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The world’s toughest entrance exam

world's toughest exam
Questions in the world's toughest exam have baffled The historian Lord Dacre and the author Hilaire Belloc. Source: Frederick Florin/AFP

If you thought your IB or IELTS exams were hard, try taking what’s known as the world’s toughest exam, i.e. Oxford University’s All Souls College entrance exam.

The goal is a seven-year fellowship that covers accommodation, allowance and more. Only postgraduate students can apply to take the exam which takes place each autumn.

According to The Guardian, only around 50 “academic high flyers” compete for the fellowships, which have previously been won by the likes of the founder of the discipline intellectual history Sir Isaiah Berlin and former UK Secretary of State for Education and Science Keith Joseph.

The world’s toughest exam got its reputation from setting a one-word essay question, where you would have to write — coherently for three hours —  on words such as “miracles,” “innocence,” or “water.” (This has been scrapped after administrators found it has “not proved so useful.”)

Other questions aren’t any easier. They consist of questions such as:

  • “Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something” [Andrew Carnegie]. Do you agree?
  • Why is a leather jacket more acceptable than a fur coat?
  • Why does the UN tolerate so many bad regimes?
  • Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?
  • Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?
world's toughest exam

Oxford’s All Souls College is behind what’s known as the world’s toughest exam, which sets questions such as, “Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?” “Are leather coats preferable to fur coats.” Source: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

Papers

The world’s toughest exam consists of four papers. Each spans three hours. Two are in your chosen specialist subject — that includes classical studies, law, history, English literature, economics, politics, or philosophy. 

The other two papers are more general and ask questions on a broad range of subjects. An example would be: “Are modern politicians merely managers?”. 

The English Literature specialist paper can be on any literature in English while a section of the English Literature II paper will be an obligatory practical criticism question. The other section of the second literature paper will allow candidates to expand on foreign literature. 

The Classical Studies papers require candidates to show technical mastery of language or archaeological material covering: literature, history, archaeology, or philosophy. If you nail the written papers, you’ll then be invited to an oral exam on the last Saturday of October.

Some past examples can be found here for classical studies, English literature and Philosophy.

Viva voce

This is 25-minute session where you’ll be questioned on your written work. This means you need to summarise your content in a clear and concise way.

Who can apply for the world’s toughest exam

All Souls College welcomes men and women of diverse backgrounds. You can apply if you have a degree (or if you’ll have a degree by October 1) from the University of Oxford. 

You can also apply if you’ve registered by October and completed all the exams for an undergraduate degree. Two fellows are selected from several dozen each year. 

Deadline

It varies each year but is usually around the beginning of September. You need to complete the online application form — for this, this should be done by August 23