Isobel - History
Isobel has just completed her first year of History here at Christ's College, Cambridge. From Stockport (Greater Manchester) in North West England, she did A-levels in History, Politics, Maths, and Latin.
What attracted you to your course?
I was attracted to History at Cambridge because of the huge choice of papers you could do: I think it was the only history course I saw that didn’t have any compulsory papers in the first year. This was really important to me, because History is definitely a subject where you want to find your own special interests.
How did you choose your college?
I visited the Cambridge for the university-wide open day and had a look round a few Colleges. I’d narrowed them down before I arrived: I wanted a College that was central, old (what can I say, I’m a historian!), and not too big or small. Christ’s ticks all those boxes: it’s THE most central College, is very old and pretty, and is the perfect size.
What sealed the deal with Christ’s for me was the girl who showed me around the College at the open day. She was so friendly and gave such a great impression of the College that I just really wanted to come here! The fact that I became friends with her (she's now in third year) when I came to Christ’s as a fresher shows just what a great community there is here.
"I wanted a College that was central, old (what can I say, I’m a historian!), and not too big or small."
Has Christ’s lived up to your expectations?
Definitely! You cannot overstate how great the location is - it’s right by the supermarket, shops, clubs, and lots of places to get food. The accommodation is great and the extra ‘Cambridge’ things like formal dinners with everyone who does your subject, and regular talks by leading academics, have given me a completely unforgettable experience in just a year. I’ve had such a great time here and have made some great friends so I’m so glad I chose to apply here.
I think the collegiate system is really good. It makes it so much easier to make friends and to meet lots of different people. Particularly doing History, I think it would have been more difficult to make friends without the collegiate system, because so much of your time doing academic work is spent reading and writing alone. While a community this size can feel a bit insular at times, it means you know so many more people and feel much more like you have a home when at college.
How did you find the application process?
The application process is very long and there seemed to be hurdle after hurdle as they assess you in a lot of detail. It felt quite time-consuming and tiring at the time, but it was worth it when January came and I found out that I'd got an offer. In applying to Cambridge, you do so much more work around your subject (such as extra reading and the admissions assessment), which means that you get a chance to really focus on the subject you're choosing to do a degree in for the next three years. You explore a lot of things you wouldn’t have covered in school, which can only be good.
So, I did a lot of reading! I just let myself find things I was interested in, and then I’d discover other things through that, and so on. It’s also good to practice talking about your subject and, for history, to practice looking at sources and thinking about what could be asked about them, and what you should be thinking about when you first read them. Make sure you also know about the material from your personal statement, and what you wrote in the essays you submitted!
As for the History Admissions Assessment, I did a practice of the specimen paper that was online, and I would recommend doing the past papers to get a hang of it. If there's a text to interpret, I’d say it’s important to remember, again, that they really aren’t expecting you to have any prior knowledge! If it’s on a topic you know nothing about, don’t let that faze you, and just focus on what’s in front of you and what you should be asking about the source.
"I just let myself find things I was interested in, and then I’d discover other things through that, and so on."
Was there anything that you were nervous about, in relation to the course?
Before I arrived I was slightly nervous that doing an essay every week, on a topic I'd never learnt about. I thought it could be a bit daunting, but you definitely get used to it quickly, and I found that I got into quite a routine with them. Also, you realise that you don’t have to be constantly intimidated by your supervisors - they are there to help you and if you get something wrong in an essay it’s not the end of the world!
Did you find it easy to settle in?
Yes! Before I came, I was looking forward to starting a new chapter in my life! I was worried, like most people I think, that I may not make any friends, but those fears were soon squashed! I think the fact you get to meet other years through college families, subject drinks etc. is helpful as they can help encourage you to get to know the people in your own year group. The various events in Freshers’ week also helped me get to know a lot of different people.
A highlight of Freshers Week for me would probably be Matriculation Dinner. It’s such a unique experience, where you get to have a fancy dinner with all your year and the college’s fellows, and something that I will never forget. Plus, it’s the one of the only times you’ll get free wine!
"I was worried, like most people I think, that I may not make any friends, but those fears were soon squashed!"
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions?
