Maya St. Clair 11 min read 12th Grade, Academic Tips and Info

Should You Major In History?

History: you’d think a subject about dead people would run out of things to say. Finding out “what happened,” after all, seems pretty simple. However, history (historically) has never been a stable field. It’s a shifting battleground of constant discovery, recontextualization, argument, and hunting down sources. No wonder some historians refer to History with a capital “H.”

 

If this endlessly rich, infuriating, thrilling subject excites you, but you’re not sure how best to pursue your interest in college, read on: I’ll be going over what you can expect out of an undergraduate history major. That way, you can see if you’re a good fit for how history curricula work at a university level – and whether or not it’s right for you.

 

(Note: if you’re applying to college as a history major, CollegeVine can help you with essay writing tips. We have several guides and examples, and you can also get feedback from peers on your grammar and writing style. We’ll help you avoid clichés like opening your essay with that quote from Santayana about how “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get started on crafting a unique essay!) 

 

Overview of the History Major 

 

Class sizes: small

 

Most history classes tend to be seminar-style – that is, a clump of nerds sitting in a circle and discussing their readings, analyzing primary documents, and writing. Consequently, most class sizes tend to be small, about 20 students tops. Even the larger “requirement” and “intro” classes (imagine, for example, Intro to American History) tend to be smaller than your typical STEM lecture. As a history major, I was never in a class with more than 50 people, so even lectures tended to be intimate and personal. 

 

On the same note, history is a great major if you value in-person connections with your peers and teachers. History departments, due to their small size, tend to be close-knit and full of familiar faces. And the small class sizes mean that both you and your profs will have the time and energy for ample office-hours conversations, coffees, and mentorship.

 

Grades: mostly papers, projects, the occasional test 

 

Class regimens will vary depending on your professor’s preferences, but the overwhelming majority of history classes are based around discussions, participation, papers, and projects. History classes train you in the art of independent research and the demands of scholarship: while you don’t have to cram for huge tests and memorize flashcards until your eyes congeal, you can expect to spend an equal (if not greater) amount of time reading book chapters, taking notes, pursuing your own research, and writing papers. In length, these papers can range from 3 pages (a typical easy first-week assignment) to 30-40 pages (a rigorous final paper). 

 

When history teachers do include exams and tests, these tend to be supplementary to the writing and readings (sometimes you may have a final exam and a final paper). And history tests usually involve essay or short-response answers, with comparatively few multiple-choice. 

 

Additionally, you’ll be graded significantly for your participation in discussions and demonstrated contributions to class dialogue. While your peers in STEM may be able to skip class, sleep in, and binge-watch the lectures later, your history classes will demand attendance, involvement, and preparation. Students are expected to be fully present and ready to jump in with ideas and citations; many professors actually ban laptops and tablets, and require taking notes by hand, just to make sure that everyone is fully engaged in the beautiful “here and now” that is the university seminar. 

 

Requirements: different regions, different periods, methodology

 

Many history degree requirements can be complex and confusing, so start approaching your advisor and planning out your classes as early as possible! I can’t stress this enough. 

 

In general, you can expect to have to fulfill two main requirements: 1) a certain number of total credit hours/classes, and 2) taking classes in certain areas of intros, geography, time period, method, and difficulty.

 

  • Intros: you may have to take introductory or survey courses, like Intro to Western History or something similar. If you have AP credits, check with your college to see if you can bypass these and get to the good stuff. 
  • Geography: most colleges require history majors to diversify their classes in terms of geography. You may be required to take a certain number of classes in different regions: for example, I had to take at least one class each in U.S./Transatlantic, European, Latin American, and another non-Western region. 
  • Period: you’ll probably have to take classes that cover multiple eras. A typical requirement is one class each in modern (post-1800, or thereabouts) and premodern history. 
  • Methodology: depending on your school, there may be other requirements, too: you may have to take a class in a certain historical method (material evidence, archives, digital humanities), a class in historical writing, or a class in a certain discipline (post-colonial, economic, or local lenses). 
  • Difficulty: you may have to take a certain number of classes at an advanced or seminar level.

