Laura wrote this at the end of her first year studying History. She is from Bradford, West Yorkshire, and took A-Levels in History, Spanish and Psychology, as well as an Extended Project Qualification.
What attracted you to your course?
I decided to apply to university as I was thoroughly enjoying studying A-levels, and I felt that both the academic advancement and social life at university would suit and challenge me. I applied to study History degrees and History with Spanish degrees at multiple universities. This was because I loved both my History and Spanish A-levels, and I could see myself studying these subjects for at least another three years. I also attended university open days and did additional reading, research and activities that went beyond my school assignments. Mainly, I read the work of historians, watched documentaries, and attended an archaeological dig. All this additional insight into History allowed me to further understand what academic History could be like, and reassured me that I was passionate enough about these subjects to devote time to them.
One of the main reasons I applied to the University of Cambridge was that the History course would allow me to cover a large range of History, in terms of both place and time. I was also drawn to the application process of the University of Cambridge, as the idea that I could express my interest and knowledge in these subjects within the context of an interview highly appealed to me.
Was there anything that you were nervous about, in relation to the course?
I was nervous about studying History at university. This was especially as I am a first generation student, and so myself and my family did not fully understand what careers I could use a non-vocational qualification such as a history degree for. I eased these nerves by researching on university websites what History graduates could do. During the university application period, I also realised that I had no real sense of what career I would enjoy. Consequently, I decided to choose a degree that I was passionate about in the hope that this would open doors to careers I would therefore also be passionate about.
I was also nervous about whether I would be the “right” student to undertake this course, but I learned to trust that the admissions teams would only select students who were well-suited. This was proven correct when the Christ’s admissions team offered me a place on the History course, when I had originally applied for the History and Modern Languages (Spanish) course*. Even though I had not applied for the pure History course, after studying it at Cambridge for a year, I now realise that it is the most suitable course for me personally. I have enjoyed studying History as my degree but still being able to explore and practise Spanish alongside my academic studies.
Why did you apply to Christ's?
I applied to Christ’s for multiple reasons. I started the college choice process using the University of Cambridge website to find the official list of all the Cambridge Colleges. Then, I created a list of criteria that was important to me. This list included the colleges having: a location close to the centre of the city, decent cooking facilities, a relatively low rent, and being a historic college. This then left me with a small number of colleges to choose between. I eventually decided on Christ’s as I found it (and still find it!) to be one of the most visually stunning colleges and I just had a hunch that it would be the right college for me.
There is definitely no correct way to choose a college and every student that I’ve met at Cambridge has mostly said that they were very glad that they picked, or were pooled to, their college!
Has Christ's lived up to your expectations?
Christ’s has definitely exceeded my expectations. I do not think that walking through the 16th Century First court, or the gorgeous Fellows’ Garden, could ever get old! The people at Christ’s have all been accommodating, and the college has a thriving social scene. I was intimated a little when I first arrived at Christ’s, but after a year in college, I have started to see it as my home away from home.
I have found the collegiate system to be incredibly helpful in helping me to transition from secondary school to university life. My college offers me a place within the university that feels like my home and so it was definitely a secure base to move out from at the start of my life at university. The collegiate system also doesn’t limit you socially either. I have managed to find friends both within my college and outside of it. I also have friends both on the History course, and friends who are studying different degrees.
How did you find the application process?
Cambridge was one of the universities that I applied to for History and Spanish as a joint degree. I did a pre-interview admissions test for Spanish and a Spanish interview, alongside a History interview. For my application to study History and Spanish at Christ’s, I didn’t have to sit an admissions test in the first stage of the application (i.e., when I sent off my personal statement in October and completed the SAQ). It was only once I was invited to an interview that I was sent information about an admissions test and my two interviews. My pre-interview assessment was conducted at my school in exam conditions.
