‘The Hardest Exam in the World’

An experience: sitting the All Souls Fellowship examination

All Souls College Codrington Library, viewed from Radcliffe Square. Monoprint on white paper.

Last Thursday and Friday I sat the All Souls Fellowship Examination, a good contender for the title of ‘hardest exam in the world’. In the words of the college warden, all candidates have a first class degree, and all are of ‘an exceptionally high standard’: ‘your standard first class run of the mill essay won’t get you anywhere here’. (As you can imagine, at this stage my heart sank. Your ‘standard run of the mill first class essay’ was only what I’d been striving for, largely unsuccessfully, for most of my third year). Up to two fellowships are awarded, but only ‘if candidates of sufficient merit present themselves’. Sitting the exam more out of curiosity than with any hope of success, and to stockpile ammunition for future anecdotes, I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying it.

Structured along similar lines to Oxford University finals, the All Souls exam requires eager potential Prize Fellows to sit four exams over two days: two ‘Special’ papers in their subject, and two General papers. Candidates write three essays for each paper in the three hours set. Merely in terms of endurance, it was a formidable prospect: I had never had to write six essays in one day before.

All Souls, as a college, is something like what one imagines Oxford to be like if one relies solely upon rumours, caricatures and clichés. It is perhaps what wannabe Amory Blaine first years hope their college will be like before they arrive. Widely renowned as the world’s most exclusive academic institution, All Souls only accepts fellows from certain academic disciplines or backgrounds, including English, Economics, Philosophy, Law, Politics, History and Classics. Every summer, it extends invitations to finalists who have been awarded a first, suggesting they sit the exam. Rumour has it that until frighteningly recently, there was a pre-requisite Latin viva for all candidates. The college sits on Radcliffe Square in the centre of Oxford, its permanently closed wrought iron gates offering a tantalising view of the Library Quad, which is seriously beautiful even by Oxford’s standards. Its opening hours (2.00 until 4.00) are decidedly shorter than other colleges, reflecting the private nature of the place as an institution. It also comes with more mytho-historical baggage than most colleges. Allegedly, when the first foundation stone of the college was laid in 1483, it disturbed a mallard’s nest. The bird has since become something of an emblem of the college, and according to Oxford legend the ‘Lord Mallard’ leads a mallard-related song at the annual dinner. In the first year of every century, the fellows go mallard hunting on the college roof, lit by torchlight and drinking duck’s blood diluted with wine. This gives you a flavour of the romance and mysticism that surrounds All Souls – even if not all of what is said may be true.

Until 2009, the exam also included a ‘one word essay’ – perhaps its most highly publicised aspect. The college abolished it from 2010 onwards, and when I met the college warden, Professor Sir John Vickers, he explained their reasons for its removal. Apparently, the essay provided no distinguishing difference between excellent candidates and dreadful ones, and the process itself was time consuming and painful for both examinees and markers. Sir John wryly remarked that in May 2010, five months after the college had taken the decision to scrap the single word exam, a so-called ‘scoop’ article appeared on the front page of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/28/world/europe/28oxford.html): although, as one uncharitable friend of Sir John’s pointed out, below the fold. The Telegraph published that the removal of the exam was an outrage; and there was a mild press furore (though belated) in response. This is part of the allure of All Souls – its glamour, its romance, and why so many academics and institutions feel an automatic affiliation with it.

This too was part of the draw for me towards sitting the exam. That, alongside the glittering prize of becoming an Examination Fellow. The Fellowship offers a substantial annual stipend, free accommodation within the college and dining rights for life. It is perhaps unique in the academic world as it allows Fellows to pursue an academic career alongside a freelancing: in the arts, the law or the diplomatic service, among others. For myself, as well as probably all my fellow examinees, it would be an idyllic possibility, a dream come true without an ounce of hyperbole.

Of course, I am entertaining few illusions that this will happen for me. One of my fellow candidates had twelve A levels – and in spite of this, scarily, was a salient, indeed fascinating and friendly human being. Another had sat the exam twice before. Another had attended the funeral of a famous political theorist in the college, and provided me with the wonderful, if somewhat surreal image, of show tunes blaring out over the usually silent All Souls lawns at the theorist’s behest. Throughout the two days of exams, and the drinks held in the Codrington Library, I felt utterly out of place with Oxford’s academic elite. Who wouldn’t?

I’ve pasted a selection of the English papers (which I sat as my special) and the first Genera paper below, for your perusal. In discussion with other candidates, we almost all found that we could write around a page of dinner party conversation on almost all the questions, but it was a struggle to transform this into a critical, incisive and insightful essay on any of them. However, the most encouraging thing about sitting the exam is the way it encourages you to think. It was much less of a stressful experience than I had imagined, and gave you that wonderful, ‘brain-stretching’ feeling after each essay. It plumbed depths I didn’t know I had, from listing eight non-culturally specific criteria that can construct a joke, to making the arguments for the possibility of a one-word poem. It was an interesting experience.

The five candidates who answer the most interestingly and compellingly in the exams are invited to a viva, which ‘the fellowship at large’ – around fifty fellows – usually attend. Here, examinees are asked questions about their essays, grilled about their ideas, and probed for the extent of their knowledge. Allegedly, if the fellowship likes what a candidate says, they will bang on the table to show their approval. This practice, like the mythical mallard, demonstrates the theatricality and delicious excitement of All Souls as an institution.

I’ll be told by October the 22nd if I’m through to the viva. I’ll keep you posted. I advise you not to hold your breath.

English Paper I, page 1. All Souls College, September 2011

English Paper I, page 2. All Souls College, September 2011

General Paper I, page 1. All Souls College, September 2011

General Paper I, page 2. All Souls College, September 2011


About jsaedwards

Jessica Edwards is a young director and recent graduate of Oxford University. She works with new theatre company Flipping the Bird (go and see www.flippingthebird.co.uk). She is also a playwright, blogger and graphic designer.
This entry was posted in English literature, Experience and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘The Hardest Exam in the World’

  1. More than ever before I am convinced there is a large element of fun in All Souls…

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