 

But these requirements absolutely do not mean you can’t pursue a certain concentration in a time period or region. In fact, the required classes tend to be a small minority of your total classes, and many will probably end up being filled by classes you want to take, anyway. 

 

Collaboration

 

Based as it is around research and reading, the history major tends to be heavily individualistic. In my experience, group projects tended to be rare and limited to fairly brief coordinations (presenting a book chapter with a partner, designing a syllabus, etc). 

 

However, there is still plenty of room for peer-editing, group discussions, and online comment threads. Often, once class starts, you’ll transition from being an independent researcher to an active discussant with all of your peers. 

 

On top of this, it’s easy to make friends and connections when your class is small enough to know everyone by name! 

 

Grad school

 

Graduating with a history degree is one thing, but being able to work as a historian typically requires at least a Master’s. So many history majors proceed to graduate school, in order to find employment as archivists, curators, and researchers. Nationally, about 4.5% of history majors push through the entire suite of grad school – Master’s, PhD, fellow, etc – to become educators at a college level. 

 

History Majors also pursue higher ed in other fields, too. The beauty of the history major is that there’s no obvious “track” to a discrete higher degree. History majors can get advanced degrees in History, but they can also succeed in Education, Law, Library Studies, other humanities fields, Psychology, etc. 

 

Compatibility with Other Majors

 

If you’re contemplating history as a secondary major or minor, you may be wondering: “Is it worth it? Will this history degree pay off if I pursue a different subject, like medicine, as my career?” 

 

The answer is a complicated, but reassuring, “yes.” Since history is such a versatile subject, it’s almost impossible to major in history and not utilize another subject while you’re at it. History sits at the axle of human endeavor: there’s not a single discipline, from math to war to theater to psychology, that can’t be looked at through a historical lens. Whatever primary interest you’re pursuing, you should be able to keep it in sight (and even strengthen your knowledge thereof) while majoring in history. In fact, some of the fastest-growing “species” of history have been where history collides with other subjects: combine history with music and you get historical musicology, combine history with statistics and you get historical demography, combine history with racial and ethnic studies and you get the booming field of racial, ethnic, and/or subaltern history. And historians, like most practitioners in the humanities, have become increasingly involved in the digital humanities: they incorporate technology like databases, coding, modelling, web design, and programming to create resources and make unprecedented discoveries.

 

So as you take history classes at a collegiate level, you’re likely to encounter many courses that splice different subjects, including courses at the intersection of history and your primary major. Virtually any university worth its salt provides “cross-disciplinary” classes like this as a regular part of its curriculum. Whether you’re still searching for colleges or you’re already attending, it’s worth your time to hop onto the History Department website of your school and read faculty bios and class offerings. That way, you can get a clear idea of 1) whose work mirrors your interests, and 2) which classes to take as you craft your history major with a cross-discipline in mind. 

 

What Can You Do with a History Degree?

 

Here are some ways that history majors put their degree to use. Keep in mind that history is not a pre-professional major, so graduates can go on to a wide variety of careers. In no particular order, here are some career paths for history majors:

 

1. Politics and Public Policy

Median salary: $58k

Projected growth: 6.1% (ten years)

 

Because historians are stellar researchers, they make perfect analysts and researchers for think tanks. Several of my friends have found opportunities working for government agencies, tracking down bureaucratic issues or getting to the bottom of department issues. 

 

2. Law

Median salary: $73k

Projected growth: 5.1% (ten years)

 

Many history majors proceed to careers in law, using the major to hone their research skills and attention to detail. Because law depends so much on historical precedents, gathering evidence, and backing up your conclusions, the history major is the perfect training ground for future lawyers, clerks, and judges. At Case Western, for example, 25% of history majors go on to law school. Check if your school has a pre-law track for your history major, which typically involves civics and poli-sci courses.

