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Oxford Essay One Word

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In a word, the college has decided that the exam has become outdated — and candidates will be spared the challenge this year.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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“An exercise in showmanship to avoid answering the question,” is the way the historian Robin Briggs describes his essay on “innocence” in 1964, a tour de force effort that began with the opening chords of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and then brought in, among other things, the flawed heroes of Stendhal and the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camp in the William Golding novel “Free Fall.”

No longer will other allusion-deploying Oxford youths have the chance to demonstrate the acrobatic flexibility of their intellect in quite the same way. All Souls, part of Oxford University, recently decided, with some regret, to scrap the one-word exam.

It has been offered annually since 1932 (and sporadically before that) as part of a grueling, multiday affair that, in one form or another, has been administered since 1878 and has been called the hardest exam in the world. The unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even non-applicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out. Applicants themselves discovered the word by flipping over a single sheet of paper and seeing it printed there, all alone, like a tiny incendiary device.

But that was then. “For a number of years, the one-word essay question had not proved to be a very valuable way of providing insight into the merits of the candidates,” said Sir John Vickers, the warden, or head, of the college.

In a university full of quirky individual colleges with their own singular traditions, All Souls still stands out for the intellectual riches it offers and the awe it inspires. Founded in 1438 and not open to undergraduates, it currently has 76 fellows drawn from the upper echelons of academia and public life, most admitted on the strength of their achievements and scholarly credentials.

Previous fellows include Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Christopher Wren, William Gladstone and T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Hilaire Belloc and John Buchan are said to have failed to get in. In recent years, fellows have included a Nobel Prize winner, several cabinet members, a retired senior law lord and a lord chancellor.

In addition, two young scholars are chosen each year from among Oxford students who graduated recently with the highest possible academic results. Called examination fellows, they get perks including room and board, 14,783 pounds (about $21,000) a year for a seven-year term and the chance to engage in erudite discussions over languorous meals with the other fellows.

But first they have to take the exam. It consists of 12 hours of essays over two days. Half are on the applicants’ academic specialties, the other half on general subjects, with questions like: “Do the innocent have nothing to fear?” “Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?” “How many people should there be?” and the surprisingly relevant, because this is Britain: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Those are daunting enough. But it is the one-word-question essay (known simply as “Essay”) that candidates still remember decades later. Past words, chosen by the fellows, included “style,” “censorship,” “charity,” “reproduction,” “novelty,” “chaos” and “mercy.”

It was not a test for everyone.

“Many candidates, including some of the best, seemed at a loss when confronted with this exercise,” said Mr. Briggs, a longtime teacher of modern history at Oxford.

Others found it exhilarating. “Brilliant fun,” a past applicant named Matthew Edward Harris wrote in The Daily Telegraph recently, recalling his 2007 essay, on “harmony.”

He had resolved, he said, that “No matter what word I was given, I would structure my answer using Hegel’s dialectic.” And then, like a chef rummaging through the recesses of his refrigerator for unlikely soup ingredients, he added a discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative and an analysis of the creative tensions among the vocalists in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (he didn’t get in).

The writer Harry Mount, an Oxford graduate and the author of “Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life,” didn’t get in, either. His essay, in 1994, was on “miracles.”

What was in it?

“Crying Madonnas in Ireland, that sort of thing,” Mr. Mount said. “And the battle between faith and cynicism. I was a cynic and didn’t believe in miracles, and perhaps that was bad. I had just read about Karl Popper and his theory of falsification, so I threw in a bit about that.”

Justin Walters, the founder and chief executive of Investis, an online corporate communication service company, said that writing his essay, on “corruption,” was not half as bad as the oral exam several weeks later, conducted by a long row of fellows peering across a table.

“ ‘Mr. Walters, you made some very interesting distinctions in your essay. Are you prepared to defend it?’ ” he remembered one of the fellows asking. Unfortunately, he had only a vague recollection of what he had written. “You’re the teacher — you figure it out,” he recalled thinking. (He must have done something right: he got in.)

Sir John, the current college warden, has worked as the Bank of England’s chief economist and been president of the Royal Economic Society, among other jobs. He draws a self-protective veil over the memory of his own essay, in 1979, on “conversion.”

“I do shudder at the thought of what I must have written,” he said.

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