"Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby in 1645" by Charles Landseer, from the collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, used under CC BY-NC-SA license

Studying History and joint schools at Merton

History at Merton is a vibrant subject with an outstanding tradition. The large size of each year group within a small and friendly college makes it easy for students to find colleagues with whom to debate their work. The college tutors teach many of the general options in British, European and World history available in the history syllabus, but for more specialised courses, and for their final-year thesis, students have tutorials with experts in other colleges.

Joint school courses

Ancient & Modern History: with a large Modern History team, dedicated in-house Ancient History teaching, and a strong Classics school, Merton is an excellent place to study the Ancient and Modern History degree and develop the comparative insights the course provides. This degree permits study of the entire continuum of human history, allowing students to truly develop and follow their own interests, and to explore how things have changed over time, and/or how aspects of modern society may in fact have their origins in ancient civilization. The comparative dimension of the degree highlights the diversity of historical experience. The study of languages is optional in this course, it will likely include at least some archaeological and material culture elements, but the core focus throughout is on textual analysis and the study of literature. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and originate both from the UK and overseas.

History & English: Since the History & English degree began Merton has been one of the most consistent colleges in admitting students for it. With three History tutors and three English tutors there is ample opportunity to study different periods both through their literature and through their history. Merton’s History and English graduates have gone on to careers in Art History and International Relations as well as in English and History.

History & Modern Languages: With tutors in French and Spanish and college lecturers in other languages, we admit students to study History and French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. They find ample opportunity to pursue interests in the culture they are studying in the wide range of courses available from the History syllabus.

History & Politics: With three history tutors and two politics tutors, Merton takes comparatively large numbers of students for History and Politics. Students find different ways to combine courses from the two sides of the degree, to focus, for example, on political ideas, international relations, or the political history of different areas of the world.

Classical Archaeology and Ancient History: these subjects complement and enhance each other extremely well, supported by highly connected teaching, when you may well find both an Archaeology tutor and an Ancient History tutor in the same room, guiding you through their related topics together. The integrated nature of this degree makes it really special, whilst still allowing students to pursue their individual interests. This develops a very thorough understanding of the classical world, with study of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome at its heart. The archaeological element may particularly appeal to those seeking a more practical approach to the study of Classics, with this course’s emphasis on bringing the material and visual world to bare, in addition to textual analysis, as well as some required fieldwork. Differentiating this degree from single honours Classics, our Classical Archaeology and Ancient History degree doesn’t have a compulsory language element in it, but this is still an option for those who do wish to include linguistic modules.

Student profiles
Molly Archer-Zeff
Molly Archer-Zeff

Year: 2

Where are you from?: Southend-on-Sea, Essex 

Why Merton?
I chose Merton because of how friendly and welcoming it was on the Open Day I attended. The students were chatty and eager to answer questions, the college were generous with free refreshments, and the tutors I met were encouraging. I was immediately put at ease by the friendliness and made to feel part of the college.

Best thing about Merton?
I love the community feel at Merton. You always have to give yourself 10 minutes extra time to get somewhere in college because it is inevitable that you will end up stopping for a chat with someone on your way there! I also love the location as it is right in the centre of Oxford so close to the vibrancy of the city, but Merton Street is quiet and tucked away from the bustle.

Best thing about your course?
I really like the opportunities to explore areas I am interested in. There have been weeks where I have been allowed to pursue my own essay idea because a particular area of the topic has caught my interest. The flexibility to explore different ideas can be really exciting.

Best thing about Oxford?
The constant feeling that you are surrounded by history and a fascinating past. As a historian it is really exciting learning about something that happened right on your doorstep. Living in a listed building, sitting in the same hall as memorable alumni, and learning about the history of the city feels like I am living my subject. 

Best thing about the collegiate system?
Colleges break the whole university year group up into smaller, less daunting chunks. The size of my college year group is definitely one of the best things. There are less than 90 of us in my year so we get to know each other well and it feels like a school year group.

