All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take

If you’ve ever visited Oxford, chances are that you’ll spend some time in Radcliffe Square, admiring the University Library and the round Radcliffe Camera building. Along the east side of the the square is a long wall with a black metal gate set into it; people often poke their heads in to see an immaculate yet strangely deserted quadrangle. This is All Souls college.

Unlike most colleges in Oxford, All Souls does not admit undergraduates. It currently has 76 fellows, as well as a number of visiting fellows. For a college that has an endowment of around £144m, this is a small group indeed. Depending on their status and, for example, whether they teach at Oxford, fellows of All Souls receive a certain stipend and rooms; nothing huge, but enough for them to pursue whatever line of research they might want. This alone would be an attractive prospect for any academic, but the reputation of the college and fellows both current and past (e.g. Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Wren, Amartya Sen) including elevates the college into a realm that is occupied by, arguably, none other than itself.

All Souls holds a particular fascination for Oxford students. While most fellows who join the college are postdocs and are elected by its current members, every year, two graduate students – who might be as young as 21 – are admitted as Prize Fellows. The way these two people are chosen is through a famous exam.

The exam consists of five papers. Two are on general topics (PDF), such as:

  • Can terrorism be justified?
  • Would you have burned Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, as he requested in his will?
  • If the Greeks invented democracy, what is it?
  • Is good for literature?
  • Is China overrated?
  • What can we learn from Las Vegas?
  • Is Dark Energy more interesting than Dark Matter?

These two general papers have around 30-40 questions each, and candidates have to answer three questions on each, with three hours per paper (i.e. one hour per question). Two more papers are based on the candidate’s field of study, and cover Classics, Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy and Politics (all PDFs). These subject-specific papers have fewer questions per paper, and while they are relatively general questions, e.g.:

  • Whither social democracy after Tony Blair? (Politics)
  • Can animals think? (Philosophy)
  • Why was resistance to the Mongols so seldom successful? (History)
  • Write on any one of the following: games, food, body parts (English)

you clearly have to have a good grasp of the subjects; or at the very least, you would gain a real advantage from having studied them at the degree level. In other words, it would be difficult to wing it; there just aren’t enough ‘really general’ questions on the subject papers to make that possible.

These questions are all very interesting and I know that candidates enjoy being able to tackle such broad issues. Even so, the exam wouldn’t have its legendary status if it wasn’t for the fifth paper. Here is a question from last year’s fifth paper:

  • Water

That’s it. You have three hours to write an essay on ‘water’. You can do pretty much whatever you want, although they do discourage ‘verse, stories or autobiographical accounts’. Here are other questions:

  • Style
  • Integrity
  • Bias
  • Value

It isn’t hard to see why this is so fascinating for Oxford students; it’s an almost pure test of imagination, intelligence and knowledge. You can’t cheat, you can’t waffle, you can’t data-dump – you have to write something good, something better than the 59 other people also taking the exam.

Many of the candidates for the exam are invited, by virtue of gaining the ‘top first’ in their subject or excelling in some other way. However, most students aren’t aware that practically anyone may enter the exam; if you have graduated from Oxford in the last three years, or you have been a grad student for under two and a half years, you’re eligible. In fact, you might have been a terrible student and you can still enter – and be accepted, as a New Statesmen article about the experiences of a candidate reveals:

David Gilmour, in Curzon, his life of Lord Curzon, viceroy of India and almost prime minister in the 1920s, describes how upset Curzon was on getting a Second in his classics finals. He “thought a Second would be so humiliating and make his life so insupportable that he would have to retire somewhere and hide his face from the world”. Curzon wrote that he would devote his future to “showing the examiners that they had made a mistake”. The best way of showing them was to win the All Souls fellowship which, after a year’s study, including a volume of Gibbon every two days, he duly did.

You may have noticed that there are no papers for any of the sciences. All Souls does count scientists among its fellows, and Prof. V. S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist I studied under, was a visiting fellow, which demonstrates that they don’t have any intrinsic objection to science. However, I still found it a little odd; presumably they had a good reason for omitting the sciences, but what was it?I emailed the Warden’s Secretary and received this answer:

Science subjects have not been one of the traditional subjects of the Prize Fellowship Examination, and the reason for maintaining this is that young scientists on the whole are well looked after in other colleges and universities.

