All Souls College has decided to scrap the famous one-word essay question from its Fellows exam.
In the past, candidates have been given three hours to write, on no more than six sides of paper, about one word. Past essays have been on subjects such as “miracles”, “water” and “innocence”.
All Souls Warden John Vickers said the decision was the result of the exam’s ineffectiveness.
“For quite a number of years, how candidates did on the essay was not playing much of a role in assessing their analytical ability, and was just not that helpful,” Vickers said. “Another strand in the decision was that we thought we’d have a better balance between the subject papers and general papers without the essay.”
Vickers went on to acknowledge: “When it’s been a tradition for so long, there’s always some regret in coming to a decision like this.”
A second year undergraduate considering applying for one of the fellowships next year said: “Writing on a single word is highly subjective and very individualistic. If your examiner doesn’t have a background in the region you choose, this immediately places you at a disadvantage.”
But a postgraduate historian who took the exam last year thought it was a worthwhile assessment.
“The one word paper was the weirdest, but not necessarily the most difficult part of the selection process. The two general papers asking questions on broad matters of ethics, philosophy and politics were especially tough… the one word exam is sufficiently vague to be turned into talking about whatever you want to do,” he said.
A second year historian from Hertford added: “I think this undermines a brilliant tradition of All Souls College. Next they will be scrapping exams altogether. This is typical. Just typical.”
Vickers argued that the loss of the exam would have no impact on the calibre of the candidates selected this year, saying, “Not carrying on with the essay should be neutral in terms of who gets elected. We felt we were getting a better insight from the other ingredients of the exam process.”
All Souls recruits exclusively from Oxford’s undergraduate finalists and graduates to confer its two seven-year fellowships, which can be held by both academics and non-academics, and come with an annual stipend of £14,783.
Previous fellows have included the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the judge Richard Wilberforce.
The College’s decision means that candidates this autumn will face only four exams, consisting of two specialist subject papers and two general papers.