Highlight of the year?
Living in Holywell Street in a house with my friends. At Merton we are really lucky to have college accommodation for the whole of our degree and in second year you choose a house with your friends. The memories of sitting round the table together for dinner each night is definitely what made my year so special and put a smile on my face each day.

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
That being interested in what you are learning is the most important thing and it is okay to have different interests to your peers. In my first year I ended up choosing modules that I wasn’t interested in and didn’t enjoy. I thought that because I wasn’t enjoying them, but my tutorial partners were, I had chosen the wrong degree and wrong university. By the end of the year I was studying modules that I loved and was fascinated by. Since then I have taken different modules to the other Historians at Merton and know that that is okay and having different interests is what makes us all interesting!

How has Oxford changed you?
Oxford has opened my eyes to the world around me more. Meeting people from across the globe, hearing different opinions, and exploring different ideas has definitely altered some of my perspectives. Oxford is constantly challenging my opinions and what I think I know, and this has definitely helped me to learn more about myself and others around me.

What were you worried about before you arrived?
I was mostly worried about fitting in. I went to state schools and lots of people had made comments about Oxford only being for wealthy people from fancy schools. However, I quickly realised that this was not at all true and this fear was removed by meeting a variety of people from different schools and backgrounds.

What new opportunities have you had?
Being at Oxford has given me the opportunity to pursue ideas so that they become a reality rather than just a thought. I have been involved in student journalism but wanted to start my own magazine, so I founded Oxford History Review with some friends. My tutors, the college, and History Faculty have all been really supportive and I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to start a magazine anywhere else.

What’s the work like?
The work is interesting and challenging. It makes you question your ideas and opinions and gives you a different perspective on the past and the world around you. The weekly essays are intense but definitely worth it when you realise that in a week you suddenly have a good working knowledge of a topic you knew nothing about previously!

How do you cope with the workload?
I’ve found that the most helpful way to deal with the workload is knowing that tutors are considerate and don’t want you to be stressed. If something has happened in my week that means that completing all the work is difficult, I speak to my tutor and I’ve always found them to be encouraging and helpful. Knowing that there are people there to support and help you definitely puts my mind at ease and makes the workload more bearable.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve been heavily involved in student journalism throughout my degree, so I spend quite a lot of time working with Oxford’s student newspapers. I also like to go running, swimming, and I spend a lot of time with friends.

Favourite spot to relax?
Oxford has loads of lovely green spaces that I love to walk around and explore. Being outside definitely helps me to relax and feel ready to face the week ahead. Port Meadow is perhaps my favourite because it’s a bit of a walk from the city centre, so I don’t go there as often so it is a bit of a treat when I do. It also is a great place to swim in the river and have a picnic with friends.

Favourite place to eat?
Edamame on Holywell Street is definitely one of my favourite places to eat because of the cosy seating layout and the authentic Japanese food. It’s given me the opportunity to try flavours and foods that I have never had before. If you want to go, there you have to get there nice and early as there is always a long queue- it’s definitely a student favourite!

Favourite place to go out?
There are so many good places in Oxford it’s so hard to choose one! I know this is another food answer, but I really like Gloucester Green market. The market has lots of different foods from all over the world and I love the vibrant atmosphere, smells, and trying different flavours.

What do you do in the holidays?
I like to meet friends, travel, spend time with my family, and catch up on sleep and relaxation! The holidays are also a good opportunity to take part in things you don’t have time for during the term such as work experience. Of course, there is also uni work to do such as reading for the next module or preparing for exams. Personally, I also find that during term I don’t end up reading much just for enjoyment so during the holidays I also like to get lost in a novel.

What are tutorials like?
Tutorials are essentially an intellectual discussion. Tutorials normally consist of a couple students sitting in a tutor’s office having a deep conversation about a topic they studied that week. They are really interesting and challenging and I always come out of them tired but excited to pursue my module further.

Grace Clark
Grace Clark

Year: Second

Where are you from?: Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Why Merton?
I fell in love with Merton the moment I set foot in the college on the Open Day. It seemed like such a warm, friendly, inclusive atmosphere and I can honestly say those first impressions couldn’t be more accurate. For me Merton is perfect; it has a great location, excellent and affordable accommodation for your whole degree and of course amazing food! The stunning architecture and surroundings mean even now, I really do have to pinch myself when I remember I call this beautiful, magical place my home!

