We asked one of our History Directors of Studies, Professor Chris Briggs, a few questions...
What's the Historical Tripos?
The Cambridge History course (or 'Tripos') covers a wide range of options that encompass three millennia and much of the globe. Undergraduates who join us from 2022, will study a substantially new and significantly enhanced course, in which the first two years have been redesigned in order to enhance students' knowledge, skills and employability. This programme is divided into Part IA (the first year), Part IB (the second year), and Part II (the third year). Part IA enables you to study a broad range of different historical periods and parts of the world, and provides a basis for progression to the greater intellectual challenges of Part IB. Part II enables the study of specific problems and themes in greater depth. In Part II you also have the option of doing a dissertation (a project investigating a topic of your choice), which can replace one of the set papers. Throughout the three years, there is considerable freedom of choice, which permits you to a large extent to devise your own programme of study.
How is the Tripos taught?
The course is taught through a combination of supervisions, in which you are taught usually individually or sometimes in pairs, and lectures and classes, in which you are taught in larger groups. Supervisions are held in the Colleges whereas lectures and classes are generally held in the History Faculty.
Your Director of Studies acts as your academic mentor throughout the degree, and will provide guidance when you are choosing which papers you wish to study.
Why is Selwyn a good place to study history?
We have several Teaching Fellows at Selwyn (one of whom would act as your Director of Studies), which means that we can teach a range of options within the College. The College Library has a large History section. There is an active student-led History Society. We are also located right next door to the History Faculty building which is where lectures and classes take place and it is also where the Seeley Library (the History subject library for Cambridge University) is located. The Cambridge University Library is also only five minutes’ walk from Selwyn.
The subject at Selwyn
As well as being the College closest to the History Faculty, History is one of Selwyn's strongest subjects, and Selwyn historians have a fine reputation in the Faculty. The heart of Selwyn History teaching is a weekly supervision. We are keen to maintain the tradition of one teacher to one pupil, and tailor supervisions to students’ individual needs. We also run regular year-group seminars on general historical topics. Our joint courses with Politics and with a Modern Language give students different ways to study history at Selwyn in close contact with those studying the History course. (See the separate information pages.)
We are keen to help students to make the most of the great flexibility and variety that the Cambridge course offers. Two things distinguish Selwyn History. First, we encourage undergraduates to range widely in their choice of courses in the first two years of the degree, and avoid seeking to repeat their sixth form syllabus in the first two terms. The second distinctive feature is the positive encouragement we give to those wishing to undertake a dissertation in Part II. This is a piece of extended research and writing, up to fifteen thousand words in length. Selwyn is keen to assist students to prepare dissertations and provides some financial assistance towards the cost of travel and research.
There is a thriving History Society that organises a variety of events, including speaker meetings. This brings together the whole community of postgraduate History students and Fellows as well as History undergraduates. The Master of the College, who himself studied History as an undergraduate, also regularly hosts visiting speakers who address students and Faculty on topics that include historical interest. The College Library holds over 40,000 books, and in the large history section you will find books of central importance to your course. The holdings are continually updated.
The College hosts the prestigious annual Ramsay-Murray Lecture. This is usually on a historical topic. Speakers have included Sir Keith Thomas, Sir Michael Howard, Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson, Sir Ian Kershaw, Sir David Cannadine, Quentin Skinner and Mark Mazower. In 2020 Trevor Phillips spoke about “The New Normal: Diversity, Difference and Discord”. In 2021, Professor Rana Mitter spoke on “Where China Goes Next”.
The Teaching Fellows
Selwyn has several History Fellows and can therefore provide supervisions on many subjects in College as well as being in a strong position to exchange teaching with other Colleges. Dr Mike Sewell specialises in modern American history. Dr David Smith specialises in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century British and European history. Professor Christopher Briggs is an Associate Professor in Medieval British Social and Economic History. Dr Robert Lee is an Assistant Professor in American History. Dr Tom Smith is the Keasbey Research Fellow in American Studies, and Dr Nicole Hartwell is the National Army Museum Research Fellow in Indian Military History.
Qualities we are looking for
We are looking for ambitious and hard-working students who relish a challenge and seek to excel. Study at University is very different from work at school. If you read History at Cambridge, you will be expected to organise your own routine of study.
Your supervisors will discuss a your work with you regularly, and your Director of Studies will keep a close eye on your progress, but there will be no one standing over you organising your daily timetable for you. Only those with the deepest commitment to History will have the motivation and stamina necessary to cope with the course, and to continue to improve their skills.
We look for an ability to excel in thinking and writing about history. We seek signs of a genuine curiosity about the past and are on the look-out for independent-minded candidates. A talent for historical analysis is essential, as is a voracious appetite for historical reading. Selwyn has recently produced a number of young scholars who have graduated at or near the top of the University Class List, and have won University as well as College Prizes for excellence as well as History Prizes. Many of our students have gone on to undertake postgraduate study in History or other subjects, where they have again excelled.
If you apply to us you will be asked to submit two pieces of recent and marked essays from your sixth form course, which will be used as a basis for part of the discussion in each of the interviews (see below). These should not be written especially for the occasion and should be on a subject which has especially interested and excited you, and which you would like to talk about at interview. They may be a timed essays, but should not be work based on stimulus materials (from documents modules).
Students who are invited for interview are also asked to take a written assessment. You do not need to register for this assessment as it will be organised automatically by the College if you are invited for interview.
All candidates will have two interviews. In each of the interviews you will be asked questions about one of the two pieces of written work which you are asked to submit in advance of the interview. We will choose a different piece for each interview. The purpose of this exercise is to enable applicants to discuss historical topics of their own choosing. We will be looking particularly at your capacity to develop and sustain an argument, to synthesise material, and to respond intelligently to new lines of enquiry.
Each of the interviews will then move on to different areas. In one, you will be asked questions that explore some of your wider historical interests and your reading in and around your current courses. You will also be asked some questions arising from your personal statement. In the other interview, you will be shown an item, such as an image, a graph or table containing data, a map, or perhaps a very short piece of text. The interviewers will give you some time to think about and respond to this material, and will then use it as the starting point for a discussion. The aim of this exercise is to assess your capacity to reflect on historical evidence and methods.