 

3. Teaching

Median salary: $57k

Projected growth: 2.1% (ten years)

 

The most common career path for history majors is teaching. Many states require high school teachers to have a bachelor’s in their particular subject, so aspiring high school history teachers often start by getting a B.S. in history before proceeding to the M.A.T. Additionally, a small amount of history majors go all the way: getting a PhD and becoming college instructors (as well as historians). 

 

4. Writing, Editing, Communications

Median salary: $60k

Projected growth: 3% (ten years)

 

By the time you graduate with a history major, you’ll have consumed thousands of pages of writing and produced dozens, if not hundreds, of pages of your own writing. You’ll have a profile that involves significant amounts of editing, writing, and argument, which positions you excellently for a job in copy, publishing, journalism, or communications.

 

5. Archives, Museums, Libraries

Median salary: $41k

Projected growth: 1.4% (ten years)

 

Although they involve significantly more training, such as certifications and a Master’s, specialized careers in the management of historical documents or monuments can provide a reliable, stable career for history majors, in which you can interact with history on a daily basis. However, be prepared for a lot of studying and intensive training, in anything from how to preserve paper to how to manage a museum membership database. 

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Great Colleges for History Majors

 

This list is by no means exhaustive – it reflects the top 5 schools selected by CollegeVine, along with some others of note. We have a longer list of the top colleges for history with more variety of school types, prestige level, and affordability.

 

1. Amherst College

Location: Amherst, MA

Acceptance Rate: 11.3%

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,855

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1420-1530 SAT, 31-34 ACT

 

Amherst has an open curriculum, which means that you have no general education requirements. As long as students fulfill their major requirements, they can take whatever courses they like. The sweet, sweet smell of freedom! Students can also take classes at partner colleges, like UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Mt. Holyoke, as part of the Five-College Consortium.

 

History majors at Amherst must complete nine courses spread across different timelines and geographic areas. In particular, students have to pick an area of concentration – so, a certain time period, place, or subject – and pursue 4 classes therein. Amherst history students also have some solid research requirements: to graduate, you need to choose between writing an honors thesis or a capstone project (one research seminar course culminating in a 20-25 page paper). 

 

Learn more about Amherst and see your chances of acceptance.

 

2. Princeton University 

Location: Princeton, NJ

Acceptance Rate: 5%

Undergrad Enrollment: 5,267

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1440-1570 SAT, 32-35 ACT

 

Princeton’s history faculty contains some of the most noted historians in the world, from Anthony Grafton and Jennifer Rampling. It has a wealth of resources for its history majors, including its undergraduate history journal and ample collaboration with Princeton’s other world-ranking departments, like African Studies, East Asian Studies, Classics, and Judaica. 

 

Learn more about Princeton and see your chances of acceptance.

 

3. Williams College

Location: Williamstown, MA

Acceptance Rate: 12.6%

Undergrad Enrollment: 2,073

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1420-1540 SAT, 32-35 ACT

 

Williams is known for its tutorial-style classes, which are modeled off of the tutorial system at the University of Oxford. In these classes, there are only two students with one professor, and much of the coursework is done independently. History majors at Williams are required to take at least one advanced tutorial or advanced seminar. They also have the option to pursue a senior thesis in order to graduate with honors. 

 

Williams also encourages students to develop proficiency in a foreign language and study abroad. One of Williams’ highlights is the Williams-Exeter Programme, which allows students to study in-depth at Exeter College of Oxford University. Many Williams history majors take advantage of this opportunity to explore one of the world’s oldest and best universities for history.

 

You can check out department happenings on their news page to get a sense of faculty research.

 

Learn more about Williams and see your chances of acceptance.

 

4. Swarthmore College

Location: Swarthmore, PA

Acceptance Rate: 8.9%

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,559

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1380-1540 SAT, 31-35 ACT

 

Swarthmore’s history program focuses on broad experience, field work, and involvement in the larger world. History students at Swarthmore have access to the rich historical institutions in Philadelphia, as well as the college’s own collections, which feature Quaker history and antiwar materials. The department offers grants that allow students to conduct summer research around the world on a topic of their choosing. History majors are also encouraged to study a foreign language and to study abroad.

