All Souls College Essay

The exam reputed to be one of the hardest in the world has just got (slightly) easier. All Souls College, Oxford has this year dropped the famous one-word essay question that has taxed new entrants for almost a century.

In a typical year, around 50 academic high flyers – all graduates – compete for fellowships at the Oxford college, lasting seven years and offering an annual stipend of £14,783. For the two successful candidates, it is often a ticket to academic stardom. Former fellows include Sir Isaiah Berlin, Marcus du Sautoy and Keith Joseph. In previous years, by far the most daunting element was a single card with one word on it ("innocence", "miracles" or "water"), about which candidates were asked to write coherently for three hours.

The exam now consists of four papers of three hours each: two general ones and two specialist papers. Try this paper from 2008 for size. If it's all a bit much, don't worry, both John Buchan and Hilaire Belloc took the exam and failed to get in.

General paper

Candidates should answer THREE questions

1. Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?

2. "I don't care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself," said the author of a half-dozen published novels. Is there anything wrong with this statement as a theory of art?

3. Are boycotts futile?

4. "Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something" [Andrew Carnegie]. Do you agree?

5. What, if anything, is wrong with selective schools?

6. Is dislike of politicians a sensible default position?

7. Why is a leather jacket more acceptable than a fur coat?

8. Why do Jane Austen's novels continue to be so popular?

9. Can any public and political institutions be trusted to reform themselves?

10. Is it an extremely unnatural condition for a male and female to live continuously together?

11. Is student mobility in Europe merely a form of subsidised tourism?

12. Do children's games involving blindfolds reveal an essential cruelty in human nature?

13. Why does the UN tolerate so many bad regimes?

14. Is there a breakdown of family values in the west, and if so should the state attempt to redress it?

15. Should governments support scientific research when there may be no technological benefit?

16. Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?

17. Isn't global warming preferable to global cooling?

18. Should the laws of a secular state accommodate religious groups which desire to live by their own customs governing family, property, and marital relations, administered through separate religious courts?

19. What should the west learn from China?

20. Does celebrity entail a loss of dignity?

21. Is the desire for posthumous fame irrational?

22. What, if anything, should be done about the "obesity epidemic"?

23. Why has Africa done so badly economically?

24. Can the world afford not to grow genetically modified crops?

25. Can architects and urban planners design out crime and social breakdown?

26. Do very large salaries for sports professionals alter the character of the games played?

27. It has been said that architecture is frozen music. Does this make any sense?

28. "Old poems such as Beowulf, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost are now unreadable by modern English speakers (without special training), so the cultural and social value of the 'great' poetry of the past lies in the material it provides for modern adaptations, such as the recent film version of Beowulf and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy." [The Economist]. Do you agree?

29. Why hug a hoodie?

30. Is string theory science?

31. Can a painting change the world?

32. Can (and should) Europe maintain its relatively high standard of living as compared with emerging economies?

33. Can you love someone if you don't respect them?

34. Is the treaty of Lisbon a further step towards the federation of Europe – or is it a step back from it?

Philosophy (Sept 2009)

1. Are vague concepts incoherent?

2. Should we distinguish between persons, human beings, and their bodies?

3. Can computers think?

4. Does any ancient philosopher have something to teach moral philosophers today?

5. Does beauty lie in the eye of the beholder?

English (Sept 2009)

1. How European was Chaucer?

2. Discuss relationships between allegory and realism in any period.

3. "At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!" [Jane Austen] Discuss.

4. Write an obituary of Harold Pinter.

5. Discuss ONE of the following in relation to the literature of any period: apocalypse, Biblicism, commemoration, dialect, enclosure, fortune, geriatrics, homoeroticism, imprisonment, justice, kingdoms, letters, manners, notions, options, pain, questions, republicanism, stupidity, testaments, unimaginability, verisimilitude, wealth, X-Men, youth, zillionaires.

History (Sept 2009)

1. Is Greek sexuality worth studying?

2. To what end did William the Conqueror assert continuity between his rule and that of Edward the Confessor?

3. "Medieval kings were like modern drinks dispensers; when they didn't do their job, you kicked them till they did." Discuss.

4. "Like all revolutions, the French Revolution was deeply reactionary." Do you agree?