Cambridge usually asks you to do two interviews, which are generally conducted by two different sets of academics. For me, these interviews were online and lasted roughly 30 minutes each. The way these interviews are conducted may be different for each individual, but some things that might happen in history interviews are: questions about your personal statement, questions about why you applied to study the subject, questions on general themes and topics within the subject, and being asked to read and respond to a stimulus such as a an extract from a historical source. It was important to remember that the interviewers were not trying to catch me out, but were trying to get the best out of me. This is why interviews often get shaped by each individual and therefore each Cambridge interview is different. I also found that some of the questions I was asked were about things I hadn’t studied before, which gave me the chance to show how I responded to new ideas.
I was nervous about the application process but I found that the university and college websites and admission teams were great places to find out more information about each stage of the application process.
Was the interview what you expected it to be?
For me, both my interviews were unusual but enjoyable. Before my interviews started I had decided that I would try to make the most of having the chance to discuss subjects I was passionate about with academics who had worked in those fields, and I became quite enthralled in our conversations.
There were questions I thought I did well in, and others not so much. I found that there was not much point in speculating about how I performed after my interviews, as it is hard to know what the interviewers thought of you.
If you interviewed online, what was this like?
Whilst I can’t comment on the experience of an in person Cambridge interview, as my interview was online, I did enjoy the online interview that I attended. I was slightly worried about my home internet connection, but the interviewers were very accommodating of anything that was beyond my control.
I found that once the interview had begun, I forgot my surroundings as I focused on considering the questions that the interviewers were asking me. I also took advantage of the fact that I was being interviewed on my laptop at home, to relax and forget about my first interview before it was time for my second interview. I’m sure that there are advantages and differences to both an in person and online interview, and I don’t regret that my interview took place online.
How did you prepare for your interview?
In order to prepare for my interview, the main thing I did was practise speaking about history to my friends and family. This helped me to feel more at ease within the context of an interview, and reminded me of why I was interested in taking my History A-level further. I also tried to do reading and activities which took me beyond my A-level. This helped me to understand the wider field of historical study, and meant I had practised formulating conclusions on historical material. It also gave me more specific examples to use when making my own arguments.
In terms of wider reading, I did read and listen to about five different sources before applying to Cambridge. I would advise future students applying to Cambridge to not stress about trying to do extensive extra reading, but it is nice to be able to show that you enjoy your subject enough to want to partake in it outside of what you have had to do for A-level. I also immersed myself in history in different ways too. For instance, I joined my school’s History Society and I volunteered on an archaeological dig.
My personal advice is to pick a few books/articles/podcasts that you think you’ll enjoy and just read them when you fancy. If you decide to put books, articles or podcasts in your personal statement or mention them in an interview, then just make sure that you have actually engaged critically with the material and that you have formulated a few of your own opinions on it.
I found both the Radio 4 In Our Time Podcast and history documentaries on BBC iPlayer as great resources for expanding my historical awareness. I would particularly recommend the BBC programme Civilizations. I also found that the back of my A-Level history textbook contained a further readings list which named many of the Historians’ works that helped to inform the textbook. From this, I decided to read Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy (1996). Further, in simply just reading my local paper, I found out about a local History group. After taking the initiative to email the founders of this group, I am now a member of this local history society. With this society, I have helped to research local history and to spread this research at local events, including at a summer fete. I would therefore recommend those applying to university to keep an eye out for opportunities and to try to grab them where possible.
Moreover, I built upon my interests in Spanish language and culture by reading the Spanish online newspaper El Mundo in order to help me to keep up to date with current affairs in the Hispanic World. I also took time to read Spanish literature, particularly the poems of Federico García Lorca.
How did you get involved in archaeological digs?
The first archaeological dig that I took part in was a dig in North Yorkshire in 2019. This dig was with the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group , a local history and archaeological group made up of mostly volunteers. I found this dig by simply googling local archaeological digs and hoping that I could find one to attend. I also emailed my secondary school teachers to ask if they knew about any local digs. This dig was a fantastic introduction to archaeology, the volunteers taught me how to work on an excavation site and the experience made me want to be part of more digs in the future. I spent the day on this dig uncovering Romano-British artefacts such as pottery, honing stones and charcoal; and the walls of a former Roman trading shop. In my opinion, the coolest thing that we found on this excavation site was a coin that is estimated to be from around 200AD!
