An Oxford Historian
The World's Hardest Exam: All Souls, Oxford
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
All Souls College at the University of Oxford University is widely accepted to have the hardest exam in the world its entry test. How many questions can you answer?
All Souls College, Oxford
All Souls, one of the colleges at the University of Oxford, is unlike any other. It is open only to those with an undergraduate degree, and prospective students are subjected to a special extra set of exams. Successful candidates are made fellows, and provided with huge benefits, including tuition and accommodation paid for in whole, and an annual stipend.
Sound ideal? Bear in mind, they admit only two candidates a year...
It's important to note this is a special case, and a VOLUNTARY set of exams - normal admission at any level is nothing like this process. Don't let this extreme example put you off from applying to Oxford - attending Oxford is an attainable goal for everyone, and you don't need to be able to answer any of these questions to go. That having been said, they're good fun to have a think-through to get the old brain-cogs going, and that's the aim of this article, rather than to scare anyone off.
This article isn't going to attempt to answer the questions for you. For one, I doubt I would be able to provide satisfactory answers. But secondly, the point of these questions is they are a personal response - a reflection of you as a person, the way your brain works and the way you reason. A lot of the questions here are not inherently difficult to answer badly - anyone could have a stab at them. What they are is difficult to answer extremely well, precisely because they require you to personally and convincingly engage with the material.
All Souls Exam - The Subject Papers
Entry to All Souls requires completing 12 hours worth of grueling exams. Firstly, candidates need to sit two 3-hour subject-specific papers, available in 7 options: Classics, Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy, or Politics.
Does trust have a history?
Is the current economics curriculum fit for purpose?
Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath?
What gives Beckett hope?
Does law claim authority?
Should we try to define art?
Have we seen the end of the ‘end of ideology’ ideology?
All Souls Exam - The General Papers
Candidates then sit a further set of two 3-hour exams called the General Paper, designed to test the rational argument skills of candidates in areas they are less familiar with. Past examples include:
‘To photograph is to confer importance’ (SUSAN SONTAG). Discuss.
Which concept is more fundamental, shape or colour?
Are there any unanswerable questions?
‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection’ (ANAÏS NIN). Discuss.
If Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela had died on the same day, whose death should the BBC have reported as its top story?
All Souls Exam - The One Word Essay
Be happy that the third set of essays has now been removed. Originally, candidates were also asked to write an hour essay based on a single word given to them. In past years, the page included simply one of the following :
Following 12 hours of exams, successful candidates are invited back for a viva, where they are questioned on their written answers by a panel of up to 50 fellows. Completed all of this with flying colours? Then congratulations, you have achieved the ultimate bragging rights and aced the hardest exam in the world.
More information, including full past papers, is available on All Soul's website here: https://www.asc.ox.ac.uk/examination-fellowships-general-information
And, again as a final note, remember that this exam reflects the very best, very hardest (post-graduate) exam at Oxford; the university is open to every0ne, and nobody should be put off applying by what they see here!
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