cambridge.

Why did you choose to study History at university?

It was actually my interest in Politics that brought me towards History. In school the closest we got to studying Politics was in our classes. I realised that one of the ways of understanding today’s political issues is through understanding the past. There are degrees that are entirely based on studying politics through theory and ideas. However, I think that History provides an alternative route to answer the same questions but using different methods to do so.

After doing more reading on the matter, I then began to realise that there is more to History than Political History. History has many facets such as Social History, or even Intellectual History. They are also important for other contemporary issues. Many discussions about race or class today involve a discussion of the historical. I realised that History should not be reserved to the past; rather it should be used and applied to contemporary issues. These reasons made me decide that studying History was what I needed for my own personal development.

How did you find studying for the International Baccalaureate?

After my GCSE’s, I decided to study the International Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels. I chose History, English and Chemistry for my Higher Level subjects, and Maths Studies, Biology and Spanish for my Standard Level choices.

I think that I benefited from having studied with so much breadth in the IB. Each subject has transferable skills that I use in my studies. It's true that these transferable skills are easier to see in subjects like English, which, as an essay-based subject is quite similar to History. But they are also there in the science subjects I studied. I found that both Chemistry and Biology shaped my thinking in various ways. I was also surprised to find out that even History involves Maths! So I definitely benefited from studying both essay subjects and science subjects at school.

Studying such a breadth of subjects did make it difficult for me to hone down what I wanted to study in university, but it also allowed me to think more carefully about my degree choices. So when I eventually decided to pursue a degree in History, I was very certain.

Why Cambridge? And why King’s?

The flexibility and the wide range of the course is what attracted me to Cambridge. The History Tripos (course) allows you to choose three of your papers for first year. There are a few restrictions, for example by the second year you should have at least covered a period before and after 1750, a period on British History and finally a period on European History. Through this, you still get to take papers on World History or even Intellectual History. Many of the other universities I looked at only offered either Modern and Ancient History, or did not allow much scope for World History. In addition to this, Cambridge offers a unique teaching environment with the supervision system. I had heard a lot about the supervision system and was excited by the prospect of having one-to-one sessions with a specialist in the subject. Many other universities do not offer such personalised teaching.

My choice for King’s was not so well thought out. I hadn’t had the chance to visit Cambridge before I applied and had very little knowledge of the college system. I only chose King’s because they had more information for IB students (International Baccalaureate Diploma) than any other college I researched. As soon as I came for interview, I realised that there were more reasons why one would apply for King’s. I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the chapel was and how inviting the college student body was. It all worked out well in the end!

What was your interview like?

In the lead-up to my interview day, I heard many rumours about the bizarre things they could ask you on the day. But my actual experience was much more ordinary. My interviewers included specialists on German and Russian History, both of which I was already studying. The questions they asked were difficult but not random. In both interviews, I was tested and challenged on my opinions, but at no point did I feel that I was speaking about something I have never encountered before. So to sum it up: don’t believe all the rumours before you go.

I also found the student volunteers very helpful in calming my nerves. They also helped me when I got locked out of my room (twice!). It gave me a taste of what I was going to experience when university started: a friendly atmosphere with an accepting student body.

How was Freshers' week?

Freshers' week was a very busy week, especially for someone still adjusting to the environment in Cambridge. Nonetheless, it was exciting to meet people from my college and from my year. King’s College Student Union (KCSU) had organised many events and there were very few moments where nothing was planned. There were lots of opportunities to get to know everyone much better. From picnics on the backs of the river to pub quizzes, KCSU ensured that we enjoyed our week before the work set in.

There were also events organised by university societies in Freshers week. Each year, there's a freshers’ fair where students are able to see all the societies on offer in Cambridge. These societies offer a chance to move outside the college environment. Through the freshers’ fair, I came into contact with the Islamic Society and the Pakistan Society, which enabled me to find many other students from a similar background to myself. Both of these societies were key when I felt far away from home. They also organise fresher events. I would advise people to seek out societies that interest them and to try new experiences.

Of course, with Freshers' week there also came a lot of admin. We had to fill out forms for our GP, and for other things. This could be quite a drag but it did not stop me from having a lot of fun.

How has the History course been so far?