I went on another dig in 2021, this time at Aldborough. This dig had been advertised in my school notice bulletin, and so I applied to be a volunteer. This was coordinated by The Friends of Roman Aldborough society and Professor Martin Millett, Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. As well as being involved in the digging process, I was also given the chance to take part in other areas of an excavation; this included cleaning the objects found in the dig and labelling them clearly for further analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed this dig and the two most fascinating items I found was a piece of a Romano-British pot and an animal jaw with a tooth still attached to it! I would recommend everyone to try an archaeological dig at some point and they can be especially fun for those interested in history. For me, being on an excavation site brought history to life!
How did you prepare for your admissions assessment?
I took the admissions assessment for History and Modern Languages, which required me to discuss a text in detail in Spanish. In order to practise for this, I brushed up on my Spanish knowledge and skills and did some practice assessments. However, as the admissions assessments and interviews took place during my A-level studies, it was important to me that I divided my time effectively between my studies and my Cambridge Application. I also realised after that, whilst I could do things to prepare for my interviews and assessments, it was not something I could revise for in the same way I had done for previous school exams.
What specific advice would you give prospective applicants?
I would say that it is important to remember that Cambridge considers applications holistically, which means there is no greater emphasis on any specific part of your application. Therefore, it appears to me that you do not have to give a perfect interview, or a perfect admissions test, in order to receive an offer. Each part of your application including predicted grades, your personal statement, interview and assessments will be considered together.
I believe that there is also no such thing as a ‘perfect Cambridge applicant’, and so, for instance, if you perform better in the interview rather than the assessment, this could still be more than enough for you to receive an offer. I have found that it is mostly about what makes you unique and passionate about your subject, rather than perfection.
Before coming to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
I was definitely most worried about whether I was “good enough” to be a Cambridge student and whether I would fit in with everyone else. I do find that I sometimes have different experiences and opinions to other Cambridge students, but I have realised that this is what makes me able to have my own perspective and something that helps me stand out as a Cambridge student, rather than something that makes me “not good enough”.
When I arrived at Cambridge, I did and still do sometimes feel imposter syndrome, but it is something that I’ve learnt most people, if not everyone, feels at some point for different reasons.
Finding my place at the university, such as through societies, definitely helped with this as well as reminding myself that I wouldn’t have been able to apply to Cambridge and get in if I wasn't good enough.
What helped you to settle in?
I found it quite easy to settle in, which surprised me. At the beginning of the year, my "college parents" and "subject sibling" were extremely helpful. My college parents, two second year Christ’s students who had been matched with three college freshers, arranged a meet up so that me and my college siblings could meet each other and talk with older students. My subject sibling, who is a second year Christ’s Historian, met up with me for a walk, which enabled me to ask them all the questions I had about starting a History degree at Cambridge.
I think settling into Cambridge was also helped by the many Fresher’s week events which included talks by college and college mixer events (such as one where all the fresher’s met each other and could choose to dress up as something which began with the first letter of our name – I went as a lime). I also encouraged myself to go outside of my comfort zone and speak to as many different people as I could, especially during Fresher’s week, and to attend as many events and societies that appealed to me and that I was able to attend.
For me, Fresher’s week was a very hectic week where I met so many new people, became part of the college community and learnt a lot of new Cambridge specific terminology. However, it was definitely a fun and unique experience and I met so many people who I am still in contact with now. My favourite memory of the week is when I walked into the Christ’s common room and was immediately asked to join in and play a board game with some other freshers. I was certainly surprised and reassured by how quickly I settled into the weird and wonderful world that is Cambridge!
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions?
I really enjoyed starting my lectures and supervisions. In my first few lectures, I tried to write down everything that was said. However, after the first few weeks I worked out that it is more beneficial for me to write down the main ideas that the lecturers were presenting. I also didn’t start the year with a good filing system, which I soon changed by creating specific folders for lecture and supervision notes and naming my documents clearly.