Best thing about your course?
One of the best things about studying history is the sheer range of the modules; you can really tailor your degree to what interests you most! One day, I might be studying Early Modern Witchcraft, the next, art during the Russian Revolution and it’s this variety that makes history so fascinating. Also, the history tutors at Merton are really wonderful, my tutorials are always one of the highlights of my week. Tutorials really challenge you to truly engage with a topic and although they may seem daunting at first, the opportunity to discuss and learn from a true expert is a unique and highly rewarding experience. Plus, you’ll find that most history tutors, as well as being incredibly passionate about their field, also have excellent senses of humour!

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
That life at Oxford is so much more than just working in the library! The college and the University has so much to offer and it is so important to make the most of it. From sports to societies, there are so many opportunities out there and even though the workload can be challenging, I’ve learnt that there is always time to try something new. I’ve also discovered that whatever your background, wherever you’ve come from, there is a place for you here to grow, develop and embrace your passions.

What were you worried about before you arrived?
Pretty much everything! I was particularly daunted by the thought of living in a new place with people I have never met before but Merton is such a welcoming community that it didn’t take long for it to feel like home. Everyone is in exactly the same position and it was really easy to meet people and make friends, plus the support offered by the older students, Merton’s amazing welfare team and the tutors was really helpful. They, along with my amazing year group at Merton, have continued to support me through the highs and lows of life at University and this support network and sense of community is one of Merton’s most important assets. There is always someone to turn to and in whatever challenges you may face, you are truly never alone.

Ellie Hall
Ellie Hall

Year: First

Where are you from?: Manchester

Best thing about Merton?
Merton has so much going for it – I think it is a hidden gem! It is central (especially for history – we are right next door to where the lectures are), with reasonably priced food and accommodation, and incredibly friendly. We also have two libraries, which is perfect for moving around when your focus starts to fade. The college itself is stunning, with its own garden and views over Christ Church Meadow. Undoubtedly the best thing about Merton is the people – as a fresher I was made to feel so welcome, with very few barriers between subject and year groups creating a real community.

What’s the work like?
The fairly intensive workload (around one or two essays a week) means that you learn a lot really quickly! I decided to pick topics and time periods I had never done before, which was a challenge, but I have enjoyed going from no knowledge at the beginning of term to feeling confident that I have grasped what was going on by the end. I have found it really refreshing to be allowed to be a beginner at something, (for instance, medieval history) and the tutors have been really supportive and encouraging in this scenario – they just want to grow your interest and knowledge in the subject area that they love!

What are tutorials like?
I was initially apprehensive about tutorials – I had no formal debating experience and was used to being in classes of 30 all the way through sixth form. It can take a bit of getting used to being in a group of two or three and a tutor, but now they tend to be the highlight of my academic week! They are an amazing opportunity to work through ideas that are still a bit confusing written down, and to build your ideas and understanding further with the help of both the tutor and your tutorial partner.

What do you do when you’re not working?
This year I had the opportunity to be the assistant choreographer for a musical at St Catherine’s College! I hadn’t taught my own choreography before, but it was a really friendly environment, and it was lovely to meet lots of new people whilst putting together a show that I was proud of. Having a creative outlet helped me to be more productive overall, as I found it helped me more clearly define the times when I was having a break, and when I should get some work done. Following on from this I am carrying on doing more shows, so throwing myself in the deep end of something new definitely paid off! There’s loads going on within Merton too – from BOPs (college parties) every other week, to more relaxed film nights.

Robert Lentz
Robert Lentz

Year: Third (and final!)

Where are you from?: Farnham, Surrey

Why Merton?
For me, as for many others, the choice to apply to Merton was made on the basis of the practical benefits of going to Merton, the ‘feel’ of the college, and the way in which Merton appeared to be a particularly good college at which to study a certain subject – in my case, History.