So over the summer, the Director of Studies in History gave us a list of recommended reading to do before we started our course in October. I had managed to do a bit but I didn’t get it all done. Nevertheless, History at university still felt like something completely new when I started. Unlike other subjects, Historians were largely in control of how many lectures we attended and how much reading we did. It was really self-managed and it involved a lot self-discipline. I've had to get into a habit of planning my working schedule more rigorously. I eventually found out that I work better in the morning so now I wake up early rather than sleep late!

History is also different because of its content. It is taught very differently to what I had experienced at school. Instead of being given textbooks that hold all the information, I realised that studying History means reading widely and critically evaluating the opinions of historians. But the most important thing I learned was to decipher what the question is really asking. It took me a while to really grasp this concept but through the first term I began to understand. The first few weeks were always going to be tough. But through the Tripos (course), you learn to move quickly and pick up speed with essays.

The papers on offer were also very interesting. I took papers on modern British History, which allowed me to see the relevance to today quite clearly. Some of what I learned was very new. I had never studied Economics at school but I did questions on Economic History. I ended up enjoying Economic History the most in the end!

What are supervisions like? 

Unlike some other subjects, Historians occasionally have one-to-one supervisions. This makes the experience more daunting but more interesting, as you are able to learn more. Supervisions are similar to interviews, so in a sense I had experienced them before. But it was nonetheless challenging to begin with. Supervisors scrutinise your weekly essay with such detail, and barely leave anything out. While they can be quite critical, their insights and advice are very useful in improving your essay-writing and arguing skills. There is no doubt that supervisions are challenging, but they are beneficial nonetheless.

It is also very valuable to hear about History from the academics themselves in such a casual manner. Some of my supervisors wrote the books I read for my essays, which means that they can tell me so much more about the historical questions than any lecture could.

What papers do you plan to do next year?

Next year I will be taking papers on the History of Political Thought and on World History from 1914 onwards. Both are very different topics to those I have studied so far in my first year, but I find this refreshing rather than worrying. I also have no experience of Intellectual History, but I know that King’s has a rich tradition of scholarship in this area so I wanted to take as much advantage from it as I could. I have also realised that I really enjoy Modern History and would like to focus most of my studies in that period.

During the summer, I will be finishing my Themes and Sources paper, which is a self-researched project I have to submit in January 2017. In first year we were given lectures and seminars after we chose our course, and we had to choose an essay question by the end of the year. I had chosen ‘the Bandung Moment’ and I chose an essay on Islamic anti-imperialism. Like the rest of the course, it is self-led. But unlike supervisions, there is no supervisor to guide or critique you. On the other hand, this does mean that you can chose how to address the question and what angles to take. I really like my essay question so I am looking forward to completing it. So alongside the two other papers, I will be completing this.

Outside of studying, what else do you do?

Although studying takes a lot of time, there’s plenty to do besides it. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved a lot in Pakistan Society and Islamic Society events. I helped organise cultural and religious events for students in Cambridge.

Outside of that, I play sports for college teams in Squash and Cricket (I'm on the bottom right in the picture above). I also play Lacrosse for fun because I had never tried it out before. In my first term, I made an effort to try all the things I had not done before so I tried rowing as well. I didn’t continue it but I did enjoy the experience. Lastly, I have written comment pieces for university journalism websites in my free-time. There is always something about university life to comment on and to join in with the discussion.

Of course, there are plenty of places to let your hair down that don’t involve studying or extracurricular activities. There are always social events to attend with friends. College formals can be a nice outing for a group as you get to enjoy high class food in a grand environment. Even if you don’t get a ticket for formals, there is always the post-formal entertainment at the Bar. That is usually where all friends meet to let off some steam from studying. It can be quite nice to relax especially after a long day of reading and going to lectures.

What advice would you give to students thinking of applying for History?

I would suggest reading about History outside your curriculum and finding out what really interests you. Applicants need to know why they’re applying for History instead of any other subject and what it is that they enjoy about it. In terms of what you could read, I was advised that any History book was encouraged, regardless of content. Before my interview, I read Orientalism by Edward Said, but there really is no set text. What is more important is the critical mind-set that interviewers look for. Make sure you think very carefully about what you are reading. This is why I would also advise reading magazines or analytical journals like The Economist or The London Review of Books.

Ultimately I would advise you to read into the history that interests you the most.

August 2016

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