A Day in the Life of a History Student

13 Jun, 2024 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge, Humanities Articles

It’s been over three years since I first sent my UCAS application off to Oxford University, meeting the early submission deadline by a slither and breathing a sigh of relief. Now, as a third-year History finalist on the cusp of exams, I can safely say that these (almost) three years have been extraordinary, if trying at times.

Though there are many things to consider when deciding where to do a History degree, Oxford University’s History course allows for study of a range of topics I’d never considered before. It of course has its restrictions and limitations as well. While it is a distinct institution – being a collegiate university with no shortage of quirks! – and a rather demanding one, the University of Oxford offers a History degree that’s relatively mouldable. 

There are plenty of opportunities to engage in pre-existing historical interests and to discover newfound academic and personal passions. The largely self-guided method of study is not only academically enriching, but also encourages valuable life skills like proactiveness, critical thinking and good time management. 

There’s no template for a day in the life of an Oxford History student; the variety of people, topics and interests are rich and expansive, but I will try to capture my own experiences as best as possible.

Please note: the Oxford Scholastica Academy has no official link with the University of Oxford.

Everyday Study

A large proportion of time when undertaking a History degree at any university will be spent searching for and reading books and articles. A lot of people I’ve known at Oxford have taken a nine to five approach with their work, but I generally have a more fluid style of working to allow for spontaneity if I were to stumble upon a friend or budding opportunity lurking in the cloisters. Structuring your time and reading is largely the student’s responsibility.

Though my study schedule is generally flexible, there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to have a comfortable amount of time to write weekly tutorial essays. Though readings can be tough to get your head around, reading lists usually contain a wide variety of texts and generally there’ll be something to pique your interest, even if the topic isn’t your favourite. 

You also have the freedom to do a bit of detective work and find some relevant texts not on the reading list that may be interesting to you. I like to try and take an interdisciplinary approach to questions, especially since I have a particular interest in gender history.  

Oxford city is home to study spaces galore. Though prestigious and vast libraries are intimidating for me, I found it useful to embark on a tour of all the Oxford libraries I could access in my first year with some friends. It helped me to understand what I needed in a study environment, and familiarise myself with the layout of spaces I’d need to scour for the right reference numbers. Finding copies of texts can be logistically challenging, but I found that many of my texts were available online. 

Inside one of the college libraries at Oxford University

History has comparatively few contact hours. In a week, I’d generally have at most two tutorials and at most two (but usually one) essays. We also have classes, though these usually don’t come in until second and third year. These are structured more like seminars. The introduction of classes was daunting for me as someone who avoids public speaking like the plague and who enjoys the atmosphere of a one-on-one or two-on-one tutorial, but they’re a great opportunity to discuss and expand your thoughts and understanding of a topic, and all input is greatly valued. 

History lectures aren’t particularly numerous. I never had more than two in any given week, but they are fascinating. Attendance usually declines after the first few weeks of a term, but even if a lecture doesn’t seem all that relevant, it may spark a new fascination. It isn’t every day you get to hear about the significance of facial hair in 19th and 20th century military masculinity (a lecture I attended in my second year). Attending lectures is a valuable part of the university experience, even if it isn’t explicitly for your current paper – I attended a few cool looking ones purely for fun.

Exams

As first year draws to a close, preliminary examinations (or prelims) loom overhead as a final waypoint before you begin final school in second year. Whilst exam periods will always be a stressful time no matter how well you’ve prepared, it’s important to note that you aren’t just thrown in at the deep end in Trinity (third term). Throughout the year, you’ll have mock exams or collections papers at the beginning of terms. Though many, including myself, grumble about them, they’re a good opportunity to weigh up the exam format and your specific way of tackling it. They can also act as excellent revision material. 

During exams, I could always count on one of my friends being within a couple aisles’ distance if I needed them, and them with me. Exam season in Oxford carries with it a camaraderie that can be a lifeline under pressure.  

Finding your revision technique can be difficult. I found that I didn’t often have the time to construct the elaborate revision materials I would pride myself on in sixth form, but I was realistic with the time I could spend on creating material, and made sure to try things out early on so I wasn’t too overwhelmed when the time inevitably came. 

Prelims are usually in eighth and ninth week of third term and for History are usually in-person and hand-written. I, however, had a very interesting experience with prelims. I contracted Covid in the middle of my exams and had to miss one entirely and take another online. A catastrophic experience in a time of high stress, but one the university dealt with efficiently. This is to say the university was supportive in my time of academic need.

Life Beyond Academics

Oxford students also have ample opportunity for fun and games. The collegiate structure really facilitates getting to know an array of characters, and my time at Queen’s College has more than proven that to me.

Amongst the myths of the haunted bathtub, the chatter of the college beer cellar, or the seemingly randomly timed choral singing drifting in from the chapel, there are plenty of things to do. I haven’t engaged solidly with societies in my time at Oxford, but there are plenty of them on both a college and university level and often you don’t need to be a dedicated member to attend the odd event. 

Two teens dancing together at Oxford Scholastica's boat ball

I’ve attended special balls and dinners, engaged with eccentric University traditions, created little art pieces, and sculpted myself a clay fish of dubious structural integrity. I’ve dabbled in submitting poetry to student magazines and discovered I’m not very good at punting, but I spend most of my free time either with friends in various places or creating art for myself.

The city itself also has plenty of exciting refuges from work. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Ashmolean Museum practising sketching and enjoying the ambiance of the city’s variety of coffee shops and independent pubs. Though there’s a lot of work to do, I still have several volumes worth of fun memories and a cherished group of friends.

Studying for a degree at the University of Oxford is a vibrant, if often stressful, experience containing ample opportunity to engage with different academic topics, people and activities!

Ziden

By Ziden Ramage

Ziden is a current third-year student at the University of Oxford studying BA History. His main academic interests are early modern and 18th-century queer and gender history, currently specialising in the history of masculinity. He is also interested in art, design and creative writing.

Experience the city of Oxford this summer!

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