What A-Levels do you need?
You might want to adopt the position of Rodin’s famous ‘The Thinker’ in preparation for applying for a classics degree, as average grade requirements are quite high: you’ll need between A*AA and AAA to study at Oxford or Cambridge and AAA – AAB to study at top flight institutions such as the University of Edinburgh and Newcastle University. There is some flexibility though, as other great unis like the University of Reading ask for ABB and the University of Swansea has a minimum requirement of BBB. Most universities don’t expect you to have studied Latin (and certainly not Ancient Greek) before starting your course, but if your sixth form or college
does offer a Latin A-Level it will definitely stand you in good stead.
What are your study options?
Classics is usually a three-year course when studied full-time, but some universities offer a longer course with an extra foundation or preliminary year – you might find this option particularly beneficial if you didn’t study Latin at A-Level and want to get a grounding in the language before starting your degree proper. The University of Cambridge’s four-year classics degree also includes some study of ancient Greek in the preliminary year, as well as study of roman-era texts, which you might also find useful if you haven’t read a lot ancient literature before. If you’d like to spread your study over a longer period, many universities offer classics as a part-time course, which typically takes 5 – 6 years to complete; the Open University also offers a degree in classical studies, which gives you the freedom to complete the course at your own pace.
You’ll also have the option to read classics as one half of a joint honours degree – lots of students take classics alongside subjects like history, philosophy or English; alternatively, a degree in classics and a language like French, Spanish or German will give you a great breadth of knowledge of both ancient and modern languages.
Why study classics?
Classics has a bit of an unfair reputation as a subject for well-heeled students at Oxford or Cambridge who’ve never got less than an A for anything, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Nowadays most universities – both red brick and modern institutions – offer degrees in classics or classical studies and you while you’ll have to work hard, you don’t have to be a genius to do well. Classics isn’t just the study of ancient civilisations, but also how ancient cultures have shaped the way we live today, so it will appeal to those who want to keep in both the past and the present, and – as we’ve already mentioned – a classics degree can be the ideal option for students with a broad interest in all the main areas of the humanities who don’t want to limit themselves to just one or two subjects. On top of this, as students of classics are generally seen as intelligent, conscientious and studious (you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time in the library), as well as having a good knowledge of a few different subjects, they are well looked-upon by employers.
After your degree…
While a classics degree doesn’t offer a direct route into any particular career, you’ll find there are lots of different jobs your skills could apply to. Many classics graduates use their expertise in history and ancient culture and civilisations to follow careers in museum and art gallery management and curation, or work as inspectors or conservationists for institutions such as English Heritage and the National Trust. Others use their superior language skills to work in journalism or PR or even become authors or playwrights, while many MPs come from a classics background (including Mayor of London Boris Johnson). Alternatively, with a little further study you could be ideally placed to be a teacher of history, philosophy, Latin, or classics itself. If you’re more academically minded, there are plenty of MA courses you’ll be eligible for, either in classics or a related humanities subject; this route could take you onto a PhD and a full-time career in university level teaching and/or research.
Q&A with a classics graduate
Dean James Fairbairn studied classics at the University of Edinburgh…
Why did you choose to study classics at university?
To be honest I had some romantic and naïve notion of having the same classical education as Byron and Pope, or More and Chaucer. It seemed to me that all the great English authors in the cannon were reading and referencing Greek and Roman classics and I really admired that.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of your course?
Penetrating history through testimony, by far. I spent the majority of my degree pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, gathering up the evidence and trying to see what really happened. The historicity of fiction is an amazing approach to classics and I honestly loved it. It makes everything fair game and adds an interesting dimension to every text, every image, and every scrap of available material.
What was the least enjoyable aspect of your course?
There really wasn’t anything about the course I didn’t enjoy.
How do you think a classics degree would help graduates seeking employment?
It won’t in any direct way, but it gives you a wonderful perspective, great historical awareness, and lets you see the inspiration behind almost every other story ever told. It's useful if you want to be an archaeologist or work in a museum as many aspects of the course are geared towards curating, although those jobs also tend to be very competitive. Classics is mainly a recreational degree; it sounds cool and is genuinely loads of fun to study.
How did the course prepare you for getting a job?
It gives you the same transferable skills in research, case building and communication as any other degree will, which is a good basis for employment in general.
What would you like to go on to do in your career in the future?
I’ve written several plays now, among other things, so I’ll continue pursuing that; otherwise, who knows?