EVEN among the brightest minds at Oxford University, it has long been viewed as the one examination most likely to stir fear and doubt.
The one-word essay set by All Souls College every year has been the stuff of Oxford legend since 1914, when candidates were first faced with the challenge of writing coherently for three hours on a single word.
Those who have faced the ordeal know that they were in fierce competition for one of the greatest academic prizes that Oxford has to offer.
But All Souls has decided the time has come to draw a line under its historic one-word entrance essay, which is to be scrapped after nearly a century.
In a word, the college has decided that the exam has become outdated — and candidates will be spared the challenge this year.
All Souls is unique among Oxford colleges in that it does not admit undergraduates and its members automatically become fellows.
An All Souls fellowship has for decades been viewed as one of the most coveted prizes in all the universities of the world.
The fellowships last for seven years and come with a stipend of £14,783 a year.
But only one or two fellows are elected every year, based on examinations that, until this year, had included the one-word essay.
In 1914 the word was ‘culture’. Since then, candidates have been faced with ‘originality’, ‘water’, ‘miracles’ and ‘bias’ as the essay’s mystique has continued to grow.
Last year’s candidates were invited to write on ‘reproduction’.
The warden of All Souls, Sir John Vickers, said the college had decided that the one-word exam had served its useful purpose but was no longer viewed as the most suitable way to measure the abilities of outstanding candidates.
Sir John said: “There has been a growing feeling for some time that the one-word essay no longer helps us to distinguish who the best candidates are. It is no longer seen as a valuable part of the process.
“As with all these things people have different opinions and, like others, I feel regret when something that has been going on for so many years ends. But I believe this is the right decision. The one-word essay was only one of five examination papers. We learn more about people’s abilities and potential from the other general and specialist subject papers.”
Sir John, a former member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, had once himself faced the challenge of the one-word essay.
“It was in 1979. I can still remember the envelope being opened and being faced with the word ‘conversion’. I shudder to think what I wrote.”
The great Oxford historian Hugh Trevor Roper, later Lord Dacre, was among those who unsuccessfully bid for an All Souls fellowship, while the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the judge Richard Wilberforce, were among those who secured the prize, which propels successful candidates to academic stardom.
When T.E. Lawrence, forever known as Lawrence of Arabia, died, the only one of his achievements his mother wanted on the headstone of his grave was that he was a fellow of All Souls.
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