From a purely practical perspective, the fact that Merton offers very reasonable town-centre accommodation for every year of the undergraduate degree was a major draw for me. Knowing that I wouldn’t have to walk too far to get to and from libraries, lectures, shops, cafes and so on definitely appealed to me! Whilst it wasn’t exactly a habit, being able to wake up at 11:45am, roll out of bed, and be in a history lecture by noon was a luxury that came in handy once or twice. The fact that I could get three meals from Hall a day for a tenner has also definitely helped!

In terms of ‘feel’, it is true that there’s no better way to gauge it than visiting the colleges – but I can certainly confirm that the atmosphere at Merton felt incredibly friendly and inviting when I visited the college on an Open Day, and this has rung true all throughout my degree: the sense of community at Merton, between students, staff, tutors, is palpable and a real strength of the college. In terms of the buildings and environment of the college, do take a look at the gallery to get a sense of what Merton is like! One of the most satisfying aspects of helping at previous Open Days was seeing people realise that Merton – a college that is fairly reserved in its appearance from Merton Street – actually has one of the largest college gardens in Oxford, overlooking Christ Church meadow, not to mention some pretty impressive quads!

For me as a prospective History applicant, it may come as no surprise that I was keen to study at one of Oxford’s older colleges, but also one which I knew had a strong reputation for History as a subject, and took on a decent-sized cohort of History undergraduates each year. Also, knowing that Merton had a particularly excellent library provision (a figure definitely worth looking up if you’re planning on doing a more texts-based degree). Of course, different people have different priorities when it comes to deciding which college to apply to, but Merton certainly ticked all the boxes for me!

Best thing about your course?
Perhaps the best thing about doing History at Oxford, is the absurd amount of choice you get as to what it is you’d like to study: in the whole of the degree, there’s only one module that every single undergraduate will do, and even within that module there’s a vast amount of flexibility.

The chances of any two people doing the exact same degree, in terms of modules studies, is pretty slim: at the start of each term you get a choice of what subject area you want to study, with the number of choices for a particular term ranging from four to as many as thirty different modules. You really are able to pursue the areas which you’re most interested in, or indeed, spend time developing your understanding of a period or an area of the world that you had never considered before – for example, I never thought I’d find myself so interested in Japan’s Edo period!

Doing a History degree at Oxford provides so much room for tailoring the three years to precisely what you want to study because of the great number of specialist academics who teach at the University: each term, depending on which module you choose, you’ll be taught by a tutor who is expert in that subject, whether at your college or at another one. Not only does this mean that you’re always getting specialised tutoring on the subjects you’re most interested in – it’s also a great way to see more of the university!

In short, the adaptability and flexibility of the Oxford History degree is probably what I would consider to be the best thing about it. The only issue is being spoilt for choice!

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
When you’re enjoying what you’re working on, is when you produce the best work, so follow your interests and don’t let a reading list limit you!

How do you cope with the workload?
Organisation is, unsurprisingly, a pretty useful skill that you’ll definitely develop over the course of a degree here – by the end of your first term, you’ll have worked out exactly how to timetable yourself, so that whilst you’re turning in good essays each week and developing a deep understanding of your subject, you’re also able to enjoy a considerable amount of time relaxing with friends, doing extra-curriculars, and enjoying living in one of the most attractive cities in the UK!

Favourite spot to relax?
It’s a bit of a walk/cycle from Merton, but the trip to Port Meadow is also worth it – especially with a BBQ in the summer (!) – to enjoy a sunset swim or just a feeling of being well away from civilisation.

Favourite place to eat?
If not Merton College Hall – college lunches are not unknown to turn into pretty lengthy feasts, if you take advantage of the hot main, soup bar, salad bar, puddings and fruit (and all for under £4!!!) – then probably at edamame, an excellent Japanese restaurant right next door to Merton’s accommodation on Holywell Street.

