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The Cambridge Course

From Republican Rome to contemporary India, from Plato and Aristotle to Obama and Cameron: it’s your choice.

Across centuries and continents

royal oak smallCambridge has one of the largest and best history departments in the world and the course we offer reflects this quality and breadth of interest. We can offer you a huge range of options that span two millennia and circle the globe. Our course also reflects the rich diversity of modern historical writing, with cultural and social history figuring as prominently as politics and economic development. In fact, you will have the opportunity to investigate practically any period or aspect of history that interests you.

At the same time, our course is highly focused in its objectives. It will equip you with a broad range of historical knowledge and understanding. It will teach you to evaluate critically the significance and usefulness of primary and secondary material. It aims to instil in you the confidence to undertake self-directed learning: To define your own questions and set your own goals. And it emphasises the importance of assembling, organising and presenting your ideas, clearly and coherently. Studying history will provide you with a multifaceted insight into human experience and help you to make sense of a complex, globalising world.

What are we looking for?

There is no such thing as an ‘identikit historian’ and so there is no simple answer to this question. 

Apart from history, you do not need any particular subjects at A' level. A foreign language is certainly useful but not necessary. However, you should enjoy making analytical judgements, be able to think laterally, discriminate critically, enjoy reading, and have a burning curiosity about the past.

If you are a mature student, go here for more information about requirements for study at Cambridge:

What are we offering?

One of our professors recently won a prestigious national prize for his book on Nazi Germany. Another has just written a biography of the early medieval emperor, Charlemagne, whilst two others have recently published work on war and decolonisation in Southeast Asia. You might be taught by any or all of these people.

Cambridge prides itself on being a teaching university, and none of its professors, readers or lecturers is considered as being ‘too exalted to teach’. So the Faculty’s major resource is this international body of experts, numbering about 90. We achieved the top rating in the most recent research assessment of all university history departments in the UK and outstanding teaching ratings in surveys by the UK national press.

Our other great strength is the Seeley Library, one of the largest student libraries dedicated to history in the world, recently rewired for full internet access. Nearby is the University Library, which is unique among copyright libraries in storing most of its volumes on open shelves, available to undergraduates. In short, finding the right book is rarely a problem.

There are other benefits to studying here. Undergraduate historians are encouraged to embark or brush up on foreign languages, and have access to both the University Language Centre and specialist language teaching. And most Colleges have travel grants for students who wish to study the history of another country or who are doing research for their dissertation.

Specialist teaching and informal interaction

Teaching is spread between the Faculty and the Colleges. The Faculty devises the options, sets the examinations and provides lectures to cover course content. On average, you attend eight to ten lectures each week. Themes and Sources, in Part I, and Special Subjects, in Part II, are taught through Faculty classes. The Colleges arrange supervisions for the other papers in Parts I and II and this gives you the opportunity to engage in intense debates with senior historians. These weekly one-hour discussions are the focal point of your academic week and the core of the History course. You write an essay for an expert supervisor, who then discusses it with you either individually or in a small group. This system of teaching ensures that you get plenty of guidance, support and feedback. All Colleges are experienced in organising specialist teaching across the full range of historical topics.

At appropriate points, there are Faculty lectures and College classes on general historical issues. You will also have opportunities for informal interaction with frontline historians at College history society meetings and in the Faculty.

Breadth and depth

Our course gives you opportunities to look at the past through many disciplinary lenses – including political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual – and you explore how history has learnt from other disciplines like anthropology, literature and archaeology. Course options are shared with other departments, such as Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Classics, Social and Political Sciences, and Modern and Medieval Languages.

History is unusual among Cambridge subjects in not setting a classed first-year examination but most history undergraduates sit a Preliminary Examination towards the end of their first year. This does not count towards your final degree but aims to give you an informal sense of your achievement to that point. The Colleges decide individually whether to enter their students for this or to assess their progress by other means.

The basic difference between Parts I and II is that Part I concentrates on breadth of historical understanding and Part II on depth. Throughout the course there is ample scope for you to pursue your personal interests and experiment with different historical approaches. Specialist papers allow you to work with a variety of source materials: in the past few years, these have included music, art, cartoons, other visual images, and coins. At the end of Part I, students sit five three-hour written papers; one-year Part II students also take five papers (unless they write a dissertation). The Part I Themes and Sources Long Essay and a Part II Long Essay and Dissertation ensure that you have the opportunity to be assessed on work done outside the examination room.

Changing courses

The flexibility of the History Tripos, and the fact that some Part II options are shared with faculties such as Social and Political Sciences (SPS) and Classics, means that few students wish to transfer out after Part I. Law and History of Art are favourites among those who do transfer. About ten people each year take a two-year Part II in History, usually after a one-year Part I in subjects such as SPS or Economics. 

The basic difference between Parts I and II is that Part I concentrates on breadth of historical understanding and Part II on depth. Throughout the course there is ample scope for you to pursue your personal interests and experiment with different historical approaches. Specialist papers allow you to work with a variety of source materials: in the past few years, these have included music, art, cartoons, other visual images, and coins.

Part I - a wide range of options

Years 1 and 2

Part I lasts two years (six terms) and comprises six papers. The first five are chosen from 23 papers on offer, and you study one each term for the first five terms.

  • You take at least one period of British political history and one of British economic and social history.
  • For the other three papers it is possible to study any period of European history from the Greeks to the present, periods of extra- European history, the history of the USA, and/or the history of political thought. If you wish, you may specialise, for example in ancient and medieval papers, or almost entirely in the twentieth century.

For the sixth component, Themes and Sources, you will complete a 5,000 word essay. There is a very wide choice of topics, typically investigating a major theme in comparative history (such as gender, democracy, revolutions or music). The essay is written over a period of some months, and involves individual research.

Part II - an even wider range of options!

Year 3

Students who have taken Part I then take a one-year Part II. (The two-year Part II is for those who have taken a one-year Part I in another subject). This consists of five units:

  • a general paper, Historical Argument and Practice
  • four other papers chosen from nearly 40 options in all, ranging across the centuries and continents.

You can substitute a dissertation on a topic of your choice for one paper.

At a glance


UCAS code V100 BA/H
Entry requirements Typical A level offer A*AA
A' level History normally required. See also Course Requirements
Admissions tests See Admissions Tests and Written Work
Average entry 200
Available at all Colleges
Applications/acceptances 744/201
Research assessment 5*
Further information Information and Enquiries Office
Faculty of History
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9EF
Open Days Attend a College open day or the Cambridge Open Day on 3 or 4 July