Welcome to the Department of History at Essex! We hope you enjoy welcome week, and that you’re excited about joining the vibrant community here. We know from personal experience that it can be daunting embarking on a new stage in life, so here are our top tips for new undergraduates to help you settle in and make the most of your time here right from the start.
- Don’t worry if everything seems confusing at first
It’s widely acknowledged that moving is one of the most stressful events in life. Even if you haven’t moved house, you’re still moving from one way of life to another – from college, school, or a previous career to university. There’s a lot of practical things to do, from getting a library card to finding your way to lecture theatres, and it’s not surprising if you feel overwhelmed at first. You will survive! In only a few weeks’ time, the building blocks of your new life will be in place. There will be new challenges in the years ahead – after all, that is the point of university – but the bewilderment of your first few days will soon be gone.
- Get organised straight away
Even if you have never owned one before, buy an academic diary. Write in the times, topics and locations of your lectures and seminars, as well as any welcome events, and when you receive your essay deadlines, put those in too. It’s much better to do this in a physical diary than on a calendar on your phone. As the semester goes on, you will quickly realise that it really helps when you can see at a glance what’s happening over the week ahead. Writing in this information also has a great psychological benefit in making you feel organised – which is half of the battle.
- Be prepared for new learning experiences
Most academic modules are taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. Different tutors approach lectures and seminars differently, but most often lectures provide a broad overview of a topic, while seminars provide an opportunity to discuss a particular topic in more depth. Both formats are typically more open-ended than the kind of teaching you were accustomed to at college or school. It might take some time to get used to this style of teaching, and to ensure that you are preparing and taking notes in the most effective way. There are lots of study guides that can help, and it is definitely worth reading at least one.
- Be open-minded
By the time most students arrive at university, they have usually spent at least seven years formally studying History. Although this is a long time, History is an enormous topic – it covers the entire human past, from the dawn of time to the present, in every region of the globe. No matter how much you learn, you will never get to grips with all of it – but what a great challenge it is to try! When selecting modules, it can be tempting to fall back on the topics that you have studied before and that you know will interest you. There is a place in any History degree for deepening your knowledge, but you should also try to extend it – take a risk on topics and modules that you have not encountered before, and that you might not have another chance to study.
- Ask questions, lots and often
Historians, whether undergraduates or professors, need to ask questions all the time – who, what, when, where, and, perhaps most importantly, why? Of course, part of what we do as historians is try to find answers to those questions – but most often, those attempts at answers just generate more questions. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have all the answers. The really good historical work, whether that’s a 2,000 word essay or a 600-page scholarly monograph, won’t have all the answers, but it will ask the right questions. If your History degree at Essex teaches you anything, it should be that curiosity is one of the best attributes you can take through life, because it will always reward you – often in quite unexpected ways.
Dr Tracey Loughran is a historian of twentieth-century Britain. She is the editor of A Practical Guide to Studying History: Skills and Approaches (Bloomsbury, 2017), a book aimed at helping students make the transition to degree-level study. You can read an extract from it here.