I knew History didn’t have many lectures, but I think I underestimated just how few there were. Lectures definitely aren’t the main way history is taught - that’s through supervisions. Supervisions can seem like quite an intimidating concept at first, particularly as history is one of the only subjects where they are still one-on-one, but I think this is really beneficial as you get an hour each week to completely lead your learning and to learn from a specialist on your subject.
Work is a lot more independent than it was at school and you have more control over what you do. It’s also less varied - my work is really just essays and reading, but I enjoy that you get more time to get stuck in in everything your studying, rather than feeling rushed as you usually do when at school.
Is the course what you expected it to be when you applied?
On the whole, yes. I would say there are fewer contact hours than I was expecting, but I’ve also found that the structure of doing weekly essays and weekly supervisions is what I was expecting.
What has been your favourite topic from this year?
The best thing is the choice of papers and the ability to choose what you want to study within those. The hardest is probably the exams- they are very time-constrained and there is a lot of writing as you have to do three essays in three hours!
My favourite topic has been my Themes and Sources module. You start themes and sources classes in the second term, and have them every other week for the second and third term. You then have to write a coursework extended essay (3000-5000 words) on something related to the topic you have studied. My topic was ‘Film and History 1929-45’ and I found it so interesting, as I think film is something that isn’t given enough attention when studying modern history. I got to watch lots of films I’d never seen before and it really made me think about the reasoning that goes into the making of films, and what a film can tell you about the period it was made in.
Have you been able to manage a reasonable balance of work and other things?
Definitely! I’d say I’m good at managing my time, but I never feel like I don’t have enough time to do things. I often find that if you have lots of things to do, you are more productive when doing each of them, rather than having lots of time to do one thing, where you can end up wasting a lot of time.
I like to work in the college library, because I feel like it’s more relaxed there and you can leave your stuff to nip back to your room, or get food and see friends. If I really need to focus I may work in my room so I’m not distracted by other people, because in the college library you’re surrounded by all your friends!
"I often find that if you have lots of things to do, you are more productive when doing each of them."
What do you do when you’re not working?
I was surprised that there is so much opportunity and time for things other than just your degree subject - I’ve gotten involved in so many new activities and there’s lots of time for socialising with friends as well. I’ve done lots of things over the past year!
I’m involved in theatre, and have produced several plays at different venues across Cambridge. I’m also part of the committee for CADS, the Christ’s Amateur Dramatic Society. I think the theatre scene at Cambridge is great because there are so many opportunities for absolute beginners to get involved - I had no experience before I came to Cambridge! I am also on the college’s JCR, which is like the student union, as Charities Officer. This has been a worthwhile role as I have organised charity events and have been able to have an influence on decision making in college for the benefit of students. In the final term of this year, I got involved with Varsity, one of Cambridge’s student newspapers, as a Senior New Correspondent. This has been a really exciting role, and I am now Deputy News Editor for the next term. Last term, I also took a course in French at the Language Centre. College will refund you half of the cost of the course, so I thought this would be something fun and useful to do when I didn’t have exams! Other than that, I like spending time with my friends, and going out to the river if the weather is nice, or just chilling and watching films. I do also like going out - even if the clubs in Cambridge are a bit dire, you can have a great time with your friends!
"I think the theatre scene at Cambridge is great because there are so many opportunities for absolute beginners to get involved - I had no experience before I came to Cambridge!"
Where have you lived this year?
I lived in New Court, and while at first it seems that the rooms are very small, I soon grew to love it! It’s great having an ensuite and being able to sit outside your window. I’ve also become really good friends with the people who were on my corridor, so I’m glad I was put there!
How do you spend your holidays?
A large part of my holidays need to be spent relaxing! But other than that, I’ve seen old friends from home and visited my new ones in places across the country. Over the Easter holiday, I had to do a bit of revision as I had exams as soon as I got back, but this wasn’t too intensive. This summer, I’ve spent a lot of it working to earn money, and in September I’m going away with my friends from college.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I’m looking forward to doing all the fun things from last year again! I’m excited to live in a house with my friends and to be able to do a year at Cambridge with the knowledge I’ve gained from this year. I’m taking papers 20 (political thought) and 22 (US history) next year and these are the papers I’m most excited about, as US history in particular is my favourite area of history.