Student Profile: Harriet Claire Strahl
Degree: BA History
A Levels: (German Abitur) History, English, Maths, Philosophy
What do you enjoy most about your course?
Being able to choose papers up to a certain extent. I was able to start off my first year at university with my favourite period, the Middle Ages, and I’ve also ended this year with the Middle Ages. Next year, I shall be continuing with the Middle Ages. It’s possible to shape your studies to focus on the area of history that fascinates you most. Within the papers themselves, there is also a lot of scope for choice, for example essay questions, or even sometimes themes and topics. Once left alone for a week to write an essay, I found that I was able to follow up on the most interesting snippets of reading I came across, and structure my essays around them and bring them up during tutorials, or remember them for exam revision.
However, History students are required to fulfil certain period and geographic requirements, which can turn out to be surprising and not at all what you were expecting. Without the period requirements, I would have never chosen the nineteenth century as a paper. However, I’m glad I did so, because the tutor and the paper presented the nineteenth century in a completely new light, making me question what I thought I knew about it beforehand. This ability to surprise continues in individual tutorials, when the tutor’s questions encourage you to look for different or deeper levels of meaning in an excerpt of a source, or a piece of information that seemed straightforward at the beginning.
How is your subject taught?
In their first year, History students have about one to two tutorials a week, for one or two different papers, which are complemented by lectures, perhaps two to three a week, lasting one hour each. Some papers have no lectures at all and are taught through tutorials and classes. In a class, you discuss the topic with a group of other students.
The tutorials can be with a couple of other students, or they might be one to one with just the tutor. In a tutorial, you discuss the week’s topic, about which you have just written an essay. At the end of each tutorial, you will be set the next essay question.
Largely, the course consists of researching and writing essays, which you do for most of the week. You’re usually given a reading list, from which you can pick a couple of items. However, you can also consult books or articles not on the list.
Even though writing a good essay takes careful research and a lot of thought into developing an argument, backing it up with evidence, structuring and phrasing your essay, you still have a lot of free time. As you do most of the work on your own, you are also extremely flexible, meaning that you can go to different lectures or events. The Oriel library is open 24 hours a day, so if you’re a night-owl like me, you will have no trouble working late.
How did you prepare for your interview?
History interviews aren’t really something you can prepare for, as the tutors are interested in how you think, and not in how much you know.
Before my interviews, I re-read the essay I had submitted, and looked up the subject again to make sure that there hadn’t been any new developments. I did the same with my personal statement. I was prepared to talk about the subject of my essay or the things I mentioned in my statement in detail, if asked.
Apart from re-familiarizing myself with aspects of my application, I didn’t prepare any further for the interview. I read a novel the night before and made sure that I got a decent night’s sleep, and proper breakfast, even if I didn’t feel like eating much. There is not much else you can do.
Just remember, the tutors are not trying to trick you, but genuinely want to know you better. The aim of the interviews is not to ascertain whether you’re good enough, if you’ve got to that stage you definitely are, but to see whether they think you’d flourish with the way history is taught here.
What advice do you have for prospective students interested in studying your subject?
Read history books and sources (if you have access to some) and question them. You will gain confidence and learn so much if you critically analyze a historical text, rather than just passively absorb it. Historians and published authors aren’t perfect. You can certainly look at the arguments and evidence they present in different ways, and construct your own theories and interpretations. It is important to engage with history actively. If you want to study History, you don’t just read and repeat, but think for yourself.
Most importantly, do explore your own historical interests, however obscure, rather than what you think the tutors would like.
What do you like most about being an Orielensis?
Sitting in the hall during mealtimes, I stare at the portraits on the walls and the medieval coats of arms on the stained glass windows. They remind me of Oriel’s long history and, of the fact that I’m at a place where eminent people of the past lived and studied just like me, standing on the same spot and taking part in the same traditions. Just across the road is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where university members have come together since the earliest beginnings. Behind that lies the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford’s most famous building and also the History Faculty Library. Therefore, I seldom have to walk anywhere for more than five minutes. This is also about the amount of time it takes to get to Exam Schools, where lectures are held, while Christ Church Meadow can be reached in under five minutes. Oriel is brilliantly situated right in the centre of Oxford.
Oxford itself is an extremely busy city, with throngs of people, a lot of traffic and noise. All of this completely disappears instantly as you step into Oriel’s quads. The buildings shield the inside from the goings on in Oxford, and the quads are usually quiet and tranquil.