For supervisions (small group teaching, in History you need to write an essay beforehand), my subject sibling advised me that everyone’s first essays aren’t their best work, and that the History degree is three years for a reason. With this in mind, I tried to have fun with my first supervision essays and used each one to explore different writing techniques and research methods, until I had found the best studying methods for myself. I think that by not putting too much pressure on myself, I was able to learn more from my first supervisions and essays.
Having read back my first essays and comparing them to those at the end of my first year, I can see how much I’ve grown throughout the year. I didn’t really know what to expect with my first lectures and supervisions, but they soon became something I was used to and part of my regular university routine.
How is your work now different from what it was like at school?
The main difference I have noticed between my work now and my work at school is that I am now more independent in terms of what I study, when I study and how I study.
As part of my History degree, I can choose to study topics from a wide range of option modules (and these are changing all the time!). I have a broad interest in History and therefore I chose to take modules spanning many time periods and places. In the three terms of my first year (there are 3 terms in the Cambridge academic year: Michaelmas, Lent and Easter), I chose to focus on Paper 4: British Political History 1485-1714, Paper 18: European History since 1890 and Paper 9: British Economic and Social history, c.1500-1750.
I had to organise my time effectively in order to read, write and edit a weekly essay and to attend various lectures. I could decide how much time I wanted to spend on each activity and how I wanted to conduct the research for my essays. This different approach to learning has enabled me to become a more independent and confident student, and I feel that my historical skills have benefitted from having more academic freedom. Looking back over the year, I would say that this freedom is the best and hardest thing about my course, but I am certainly glad for the challenge and development it evokes.
What has been your favourite topic from this year and why?
My favourite subject this year has been the early modern history topics of Papers 4 and 9. Before arriving at Cambridge, I was almost certain that I would thoroughly enjoy the modern European History of Paper 18. This is because modern history is a particular interest of mine, which I studied in depth at A-level.
However, the early modern history papers were more of a gamble and so I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed these topics as much as the modern history topics. A specific highlight of the early modern papers was studying James I of England, as the shift from his style of kingship when he was James VI of Scotland, to his reign as James I of England was fascinating. I would definitely encourage future history students to step out of their historical comfort zone in order to get a sense of other historical periods and places.
What does your timetable look like?
My general working week consists mainly of reading academic work on a specific topic within the paper I am focusing on that term. For instance, in one particular week at Cambridge, I spent the first half of the week reading extracts from roughly ten historians’ writings (such as books, historical journals and book reviews) discussing Henry VIII’s Religious Reformation. I then spent the second half of the week writing an essay on that particular Henry VIII topic. At the end of my week, once I have used the readings to answer and submit my work, I have one supervision.
A history supervision at Cambridge is generally where you have the chance to spend about an hour with an expert in the particular topic you have been working on that week. In my supervisions, we spend time chatting about my week’s readings and discussing my essay. I get the chance to receive feedback on my essay and to ask any questions that arose during my reading. My supervisor also asks me questions to encourage me to think about the reading differently or to consider another area within that topic that I hadn’t come across in my reading. I really enjoy these supervisions as they help me to consolidate the work I’ve done all week and to speak with someone who is really passionate about the topic I’ve just researched. I tend to spend around 5-7 hours each day working on the weekly essay. Additionally, there are optional lectures that I can go to. I tend to try to go to most of the lectures, focusing on those lectures which correlate to the topics I have decided to write essays on. For instance, in this particular week, I watched a lecture on Henry VIII’s Religious Reformation, as well as a few other lectures on different topics.
This might seem like a lot, but I am finding it manageable, and I am still able to enjoy general university life. At Cambridge, there are many people who can give you tips on your work, time management and general studying advice. It is also extremely satisfying to submit an essay that you have spent an entire week researching and writing.
How do you manage your workload?
