What they didn’t tell you before your history degree but probably should have

70% is like an A* and an Oxford offer rolled into one


If you’re reading this you’re probably convinced that a history degree is worth your while, you’ll have written a personal statement to convince someone in the dusty office of a university that you believe it’s worth your while, and you may have even managed to convince your parents it’s worth your while.

But, there are some things that no one tells you about studying history, which would have saved us all a lot of trouble if they had:

It all depends on the lecturer

We’ve all been there; you’re about to start the course you’ve always wanted to do, the reason why you chose to do a history degree in the first place, maybe even the reason you chose a particular university, this is your calling. You rock up to the lecture prepared with your £8.99 oxford notebook, your biro, water to keep you hydrated, this is it: you’re ready. And then the lecturer starts speaking and it all. falls. apart.

The only thing worse than a dull lecturer is a dull lecturer who asks questions. The agony of the silence, of people staring at their notepads, both parties knowing that no one wants to be there. Conversely, having to do a compulsory course or being placed on one you didn’t want to do can be turned around if you get a charismatic lecturer, a lecturer with a personality, or just one who genuinely seems to like the subject they’ve spent their life researching.

You will forget 98% of the material after your exam

You could spend months and months studying one tiny section of history, waking up for weeks before the exam at seven in the morning to get to the lib in time to get a seat, making flashcards, mind-maps, and watching documentaries, you may even purchase some fucking highlighters. But, you know the second you walk out of that exam hall almost all of the information on the Russian Revolution that you’ve been retaining in your head will disappear faster than you can say Vladimir Lenin. Poof.

You’re not original so don’t bother trying

Believe it or not, no matter how outrageous and alternative you try to be, you can guarantee that someone before you has already argued your historical opinion. You’re not David Starkey, nothing you have to say is new, innovative or trailblazing. You could do your dissertation on the type of rollies Che Guevara used to smoke before he moved onto cigars and someone will have already done it. It’s a very sad state of affairs but one you have to get used to: you’re not special.

No one gets full marks

Like sightings of Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and the Abominable Snowman, someone getting anything above 90 on a history essay is elusive, i.e. it doesn’t exist, sorry kids. Everyone’s heard of a story, a sighting, of one but it’s always a friend of a friend. No matter what that guy said at pre-drinks that one time, he was lying. Anything over 80 is unreachable for most, and 70 is just about an attainable target, if you work all the time. It’s like an A* and an Oxford offer all in one. Lower your expectations.

It is hard to stomach, one minute you’re in your A-Level bubble, you’re a big fish, you’re getting straight A’s in your history essays, you’re maybe even a wee teachers pet, and then all of a sudden you’re sat in your tutors office, traumatized, asking how they had the gaul to give you a 59 for your first uni essay. Life comes at you fast.

Historians are really forward with their politics

Most historians are at the very least politically left-leaning, they write using Marx’s historical materialism, and are the kind of people who cried the day after Brexit. But, you also get some who aren’t. Historians in the form of lecturers and tutors are no different, and they don’t usually bother to hide it in front of their students, either. Perhaps the best, most entertaining, and sometimes most frightening aspect of studying history, is listening to your tutors talking about the present.

You’ll become a know-it-all, and a politician

Regarding every news story, every terror attack and every comedic comment made by Donald Trump, you will have an opinion. All of a sudden no one else’s opinion matters because you study history and so you know everything that has ever happened in the past and thus are the only person in the room qualified to comment on what is happening in the present. Why do you think so many previous Prime Ministers studied history?

You’ll never do all of the reading, but that’s okay

Obviously each university is different, but the amount of reading that is set is always enormous. In Edinburgh it includes three history courses, each setting two books, three chapters, and a load of primary sources a week, as well as essays and presentations? Sometimes with different languages thrown in there, a bit of Latin now and then, sometimes written incomprehensibly as the historian has used a thesaurus for every other word in attempt to sound mildly intelligent. Unless you worked 22 hours a day and had a photographic memory, it would be impossible to read and remember all of the material set. Accept it.

No one teaches you how to pass the exam… or how to write an essay

The most unfair part of a history degree has to be the exams. You have three months to learn the history of the county of America, and three hours to demonstrate whether you managed to do that. However, there are no ‘exam sessions’, there are no ‘here’s a grade A answer versus a grade C answer’, there’s no ‘introduction, three paragraphs and a conclusion’ tips, no point, evidence, explanation posters in your lecture halls. These lecturers aren’t your beloved A-Level History teacher. This is university and they don’t have to give a shit.

It’s the same deal with writing history essays in uni, too. There’s no chance to draft, no lessons on what an introduction or a conclusion should look like. There are no lessons on referencing, or historiography in general. Of course, all tutors will recognise a good essay, but, a bit like russian roulette, every tutor is expecting something different and it’s luck of the draw if you hit exactly what they want.

You can almost guarantee you won’t become a historian

The idea that what you do in uni will make you hate your subject definitely has some truth to it. After spending three or four years of your life reading about the past, the shine can wear off. And if it doesn’t, despite the misconceptions, succeeding in a career, or even doing postgraduate study in history isn’t as easy as it seems. It’s easy to be average: if you read the bare minimum, write a half decent A-Level essay and that low 2:1 is yours. To actually be good though, is fucking hard, and lecturing jobs, especially at top universities, are like gold dust.

People will try and push you into mundane af jobs

Most of us that study history don’t particularly want to be historians, anyway. Not to worry though because – get excited – history has lots of sexy ~transferable skills~. So, whether it’s marketing, public relations, administration, working in a museum, teaching, name a mundane job and you’ll have had an email from your careers service on ‘how to get into that field’. “Oh you study history? What are you going to be? A teacher?” No I’m fucking not Aunty Sandra, stop asking me.