What are tutorials like?
Kind of the intellectual equivalent of a particularly daunting-looking rollercoaster – for History, you’ll spend most of the week before a tutorial reading for an essay, planning and then writing the essay, and then going over the particular subject of that essay in the tutorial. Tutors aren’t scary at all – they’re deeply passionate academics who have devoted themselves to becoming experts in their field, so the opportunity to learn from them, and discuss with them a piece of work you’ve written, is both humbling and extraordinary. If you’ve done the reading and developed an understanding of the subject for that week, tutorials can be much more fun than I’m willing to admit – even if you’ll often find yourself receiving some justified constructive criticism!

James Morrison
James Morrison

Year: Second

Where are you from: Bournemouth

Why Merton?
Even in the weeks leading up to the application deadline, I was very sceptical about the idea of applying to Oxford. I thought that I had no chance of even getting an interview, and that the whole process would be a waste of time. I didn’t attend an Open Day and consequently didn’t have much of an idea about which college to apply to once I eventually decided to give Oxford a go. I knew a bit about Merton because they had held an outreach talk at my school where they were friendly and informative about the whole application process. Above all, the fact that they were visiting a school like mine, which has little history of Oxbridge success, gave me the impression that Oxford was in fact attainable for someone like me. After going online and reading about Merton’s historic buildings and purportedly amazing food, I decided to apply there. Having been at Merton for nearly two years now, I am satisfied to report that the buildings are indeed very historic (the College was founded in 1264!), and that the food is genuinely delicious (and incredible value). I haven’t looked back since.

Best thing about your course?
Studying history at Oxford places you at the heart of the academic field right from the start. Since arriving, I have gone from studying A-level Tudor England from a textbook to having one-to-one tutorials with one of the historians whose work was featured in that same textbook. The level of close academic engagement that you receive is extraordinary, and the tutors show a real investment in your progress during your time here.

Another point to mention is the huge breadth of options that are available to study. This allows you both to follow your interests and to develop new ones altogether. My general approach to picking modules has been to find things that sound interesting but that I don’t know much about - this has taken my degree in directions that I never anticipated it to go. So far, I have written essays on topics as wide-ranging as the rise of Islam in the early Middle Ages, IQ testing in the 20th century, and Aristotle’s political philosophy!

How has Oxford changed you?
Oxford has pushed me to constantly seek new ways to improve myself. The history degree in particular involves a lot of independent study, and every week I find myself questioning and rethinking how I can most effectively approach my work. This applies outside of my degree as well: there are so many opportunities here at Oxford, and I have become increasingly focused on making the most of everything that Merton and Oxford have to offer. To use a cliché, life at Oxford really is what you make of it, and I have grown both academically and personally over my time here as a result.

What do you do when you’re not working?
All term long I go to a wide range of events within Merton and the wider University, from poetry readings and debates to Merton’s renowned BOPs (essentially a night out organised by the students). I have also started volunteering at a primary school just outside the city centre, which has been an enriching experience quite unlike anything I have done before. The great thing about being here is the sheer variety of opportunities at your fingertips – I usually find myself doing something completely different every term.

The benefits of studying History at Merton
Facilities and resources at Merton

Merton College library has a strong collection of the books and journals used by undergraduate historians. It also holds outstanding medieval archives and early printed books, which are used to give students a taste of the documents that underlie their studies. The college History Society holds speaker meetings and an annual dinner and Merton historians are also strongly involved in the university history societies. A prize in memory of Conrad Russell is awarded each year to the undergraduate writing the best thesis in Finals.

Careers

Merton historians go on to a wide range of careers, many outside history, where their skills in analysis and argument equip them for corporate, professional and public life. They include:

“I’m grateful to Merton College, and its history community in particular, for providing me with the skills, advice, and financial support that have enabled me to take the next step in my academic career.”
Eliza Hartrich, former Merton history undergraduate and DPhil student, who went on to take up a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, and is now a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Video: History at Oxford University
Video: Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford University
Video: Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University
Key facts
Average intake at Merton:

Eight single honours, six in joint schools.

Test:

Candidates must take the History Aptitude Test (HAT).

Written work:

A marked essay of A2-Level or equivalent. Joint schools may require additional written work.

Specific subjects:

History is highly recommended. For joint schools, certain other subjects are essential and/or recommended.

Deferred entry:

Applications for deferred entry will be considered on their merits.