I am really enjoying being a student at Cambridge and I am certainly able to balance my workload with other responsibilities and hobbies. I have found that keeping a diary for important deadlines has aided me to keep on track with my work. Scheduling in other responsibilities, societies and time with friends has also been a great motivator to complete work early.
Apart from my academic work, I am involved with various societies, including the Model United Nations Society, Sidney Sussex Choir (you can also find out more about Christ's choir here) and the University language swap. There are so many societies that it is almost guaranteed that everyone can find at least one they would like to join! I also have joined the Christ’s JCR, which is like the student council for my college. I am the Class Act Officer on the Christ’s JCR. As Class Act Officer, I represent and support students who self-identify as being class act. Class Act generally refers to students who have experienced social, educational, cultural or economic disadvantage, including, but not being limited to being working-class, low income, first generation, state comprehensive school educated, care experienced or estranged. There are many different roles on the JCR, including general roles such as President and Secretary, and inclusion and diversity roles such as Women’s and Ethnic Diversity Officers. The JCR meets multiple times each term and works together to help Christ’s students.
I find that I work my best when I balance my studies with other activities. I have definitely had to work hard at Cambridge, but the work is enjoyable, and I have certainly managed to thoroughly enjoy my first year at university too!
Where do you typically like to work?
I generally enjoy working in my own room, as my personal preference is to study in a familiar, quiet and relaxed place. However, I have worked in many libraries in Cambridge, notably the Christ’s library, History library and University Library. I find all of these libraries great spaces to work! I am aiming to study in more cafés next year, as I find that having various work areas helps make studying more interesting.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about the College?
My favourite thing about college is that it is the perfect size to be able to recognise pretty much everyone you walk past. This means that it didn’t take long for college to feel really familiar. I also love the layout of college, as the college becomes more modern as you walk through it, with First Court being the oldest area of college all the way to the most modern New Court. My least favourite thing about college is that my in-college kitchen doesn’t have an oven or freezer. Whilst this proved a challenge at first, I have enjoyed creating recipes that don’t require this equipment and have definitely managed to cook interesting and sufficient meals for myself.
What have you enjoyed most about life at Christ's this year?
I have loved my first year at Christ’s, with the highlight being spending the last day of term with my college friends. We walked around the City of Cambridge, had lunch in one of the many fantastic restaurants and ended up sat in Christ’s Third Court in the evening. I had been slightly worried about making close friends at university and so it was amazing that in just one year I have managed to make connections with so many amazing people!
What do you do when you're not working?
When I’m not working, I enjoy being part of societies including the Model United Nations Society. I also enjoy spending time in the City of Cambridge itself, such as going for long walks along the River Cam with friends and trying out all the different cafés and restaurants. I also enjoy doing outreach work to help potential students from different backgrounds to understand the Oxbridge, and general university, application processes. For instance, I am a CAMbassador and a mentor on the Cambridge University Shadowing Scheme.
Where have you lived this year?
I lived in the P&Q building in college, which is located in the Christ’s car park, just behind Third Court. This building resembles a large house. I found my room to be spacious and pretty, and a great area to both study and live. I especially enjoyed the Q Kitchen (which I believe is the largest kitchen in college), as I enjoy cooking. Whilst the P&Q building isn’t as grand or as large as some of the other Christ’s accommodation buildings, I think it has its own quirks and charms.
How do you spend your holidays?
I spend all my holidays at home in West Yorkshire. I spend the holidays doing a mixture of university work, being employed in part-time work and having a well deserved relaxing break.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I’m really looking forward to another exciting, interesting and challenging year in Cambridge. I am definitely wanting to try out more societies and to make more memories with my university friends. I am also eager to get stuck back in with my History course and to build upon the skills I learnt last year.
I have chosen my papers for next year, which will be Papers 23 and 12, which focus on World History since 1914 and European History 776 B.C. - A.D. 69. These are areas which I have never specifically focused on before in my history studies, and so I am fascinated to see what I can learn from these periods. It will be especially interesting to see how the World History since 1914 paper changes my outlook on my previous learning whilst studying European History since 1914.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.