How do Super-curricular Activities help applicants to top Universities?
Anybody can say that they have a passion for history and many people do. Most of us are interested in some aspect of the past, whether we are keen students of local history or the traditions associated with our favourite sport, or fascinated by a particular figure whom we have encountered in a book or historical drama on TV. That said, it takes more than this relatively common appreciation of history to carry a student through several years of challenging study for a History degree. It is for this reason, and others explored below, that super-curricular activities are so beneficial to students’ preparations and applications to study History at top universities.
Whether it is reading an article on the lives of women in Maoist China, or listening to a podcast or lecture on Viking raids, super-curricular activities are hard proof that you have a genuine interest in History as an academic subject. All those who want to do well in the History A-Level will need to engage closely with the content selected by the exam board with which they study. Not all of these students will go on to study History at university.
To secure a place on a History degree course at a top university like Oxford or Cambridge you will need to prove that you are willing to go beyond the boundaries of your studies at school. A university course in History is, essentially, three years (or, in Scotland, four years) of reading, writing and discussing the past. By pursuing your interests in history through super-curricular activities, you demonstrate that you are both willing and able to meet the demands of such a course, engaging thoughtfully with historical material in your own free time.
To do this, you do not need to have completed an internship at the British Museum or read every page of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the time you set up your UCAS profile (though, of course, you can if you wish!)
For both your personal statement and any interviews or assessments that you might have, the key thing is to have evidence that you have pursued your interests in history in a considered and independent way.
Your interests might have been sparked by your studies at school, but universities want to see you going beyond this, doing further reading and covering fresh ground.
Perhaps you were intrigued by studying the Cold War conflicts in Asia in the early twentieth century and went on to complete an online course, or MOOC, on similar clashes between the Superpowers in the Middle East. Or maybe you were intrigued by the negative reputation of a particular Ottoman sultan your teacher discussed and sought out extra reading and podcasts by specialist historians to find out if it was deserved. That said, super-curricular activities can also be related to historical interests that have nothing to do with your A-Level course.
Have you always wanted to know more about music in Ancient Egypt or why religion brought people to blows in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Super-curricular activities are the perfect excuse means of satisfying your curiosity.
Some students also pursue their interests in broader themes that traverse historical periods, looking, for example, at the theme of women and power through figures from medieval queens to modern Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher.
Whatever topic or theme you choose to engage with in your super-curricular activities, it is important that you do so thoughtfully, considering what intrigues you about the topic or theme, what questions you are exploring and what activity might help you to develop your understanding.
For both the personal statement and university interviews, depth of knowledge and considered engagement with the subject is key, so think carefully about what you are reading, listening to and seeing, as well as how it is expanding your understanding. This will help you to use your experiences and knowledge to demonstrate the skills of critical and independent thinking and argument that top universities are looking for. Along with curiosity and persistence, practice developing coherent arguments independently is good preparation for study at university, where students are often given broad essay questions and expected to respond by exploring reading lists for the course.
Types of History Super-Curricular Activities
The first and most important thing to do is to establish where your own interests lie. In order to prove that you have a genuine interest in history, you should focus on topics and themes that really inspire and excite you, rather than what you think will impress admissions tutors. Even for the most enthusiastic students of History, it can be difficult to pin down favourite historical topics and themes. Studying an array of topics at GCSE and A-Level, many students struggle to verbalise precisely what intrigues them most. If you experience this, do not despair. Try writing down the topics or ideas that you have studied that interested you the most, then step back and see if there is anything that connects them. At first, Medieval medicine and the Industrial Revolution might seem worlds apart. Look closer, however, and you may notice that both topics touch upon the way in which science and technology have transformed our lives. Likewise, Louis XIV, the Sun King, and Stalin, the Generalissimus, may seem to have very little in common. However, both created (and borrowed) mythologies to sustain their authority. Sometimes it can be tricky to see links like this, particularly when discussing your own studies and interests. If you find it challenging, ask a parent or even a teacher or tutor for their view. Looking with fresh eyes, they might see the bigger picture and the connections more easily.
Teachers and tutors are also a great source for finding means of exploring these topics and concepts. Whether it is the latest book on the Renaissance, focusing on the role of women, or a history podcast featuring the most significant experts on the the Great Crash, those who spend their lives teaching History can often recommend the most valuable resources, or at least the places where you might find them. Museums, galleries and historical sites are also valuable founts of inspiration and resources. Whilst trips to such places can help you to develop and even discover your interests, even a visit to their websites could lead you to information, images and videos, as well as information on events, prizes and internship schemes. The websites of some major historical archives often provide access to digitised versions of some of their most treasured primary sources and others have online videos of lectures by experts. Most major and independent book shops will also be able to point you to the best titles based on your interests.
In all of this, remember to focus on quality not quantity, prioritising resources created by professional historians and historical institutions and thinking carefully as you go. Whether you are putting together your personal statement or sitting in a university interview, you will thank yourself for the time you spent developing your understanding and skills with a handful of meaningful activities. Rushing through a checklist of tasks that you assume will impress admissions tutors does not pay off. It is also much less fun than exploring the topics and questions that made you want to study History in the first place.
Recommended History Books and Magazines
As stressed above, the best books you can read are those that interest you the most. To find recent texts and classics on individual topics and themes, explore your local bookshop or the relevant sub-sections of websites like Amazon and Blackwell’s.
Many historians have websites listing their publications or an Amazon author page, which can help you to identify books by experts you hear on podcasts or giving lectures.
Some texts and books that explore different approaches to History and its significance more broadly are:
John H. Arnold, History. A Very Short Introduction (2000)
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (1949)
Peter E. Gordon, ‘Why Historical Analogy Maters’, The New York Review (2020):
Lynn Hunt, History: Why It Matters (2018)
Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (2012)
Recommended History Podcasts
History Hit (general podcast and various podcasts focusing on different periods)
Recommended History Websites
HAT, HAA and History University Entrance Tuition
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for a HAT, HAA or university entrance tutor for History. Our tutors have extensive experience with the history admissions tests, both through having successfully sat the tests and then gone on to tutor it.