History Student Study Essentials
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
A month on from finishing my MA I had a think about the most useful things I bought when studying for both my degrees. The online format of teaching this year has expanded the popularity of digital note-taking, especially writing on an iPad in place of paper notes. I thought I’d write a post about the things I found most useful, things I wish I had bought earlier and the things that I never ended up needing.
Disclaimer: Both of my degrees were classroom-based, and did not require specialist software or equipment, so this is reflected in my choices.
I’d say this is a must as I don’t know where I would be without my laptop. I took my notes completely digitally from the summer of my first year of undergrad, and my laptop has travelled across the country to archives too. They’re portable, easy to carry and (hopefully) reliable. I don’t think laptops can be replaced by iPads or other tablets while doing a history degree because there is simply so much writing involved. Writing an essay on a tiny screen is uncomfortable, and although tablets are stylish and portable, they don’t have the processing power of laptops. Also, most universities in the UK are optimised to Windows 10, meaning that Apple products may run into some difficulty.
My tips for buying a good laptop for university
1. Buy a laptop with a decent screen size, anything less than 14 inches will get uncomfortable when writing essays
2. Get a Windows 10 laptop as it is compatible with university software
3. You need battery life! Battery will deteriorate depending on how well you treat your device and the time it spends switched on, so pick one with at least 8 hours of life, preferably 10
4. You don’t need all the bells and whistles for history. A machine that can handle everyday use is fine, don’t be conned into buying something really expensive
A desktop is something to consider if you need a higher performance machine for gaming but remember that it will lack the portability of a laptop. Group projects, quick meetings, and library sessions are made much easier with a laptop. If you have a desktop, consider buying a Chromebook or tablet to do work on the go and sync across.
Everyone needs one. It doesn’t need to look nice or be one of those fancy bullet journals, just something cheap where you can plan out your week. I have tried out digital planners but prefer just having a physical one dumped in my bag that I can jot things in if need be. Maintaining a schedule at university is important, especially if this doesn’t come naturally to you. A planner is essential and will definitely upgrade your organisational skills.
If using a diary or planner is intimidating, here’s some advice:
1. Buy a cheap one - Ebay, Typo and supermarket retailers sell nice ones in plain or patterned designs that are affordable and simple.
2. Week-to-view works best – seeing a week at a time is much easier to manage rather than a day-to-view or month-to-view
3. Get an academic one – mid-year planners match up with the academic year better than a regular diary
4. Keep it simple – ditch the colour coding, key words or checklists, just write down when you have deadlines, meetings, work or appointments
5. It’s a diary, not a work of art – people give up with planners often because they don’t look like the ones on Instagram, but that really isn’t a reason to as planners are meant to help you organise your life, not just look nice.
Nothing will ever completely replicate the pen and paper atmosphere of writing and researching, but digital note-taking is the way forward. Having your notes organised and available to you at all times saves the stress from having to file away stacks of paper and feeling overwhelmed during exam season when it’s time to review everything. I moved to this method before the end of my first year and have used the same programme and system of organisation throughout the rest of my time at university.
OneNote is the software that I use, and I really do recommend it. It’s available across a range of devices and is saved online, meaning that you can access your notes on any device without anything going missing. I made a notebook for every year of my course and divided them using the folder feature. Everything can be colour coded and is completely customisable which helps to tailor the experience to your needs. Each folder in my notebook contained all my notes for a particular module, with pages able to be added and removed at any time. Notes are saved as you type and can be saved offline if you’re away from the internet. There is even a dark mode if you are working at night, which has saved my eyes more than once. I found everything very intuitive and it’s easy to get used to. A search feature allows you to search for keywords inside a particular notebook or section which helped during exam season. Now I don’t have to worry about paper notes!
Apps such as GoodNotes offer similar features but are often restricted to Apple devices. Writing down my notes on a tablet has been something I have tried, but I found the Android offerings clunky and lacked some of the features of OneNote. Writing on a tablet also takes some getting used to and is uncomfortable after a while unlike typing, which I can do continuously. I don’t think that the volume of material on a history course is especially aligned with tablet usage, but I do know people who have made it work. There are some benefits, including online annotations, but I think laptops are the far superior device on this occasion.
I didn’t buy one of these until the summer of 2020 and I really have no idea why. For less than £20 this piece of metal changed the way I type. University accommodation is notorious for having uncomfortable chairs, which just added to the poor posture I had while typing. You’re going to spend a lot of time in front of a screen, so why not make it more comfortable? Laptop stands tilt your laptop up so it is at a better eye height, and also so that your hands can rest in a more comfortable position for typing. While writing my dissertation this made all the difference to my comfort, and I found I was able to type for longer periods which increased my productivity. These stands are lightweight and easily fit into a laptop bag, so are great for travelling too.
My Verdict on Tablets
I have a Lenovo Tab M10 which I use primarily as a second screen. While writing my dissertation I needed access to my notes, and printing them all off would clog up my tiny desk. My tablet is mainly for recreation, but served as a great second monitor during the writing process due to its great battery, OneNote compatibility and zoom features. Buying a second monitor would have been expensive and wouldn’t have fit on my desk (I’m working from a makeshift office for the foreseeable future) so my tablet found another purpose at the end of last year. I recently bought a wireless keyboard to go with it which was a fun accessory and makes it feel a little bit more like a miniature laptop, but definitely wasn’t necessary.
I wouldn’t advise getting a tablet for university work alone. If you already have one, it will be a useful accessory at times if you need another screen, a more portable device or as a backup for your laptop, but really isn’t needed.
This is the wireless keyboard I purchased: https://www.amazon.co.uk/TeckNet-Wireless-Keyboard-keyboard-Whisper-Quiet/dp/B00M75WPKO/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1J5XFVQWI6RIS&dchild=1&keywords=wireless+keyboard&qid=1612792553&sprefix=wireless+key%2Caps%2C215&sr=8-3
Technology is definitely becoming more and more integral to the university learning experience, so it’s wise to invest in devices which will help you out on your course. Remember to do your research, read reviews and even watch unboxings on YouTube to make sure you’re getting a good deal. Buy from reputable retailers and take recommendations from friends where you can. Good organisation is the key to a good researching and writing experience for history students, so a planner will help you to organise your life. If you’re struggling to afford the necessary technology, universities have bursaries and hardship funds to help students get what they need. This can usually be accessed through Student Services, but don’t be afraid to ask lecturers to point you in the direction. You may see students with lots of high-end technology, but it is really not needed and don’t be intimidated! A reliable laptop with good battery life is more than enough to write essays, complete online research and watch YouTube or Netflix.