 

Requirements for the program include specially-tailored first-year seminars, survey courses, and several upper-level courses. We recommend you check out Swarthmore’s undergraduate history journal for a look at the kind of research students are producing, from “RENT” to Haitian history.

 

Learn more about Swarthmore and see your chances of acceptance.

 

5. Yale University

Location: New Haven, CT

Acceptance Rate: 6.1%

Undergrad Enrollment: 5,964

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1470-1560 SAT, 33-35 ACT

 

With its ancient campus and beautiful gardens, Yale is perfect if you’re looking for a bookish, cozy, academic vibe to compliment your history major. The Yale History Department is home to some of the world’s leading historians, like Henry Luis Gates and David Blight, who won the Pulitzer for history just last year for his biography of Frederick Douglass.  

 

Yale’s program has a few distinct requirements. For one thing, students have to choose between the “Global Track,” which provides a broad foundation in international history, or the “Specialist Track,” which focuses on one area and region. Yale history majors also have to complete a one- or two-semester Senior Essay (the two-semester essay is required to graduate with distinction). Standout students may also be eligible for a combined B.A./M.A. degree in History after only eight semesters of study.

 

Learn more about Yale and see your chances of acceptance.

 

More schools for your consideration:

 

University of Chicago

Location: Chicago, IL

Acceptance Rate: 7%

Undergrad Enrollment: 6,552

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1470-1570 SAT, 33-35 ACT

 

If you’re interested in “macro” history – history that emcompasses broad theories of social and economic change – then UChicago is your element. UChicago’s history department is heavy on rigor, importance, and Ideas with a capital I. UChicago puts on huge numbers of colloquia, seminars, talks, and conferences every year.

 

Learn more about UChicago and see your chances of acceptance.

 

UCLA

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Acceptance Rate: 14%

Undergrad Enrollment: 31,500

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1290-1520 SAT, 30-34 ACT

 

When various organizations like U.S. News put out their rankings of colleges for history, UCLA is reliably in the top 10, again and again. UCLA’s history department is active, productive, and frequently publishes innovative historical research in “hot” fields like racial, scientific, colonial, and subaltern history. It’s a great department for plunging headlong into the infinite variety of history.

 

Learn more about UCLA and see your chances of acceptance.

 

UC Berkeley

Location: Berkeley, CA

Acceptance Rate: 15%

Undergrad Enrollment: 30,800

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1320-1530 SAT, 31-35 ACT

 

Yes, it’s another UC, but their history programs are nationally renowned. Just as Berkeley is a national byword for activism, social dialogue, and simmering debates, Berkeley’s history department is perfect for history majors looking to investigate where innovative history meets contemporary cultural issues. They also host a yearly Historical Homecoming, which is a homecoming bash with a different historical theme each year. 

 

Learn more about UC Berkeley and see your chance of acceptance.

 

University of Michigan 

Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Acceptance Rate: 23%

Undergrad Enrollment: 30,300

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1330-1510 SAT, 30-34 ACT

 

UMich’s history department boasts one of the strongest faculties in the U.S., and it also places an emphasis on helping its graduates find careers. As you can see on the History at Work blog, UM provides students with a variety of research projects to assist with, as well as internships in the surrounding area. In a field where professors are often exhausted and preoccupied with publishing, research, and wider issues in the field, UMich stands out for putting its students first. 

 

Learn more about UMich and see your chances of acceptance.

 

For further reference, CollegeVine also has a complete list of best colleges for history.

 

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Maya St. Clair
Writer at CollegeVine
Short bio
Maya St. Clair is a freelance writer and Renaissance historian from Illinois. She loves "writing about writing" and helping others achieve the best results with their own prose. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis.