A guide to studying undergraduate Humanities degrees


By Pamela Head,

Humanities may be something you’re familiar with from your time at school or college. It typically covers subjects that deal with the human condition, and analyses and offers a critical view of literature, human behaviour or the past. It is a broad category and humanities subjects include English Literature, English Language, Law (though this is usually included in Social Sciences and so will be covered in that subject guide also), Religion, Art, Philosophy, History and modern languages. They are studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills, rather than more occupational or professional skills.

What types of humanities degree are available to you?

When you’ve studied these areas before, you may be used to taking a rather broad approach, covering war poetry, World War Two or learning the basics of conversational French, for instance. At university, the range is far more diverse, but also more specific. You are given a chance to expand on your knowledge by looking more in-depth at an area that interests you, so it is important to do your research when choosing a degree, as there is a lot out there.

Most universities offer you the option of studying straight subjects, like English Literature or History, and will also offer a choice of modules so you can tailor your course to your interests. But when deciding on which university you want to go to and course you want to study, make sure you take a look at the modules on offer. If you like the look of one or two, but dislike the others, then it may be an idea to look around at some other universities too or you may face a term bored out of your brain because you’ve been stuck with topics you have no interest in.

If more than one humanities subject interests you, then a Joint Honours degree may be the way to go – you take the core modules from the two subjects you’re studying and emerge with a degree having gained knowledge and skills from both disciplines. Most universities will offer you classic combinations, such as English and Drama, or French and Italian, so if you feel a pressure to choose between your two favourite subjects, have a look around; this may not be the case.

With humanities subjects, it is also quite common to see degrees that offer year abroad programmes. When studying a subject like modern languages or English and American Literature, it can make sense to go to that country and experience the culture and literature for yourself. If this is something you’re interested in, then check if the particular university or degree you’re interested in offers a year abroad option too. If cost is a concern, check with the university in question to see if they offer a discount, funding, a scholarship or anything else that can help you out.

The one thing to note about Humanities subjects in general is that they involve a lot of essay writing. This is the one practical difference between humanities and science degrees. Essays can range from 1,500 to 6,000 words and maybe more at certain universities, so be prepared for a lot of hard work. They are usually sparse throughout the term, but can be a headache when they roll around and require a lot of research, reading and above all, time. So be prepared for this. You will also most likely have to write essays in exams, so get used to the sore hand that comes from writing for three hours straight!

Humanities course examples

All universities will offer slightly different variations of the degree you want to study, covering a different range of modules, with different teachers, different departments and different focuses. Here are some examples of the degrees you can expect to see when you begin your search:

Royal Holloway University of London courses:

  • English and Latin (BA)
  • Drama and Creative Writing
  • Classical Studies with Philosophy
  • European Studies (In Spanish, Italian, German, French)
  • History with International Relations

University of Kent courses:

  • English and American Literature with Creative Writing
  • European History with a Year Abroad
  • Comparative Literature, History and Philosophy of Art
  • Art and Film
  • Drama and English Language and Linquistics

University of Cambridge courses:

  • Modern and Medieval Language (French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish)
  • Architecture
  • Classics
  • Education
  • Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Warwick University courses:

  • English and Latin Literature
  • History, Literature and Cultures of the Americas
  • Law – Study Abroad in English
  • Law with Humanities
  • Italian with Film Studies

University of Greenwich courses:

  • English
  • Psychology and Counselling
  • Drama and Performing Arts
  • Creative Music Production and Technology

Humanities courses in the university rankings

Complete University Guide 2013 rankings for humanities subjects

English: Oxford, Durham, Cambridge, York, University College London
History: Cambridge, London School of Economics, Durham, Oxford, St Andrews
Art and Design: Oxford, Lancaster, Newcastle, Reading, Brunel
French: Oxford, Durham, St Andrews, Warwick, Cambridge.
German: Oxford, Durham, Cambridge, St Andrews, Bristol
Linguistics: Cambridge, Oxford, Lancaster, Sheffield, York
Psychology: Cambridge, Oxford, University College London, Bath, Durham

The Times Good University Guide 2013 rankings for humanities subjects

English: Oxford, Cambridge, York, Durham, and Chichester is given a special mention for finishing top in the 2011 National Student Survey.
History: Cambridge, Durham, University College London, London School of Economics and Derby is given a special mention for the highest student satisfaction score.
Art and Design: Oxford, Lancaster, Glasgow, University College London, Brighton, Kent, Newcastle
French: Oxford, Cambridge, East Anglia, Leicester, Southampton, Newcastle
German: Cambridge, Durham, Southampton, Bristol, St Andrews
Linguistics: Cambridge, Oxford, Queen Mary, University College London, Portsmouth
Psychology: Cambridge, Oxford, Cardiff, Royal Holloway, Glasgow, Cardiff

The Guardian University Guide 2013 rankings for humanities subjects

English: University College London, Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, St Andrews
History: Cambridge, London School of Economics, St Andrews, Brunel, Durham
Art and Design: University College London, Brunel, Oxford, Lancaster, Newcastle
Modern Languages and Linguistics: Cambridge, Oxford, Southampton, Leicester, Durham
Psychology: University College London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Glasgow


Read our guide to careers a humanities degree can lead to.