History: Molly Avery, Second Year


Name: Molly Avery

Subject: History

Year: 2nd

A-levels taken: History, Geography, Fine Art and Pre-U Global Perspectives

How is your course structured?
The way the history degree works here in Cambridge differs from the way it is taught at other universities or indeed most other subjects in Cambridge. You take the first two years as one 'part' of the tripos; As a result, the general formula of work does not differ greatly from first year, you simply sit exams for all of the first two years in the final term of second year, and study an extra paper in lieu of exams in the final term of first year. The degree itself has a flexibility you won't find in any other university - you take five papers in the first two years from a choice of twenty-three (one paper per term) giving you the chance to study whatever interests you across an incredibly broad range of periods and themes. You tend to cover the easier British papers in the first year, so second year you might be tackling the broader or more conceptually challenging ones. Last year I took British Political and Constitutional History 1450-1714, British Social and Economic History 1700-1914, and European History 1700-1890. This year I'm taking World History from 1914 to present and History of Political Thought 1700-1890, so somewhat more challenging, but also brilliant. Within papers you can also choose what areas you focus on as you'll do a topic a week (so eight in a term) and there's normally around 25-30 topics on a paper. So for example studying World History I chose to focus three weeks on African topics and just one on India and one on the Middle East according to my interests, alongside a few broader thematic topics too.

What does your working week entail?
As I said, second year History follows on from first year in that one weekly supervision essay comprises the bulk of your work. As a result the vast majority of my time is spent working through the reading list given by my supervisor each week, and in comparison to other subjects History is relatively light on lectures (definitely not compulsory) and contact hours overall. In general, it will be very rare for a lecture to directly correspond to the work you'll be doing for your weekly essay, instead they are designed to give general outlines of the periods covered by your papers; so often essay reading takes precedence!
History supervisions are normally just an hour or so a week, but at Christ's you will far more often than not be taught one-on-one by a leading expert in the field (often a College Fellow), rather than group teaching as is common in more supervision and contact heavy subjects. Though this was initially daunting, it's an incredible experience to be taught by someone who has written parts of your reading list. I've generally found that one-on-one teaching means that in an hour you can cover pretty much every single problem you may have had with the week's reading, and you'll come out with a sense of clarity unimaginable when you went in - it really is teaching tailored to you as an individual, making it very difficult not to make extremely fast progress over a term.

So to sum up, my week probably entails around two hours of lectures, one hour of supervision and at least 35 hours of reading and writing for the weekly essay (totally bearable if you love history...).

How easily can you fit other activities into your working week?
Very easily! As I've said, the vast bulk of work in history is reading and this can be done at absolutely any time of day. So if you're content with working early in the day or alternatively late at night (I tend to go for the latter) then you can conceivably fit pretty much anything into your life. I easily manage going out two or three times a week and playing football, hockey and netball matches every weekend for the college. The best thing about college life is that you can dip in and out of stuff like sport as much or as little as you please - if you have got snowed under a little with work there's rarely a problem if you miss a match, or in the case of drama a rehearsal, etc. etc. I'm also Access Officer on the JCR (Students' Union at Christ's) and last year I was First Year Rep so I got to organise Freshers' Week 2012. Historians often get accused of being lazy because of the lack of contact time, but in fact I have found it simply means you can do pretty much anything you like, and it's brilliant.

Any tips for the interview and Christ's on the whole?
My main advice for interview would be to keep talking, and show your genuine enthusiasm and passion for the subject. The interviewers want to know how you think and approach things, so if you're stuck, don't be afraid to just think out loud. Similarly, in history, and arts subjects in general, having 100% in all your exams doesn't matter nearly as much as having a genuine love for your subject. I was a bit worried about applying to Cambridge with relatively weak AS scores (only only one above 90%, and that wasn't history!) but it didn't prevent me getting an offer, and even when I missed my grades in the end they still let me in on the basis of my interview. So if you're worried about not having perfect grades the easy answer is simply don't! - interviews allow you to show your love for the subject and at the end of the day that's what counts just as much, if not more, than simply excelling academically.
Finally, don't trust what you think of how your interviews went. I convinced myself I'd completely messed up one of mine, and I've since found it was my best!

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