5. Did Peel or Disraeli do more to found the Conservative party?

The Essay is an exceptional test of intelligence. Ask someone when the Battle of Hastings took place, and they'll either get it right or wrong. Ask them, "How did Athens run the Laurium silver mines?" – as I was asked in my ancient history Finals – and the answer is still pretty specific. But ask someone – or don't even ask them, just state to someone – a single word, and there's infinite room for genius, or stupidity, to expand within the word's parameters.

"It's not the sort of exam you can blag," says a friend of mine, who sat the exam in 1993, when the Essay was "Error". "It was the first exam that I'd ever come across where I couldn't fall back on native wit and blagging, as I had done with my Finals."

So, I'm afraid I must disagree with the Warden of All Souls, Sir John Vickers, a former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, who has just said that the Essay is no longer useful for testing the qualities for admission – "exceptional analytical ability, breadth and depth of knowledge, independent-mindedness and clarity of thought and expression". All of those qualities are brilliantly tested by Essay, which also has a magical romance to it that you don't normally associate with exams. And All Souls is poorer by its passing. Taking away Essay removes a chunk of mystique from this most mysterious of Oxbridge colleges.

Founded in 1438 for poor scholars by Archbishop Chichele, All Souls was intended as a place of learning and prayer for non-monastic clergy, and as a chantry for all souls of the faithful departed; hence the name. It was particularly associated with the late king, Henry V, and soldiers who had died in the Hundred Years' War with France. Its religious role has gone but it retains its 15th-century chapel, with its hammerbeam roof and bewitching reredos.

For all the ancient other-worldliness of All Souls, the beauty of the Fellowship Examination is that it allows some fellows to leave the cloistered world of academe. Both annual fellowships last seven years (and both come with a yearly £14,783 scholarship), but only one of them is purely academic. The other fellow – known as a "Londoner" by the academics – is encouraged to make his way in the outside world, typically in journalism, law or politics.

Londoners can still do some scholarly work on the side: John Redwood went to work for Robert Fleming, the merchant bank, while spending his weekends at All Souls writing his thesis: "The Fear of Atheism in England from the Restoration to Berkeley's Alciphron".

Londoners are expected, too, to dine regularly in the hall at All Souls, a 1729 masterpiece by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was into that hall that we candidates were led on our first morning by the Manciple – the college steward. However glittering the All Souls alumni are, I could see why John Strachey, the Labour MP and Spectator writer, said of the All Souls buildings and their inhabitants, "the birds are not worthy of the cage". Hawksmoor's hall is Gothic outside and classical inside – an Ionic screen and shell-headed niches are topped by a ceiling lined with ornate baroque pouches. Ranged around the room are portraits of distinguished Fellows. Outside in the quad sits a handsome sundial designed in 1658 by the All Souls bursar – who happened to be Sir Christopher Wren.

The whole set-up was all rather intoxicating and I could see why lots of Fellows walk through the medieval oak door on the High Street in their early twenties and don't leave until they are carried out, feet first, 60 years later.

My stay was a little shorter. I did my best on the two history papers, with questions such as: "Consider the problems raised by one or more of the following for those with property in Britain in any period of your choosing: dowagers; daughters; younger sons; bastards." I tried my hardest on the two general papers – sample question: e_SDLq'If a man could say nothing against a character but what he could prove, history could not be written' (Samuel Johnson). Discuss." And I struggled through the translations paper, which consists of several passages in different languages: ancient and modern Greek; ancient and medieval Latin; French; German; Italian; Spanish; Russian; ancient Hebrew. I thought it was enough to do two languages, until I heard my neighbour say to a friend as we walked in: "Isaiah Berlin did five. I'm going to try four."

But it was the Essay on Miracles that left me floundering. I did a bit on weeping Madonnas and liquefying saints' blood, and struggled to the end with some stuff on miracles being battles between cynicism and faith. It wasn't enough.

After a month spent marking the papers, the Fellows send invitations to shortlisted candidates for dinner – the "knife and fork test". I never got the invitation for dinner, and so never got to sit the last bit of the exam. The Fellows of All Souls may have foolishly got rid of Essay, but they still retain one last romantic, mystical trial: cherry pie is served for pudding, to see what the candidates do with the stones. AL Rowse swallowed his. He still wasn't sure, 70 years later, whether he'd done the right thing.

Harry Mount also writes a Telegraph blog.

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