As I write, the History Faculty is in the midst of undergraduate interviews. This year, we are fortunate to be able to assess an unprecedented 2,006 candidates who have applied for History and Joint Schools degrees. The number of applicants has increased by one-fifth over the last five years alone. This makes competition for places more intense than ever. This year also brings some important developments in the Faculty’s admissions and outreach work. These reforms have been introduced as part of the Faculty’s commitment to ensuring that we offer the c. 350 places available to study for an undergraduate history degree to those applicants with the potential to become the most talented, committed, and original historians during their years at Oxford.
We have made important changes to how we assess undergraduate applications. All applicants for History or Joint Schools sit the History Aptitude Test (HAT) in their schools or colleges. As more recent alumni will remember, it used to be a two-hour exam with three questions, but from this year it has become a one-hour exam with one question. The Faculty commissioned statistical analysis of undergraduates’ Finals results, which showed that marks in the primary source exercise (the old Question 3) identified most effectively those students who would become the most successful historians at Oxford. The HAT offers the Faculty an empirical means of comparing the analytical skills, historical imagination, and writing ability under time pressure of all applicants, including those applying from overseas. When marking the HAT, tutors are looking for applicants who can form a thoughtful, accurate and original interpretation of a primary source, without knowing anything about its historical context and without drawing on any knowledge of historical time periods that they have studied at school.
For applicants from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, the History Faculty also now gains a better understanding of the environment in which students have been schooled by contextualising their GCSE performance. The contextualised GCSE score provides information about how well an applicant has performed at GCSE compared to other applicants to Oxford, given the performance of the school at which they took their GCSEs. This means, for instance, that an applicant who has achieved 5A* at GCSE at a school in which few students gain the top grades is considered to have performed at least as well as an applicant with 9A* at GCSE from a school in which the majority of the year-group excel in these exams. Statistical analysis has shown that this is a better predictor of success in studying History at Oxford than students’ grades in isolation. When assessing UK applications, Oxford University also draws on a wide range of publicly-available contextual data. This allows tutors to consider each applicant in the context of average performance at the applicant’s school at GCSE, the average performance of the school where they will take their A-levels, and the socio-economic and educational characteristics of their home postcode.
A student’s contextualised GCSE score and HAT mark form only two of the measures used to try to identify who will benefit most from Oxford’s undergraduate history degree. Each candidate also submits an essay that they have completed as part of their normal schoolwork and has two interviews, each with two interviewers. Tutors assess all of this evidence, alongside the information provided by applicants and teachers through their UCAS form. We take references from teachers seriously. For instance, if we are to make sense of GCSE grades that are lower than those of some other applicants, we need to know if a student experienced the terminal illness of a parent or if poverty required their family to live in temporary accommodation. There are of course many more impressive budding historians than places available at Oxford. As tutors, we take the responsibility of assessing all the information available to us seriously and hope that our admissions procedures can continue to evolve to help us make good decisions.
Educational inequalities within the UK are made painfully obvious by the task of comparing 17-year-olds’ university applications. It is clear that some applicants have had few opportunities to read demanding history books, to explore historical sources in museums or archives, or to hear inspiring historians speak about exciting new research. For decades, many Oxford history tutors have spent a great deal of time, often working with their colleges, to share their love for history with schools. In the last edition of The Oxford Historian, Miles Larmer wrote about the on-going ‘Resources for Schools’ project that seeks to support the teaching of global history, migration and empire in the classroom. We know that stimulating and challenging school history teaching matters.
Over the last few years, the History Faculty has been developing a more ambitious nationwide programme to try to increase the numbers of students from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds who are able to make competitive applications to study history at Oxford. For instance, we know that students from low-income backgrounds, with Asian or black heritage, or with homes more than about two hours’ journey from Oxford are less likely to apply to study history here, even if they are on track to achieve 3 As at A-level. Our on-going work seeks to ensure that accurate and accessible information about the undergraduate course, the application process, and the value of studying history at Oxford is made available to all potential applicants through our open days, the website, and our targeted outreach work. Our undergraduates are our best ambassadors. Our new ‘History@Oxford’ blog is written by our current and former students, so as to share with potential applicants what it’s really like to study in the History Faculty and what people do with a history degree. Funding permitting, we hope over the next year to expand the digital resources that we offer all potential applicants, including through filming a mock history interview. We hope that these resources will particularly help students and teachers who know no-one studying in the History Faculty, by demystifying the application process and countering commonly-held assumptions about who studies at Oxford.
We have also developed a new programme of ‘History skills workshops’. These workshops are designed to support students at state schools without a history of successful Oxford applications. The simple aim is to develop students’ historical understanding and imagination beyond the school curriculum. The workshops are taught by advanced D.Phil. students, often in collaboration with colleges’ outreach work in their link regions, so that the Faculty can reach students and teachers in more geographically distant parts of the United Kingdom. Workshops last about 90 minutes and are usually taught after school to keen historians in Years 11-13. We encourage host schools to invite students and teachers from neighbouring state schools, and we suggest resources that students can later explore to develop their own interests in the past independently. Anonymous feedback from students and teachers suggests that these workshops do make a difference. One pupil wrote ‘I believe the workshop removed the ideology that “Oxford isn’t for me”, and it definitely made me gain an interest in studying at Oxford’. Another school student explained ‘Going through a text that was used as part of the admission process was really helpful to gain a sense of what these admission tests really consist of, and in a way exemplify that the admissions people are not out to trick you, but rather see you think.’ A teacher told us how the workshop extended students’ knowledge beyond the curriculum: ‘The taking of the close reading of source and working through it with students worked really well. It modelled high level thinking – so much more than we could do – and really gave the students a sense of the standard of Oxford and the fascination of the history.’ This pilot programme of workshops has only been possible thanks to support from donors.
UNIQ is Oxford University’s flagship access programme. UNIQ offers free residential week-long summer and spring schools that bring students to Oxford from backgrounds that are under-represented at the University. Thanks to a generous donation, the number of places available for all subjects has been increased by more than 50 per cent in 2019, to 1,350 places. The History Faculty has taken advantage of the expansion to increase the number of places for talented historians on the two on-going UNIQ programmes: ‘Order and Freedom’ convened by Marc Mulholland and ‘Race and Protest’ taught by Stephen Tuck. Two former UNIQ students write about the impact of these summer schools below. From summer 2019, we will also be offering a new summer school on ‘Global encounters in the pre-modern world’, designed to expose students in Year 12 to the Faculty’s cutting-edge research in medieval and early modern global history. We hope that the 110 free places available for these programmes in 2019 will help students to make competitive applications to join us as undergraduates in the History Faculty. We would love in future years to be able to bring more students and especially teachers to Oxford, to share our passion for studying history and to talk with them about what the History Faculty can offer.
The impact of outreach programmes
Rachael Bragg, 2nd year undergraduate history student at Pembroke College
I participated in the UNIQ summer school in 2016 after the head of my sixth form told me about the scheme. At the time, applying to Oxford was an unrealistic goal. Coming from a northern, working class background I didn’t believe that I would get an interview let alone a place at Oxford as it was only for the private school elite. Still, I applied and to my surprise I was accepted onto the ‘History: Race and Protest’ course. I did not know what the week would hold: would I enjoy my time studying at the university? Any fears I had quickly faded away – I loved my time in Oxford. The majority of the week was spent at Pembroke College where Stephen Tuck alongside his postgraduate students led seminars, including one that covered the interview process. As my sixth form was not used to sending students to Oxbridge I found this exceptionally helpful as it gave me a clearer picture of what to expect. The highlight of the week was when Stephen lectured us in the Union regarding Malcom X’s time in Oxford. It was amazing listening to a professor talk passionately about his subject, especially in such a historic setting.
I cannot stress enough how important UNIQ was to my final application. In addition to affirming my love for history it encouraged me to apply to Oxford and motivated me to work harder than before. It was easy deciding which college to choose; I loved my time at Pembroke and I couldn’t imagine applying to anywhere else. Stephen really encouraged me to apply to Oxford, which we sometimes talk about when we have tutorials together.
Isabel Barber, 3rd year undergraduate history student at The Queen’s College
The UNIQ summer school was a fantastic opportunity which gave me an insight into what it’s like to study history at Oxford. In 2015 I attended the week long ‘History: Gender and Identity’ course. Coming from a state school in Leeds, my assumption was I wouldn’t be the ‘Oxford type’ but meeting my group of peers, from similar backgrounds across Wales, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, immediately put me at ease. These were students who were as passionate about history as I was; it strongly resonated with me that whilst at school I had been ostracized a ‘nerd’, here I was not alone in my enthusiasm.
The week itself was a fully immersive and jam-packed experience. We had the incredible privilege of living in Balliol College and eating meals together in hall. Each morning, we walked out into Oxford for a lecture, followed by a seminar, on topics such as urban development, gender relations and childhood. This gave me a clear and inspiring insight into what history was like as an academic subject at university, and I was surprised to find the opportunity to participate became less daunting and more stimulating as the week progressed. At the end of the week, we were tasked to read for and write an essay, which culminated in the unique Oxbridge experience of a tutorial.
All week we were mentored by current students who supported our academic timetable and organised non-academic events such as a city tour, board games, sports night and disco. They also ran workshops on personal statements, admission tests and interviews, alongside answering our Oxford-specific queries. These discussions were crucial to building my confidence and I believe strengthened my position to tackle the application. Although the process of applying to Oxford remained daunting, I now had a ‘bring it on’ attitude when turning up to interviews and knew I deserved the chance as much as any of the other candidates. Of the ten of us studying history at Balliol, nine of us applied, of which seven of our group are now studying at Oxford. In some part, we all have UNIQ to thank. As a fully free and meticulously organised week, I can’t think of another equally invaluable experience which would have reinforced my desire to study history at Oxford.
Can you help?
We are grateful to all the alumni who are already helping the History Faculty to work with schools.
If you teach at a school that might be interested in hosting a history skills workshop for your own and neighbouring schools, it would be great to hear from you – please email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you teach history and would be interested in joining our teachers’ mailing list to find out more about the History Faculty’s work with schools, please sign up here: https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/outreach
If you might be able to help the History Faculty’s outreach work in any other way, we would always love to hear from you.