• Abbie Tibbott

Skills for Aspiring First-Class History Undergraduates

From someone who’s been there and done it, gaining a first in your undergraduate history degree is entirely possible with enough hard work and an effective set of study skills. I managed several part-time jobs alongside my studies, as well as having an active social life, so the excuse of “I’m just too busy” won’t get you out of this one. If you want a first, there’s plenty I can help you with, and I guess that’s why you’re here! No-one tells you how to be successful at university, so there’s a near constant feeling of “winging it” unless you solidify your skills at an early stage.

Your first year is the ideal time to hone these skills, but if you’re heading off to university in September, there’s nothing stopping you preparing in advance. I’ve put together a list of skills I developed that I believe made a significant difference to my essay marks, time management and stress levels whilst I was a history undergraduate, so read on to share in my secrets!


1. Touch Typing

This is a must, but is developed over time. If you already have your own laptop or computer, develop a quick typing speed as soon as you can. I only bought my own laptop for university, so I had to learn to touch type over my first year after I switched to digital notetaking. If you’re keeping digital notes, being able to type quickly is essential as you will need to keep up with the speed of the lecturer in your classes. Learning to ignore the PowerPoint and simply type as you listen may feel foreign at first, but university lecturers often have basic slides that don’t contain much information anyway. Some lecturers will talk from typed notes that are not made available to you, while others completely freestyle, so touch-typing and shorthand notes will be the key to success. Quick typing will also help you to write essays faster, as well as take notes while researching at a faster pace. This really improved my overall productivity, so I’d recommend you start practicing your typing as soon as possible.

2. Skim-reading

Part of a history degree is the reading and preparation that’s involved before you even step foot in a seminar. As the years go by, the workload will increase, and it can be a struggle to keep on top of everything you need to read. Skim-reading enables me to find the information I need whilst not getting caught up in inaccessible language and jargon. Learning how to use book indexes and footnotes will help you jump to portions in a text that are relevant.

As a rule, the introduction and conclusion of a text will outline an historian’s opinions and thought process, but it’s simply not enough to read those sections and attend your seminar. I’ve read a lot of advice that champions this method as a way of getting all your reading done, but I argue that the middle of the text is where the key arguments and evidence is located. Skimming over those important sections will mean that you’re at risk of missing out on significant information, and I have read essays that are weak due to their lack of explanation of what an historian actually means due to the "quicker" method.

Learn to read quickly if you can! You’ll learn by doing, so try and read as much as you can while you’re doing your degree and you’ll find it much easier to select relevant information.

3. Summarising

Seminar leaders will often ask for contributions from attendees regarding what that week’s reading was about. Learning the art of summarising an article or argument into a few sentences will help significantly around exam time, as your brain will be too full of information to recollect an article word for word. Offering a suggestion may be daunting at first, but making it a habit will help you to condense your work down into more memorable chunks. Not doing the reading will reduce the effectiveness of the seminar, so try your best to collect bullet points of anything you find interesting while you’re reading. I’d advise jotting down your notes as you read, instead of having to go back at the end and re-read earlier sections that you’ve forgotten. I’ve read some really dry, boring and clunky articles that make me feel like I’m losing brain cells, so typing up notes as I read helps to alleviate the boredom, and prevents me from having to come back to the article again.

4. Becoming oblivious to distractions

This is as simple (or as difficult) as learning to completely ignore the hustle and bustle of your environment to allow you to be focused, ensuring your productivity is at its maximum levels. University libraries and coffee shops were my favourite places to work, as I don’t enjoy constant silence unless I’m really struggling to focus. Becoming distracted by friends, your phone or Netflix is something that will become a battle at times, but really does need to be brought under control if you’re going to produce the maximum amount of quality work in the shortest possible time.

If you need an example, I wrote an essay worth 80% in about six hours during my third year. I had completed my reading and research, organised everything into my folders, collated my references and turned up at the library bright and early. Apart from a few small grammatical changes, a bibliography and some formatting, the majority of what I wrote that day made it into the final submission. I knew exactly what I was writing, as well as the word count I needed to hit for each section. It may sound extreme, but I enjoy writing big chunks of essays as it continues my line of thought and prevents disjointed writing. However, the only way I was able to achieve such amazing productivity was due to my ability to ignore everyone and everything around me.

Becoming oblivious can only be described as a state of mind. My phone sat on the table beside me throughout, and I used the internet for fact-checking and timing my sessions, but I was completely outside of the realms of social media. It takes practice, but it is entirely achievable, and maybe contributes to a wider discussion of the impact of social media on our attention span. My most impressive marks have come from writing sessions that were free of distractions, and it’s probably the most important tip featured in this list.

If you’re struggling to reach maximum focus, I’d recommend:

· Putting your phone on ‘Do-Not-Disturb’ to minimise notifications, as well as silencing your devices.

· Using apps such as ‘Forest’ to time study sessions.

· Listening to Lo-Fi, instrumental or film music to drown out background chatter.

· Studying alone, or with a friend that also wants to be productive.

· Making sure you’ve had a good meal beforehand, and you have a drink handy for when you get thirsty.

· Taking small, regular breaks to stretch your legs, eat and socialise, protecting your eyes from screen-glare.

5. Making wider reading second nature.

Reading what’s on the reading list or bibliography for a particular module isn’t going to get you the top marks. Writing a good essay is important too, but reading beyond what you’ve been set will help you to gain a much wider understanding of your chosen topic, as well as giving you an idea of how the timeline of the historiography has evolved up until the present day.

To expand your reading list, ask for suggestions from your lecturer or use footnotes from texts you’ve already read so far. Following a paper trail of articles and books back in time will connect you to the original arguments and primary sources related to your line of enquiry. This trail is theoretically endless, so make sure that you set a clear parameter of what you need to find out, as it’s easy to become buried by historiography.

Paying close attention to the arguments in your wider reading will allow you to add points and evidence to your essays that others wouldn’t have included. It also means that for exams, there’s the chance your reading could help inform your written arguments there too, so there’s no need to go out and raid the library before you start revising. Just make sure your research notes are organised and filed appropriately so you have access to everything you need.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you need to be a first-class history student, and others may disagree with me regarding these study methods. All of these are learned habits, developed over four years of study, so don’t be disheartened if you feel these methods are not yet incorporated into your study routines. Perseverance, the willingness to ask for help and acting on feedback are equally important to ensuring your success is maximised whilst studying at university.

Happy Studying!