This is basically true; it is much easier for young scientists to find funding from not only colleges and universities but also government and NGO funding bodies like the BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust. However, I would argue that this isn’t the whole story. Anyone smart enough to win a Prize Fellowship at All Souls is smart enough to get plenty of funding from anywhere in the world; their reason would make sense if they were offering dozens of fellowships, but not only two. The reason why graduates want to join All Souls is not merely receive funding, but for the prestige, company and freedom that it entails; something that scientists equally prize and cannot be obtained from other sources.

All Souls is a private institution and it can do as it pleases. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that the criteria which the college selects Prize Fellows also includes how interesting they are, and whether they are good conversationalists (hence the viva and ‘dinner test’ for shortlisted candidates); and as a former scientist, I would be forced to concede that we are generally not as good in those areas as others. Even so, I can’t but help think that All Souls is missing out on some excellent scientists who can match any arts or humanities students blow for blow.

Aside from the issue of science, I find that the All Souls exam is a refreshingly tough yet interesting test for which it is impossible to prepare. Its generality and openendedness allows candidates to shine, instead of being confined by narrowly-defined questions, and as such I imagine it’s a very good way to discover smart and interesting people. Such tests are sadly rare these days.

(I’m inclined to pose some of the questions on the After Our Time forum when it gets a bit busier; they make particularly good discussion topics)

20 Replies to “All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take”

  1. As a gamer, I’ve long felt there’s got to be a way to turn this sort of principle into a game – if not a game to play with your usual social circle (if we aren’t always playing it as an uncodified meta-game already) then as a game show so that people might enjoy spectating on the game being played. It wouldn’t test people’s knowledge of facts, but their ability to synthesise a broad base of facts into engaging and concisely-expressed opinions; presumably the scoring system would be a judging system and the content would have to be neither too high-brow nor too low-brow to put off the audience. (Indeed, the mixture of high-brow and low-brow matter could well be part of the appeal of the show.) Throwing up a winner who clearly displayed polymathy but with sufficient popular appeal not to be lost upon the public would be an interesting task and the winner would have proved themselves smart and interesting in a way that game shows generally don’t.

    (Arguably, the likes of Fighting Talk on Radio 5 News and Sport come at least moderately close to this already, specialising on sport and specifically current affairs in sport only. I would argue that that show works well enough to demonstrate that the principle may have merit.)

  2. Chris, you must be the nth person to have recommended Fighting Talk now. I really must listen to it.

    I saw a great demonstration of a game exactly like what you describe at last year’s GDC, run by Frank Lantz and some other people. There were two teams of three people each, and they basically competed on their knowledge of videogames and their ability to make a funny and interesting argument. The game was given structure by a projected game board on which the teams could decide to make or contest a variety of statements about game-related topics, e.g.:

    “Is Starcraft hotter than Lara Croft?”

    “Is Mario funnier than Sonic?”

    You can imagine the arguments. Victory in an argument was settled by means of clapometer, which is the weak part since it only works with a live audience, but I thought it was a fantastic session, worthy of investigation. I’ll write up more about it in time.

  3. The All Souls exam, like Fighting Talk’s ‘Defending the Indefensible’ and the GDC session, is essentially an exercise in improvisation. Another analogue would be comedy improv – in Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you might see a comedian given a theme and a form and forced to riff with them on the spot.

    It’s interesting to see where people go from a given starting point. As Curzon proved, you can, to some extent, revise for these things. In the same way, some comedians might have material that fits the situation. Bob Monkhouse, in his most recent TV series, asked audience members to shout out a subject and he’d tell a gag related to it. It was an impressive demonstration of encyclopedic knowledge (even if he might have rigged it).

    Other comedians, though, take a subject and freewheel entirely, which is where the likes of Paul Merton, Bill Bailey and Eddie Izzard show their imaginative genius.

    It’s the difference between knowledge and intelligence.

    Success depends on a balance, of course. Monkhouse thinks on his feet extremely quickly, while you get a sense that Bailey has a stock of material that he adapts as well.

    All Souls seems to be promoting this ability to make use of knowledge quickly and intelligently. It’s not just what you know, it’s how you think. If All Souls had a physical test, it would be to lock you in a packing case on a desert island, leaving you to make use of your boys scout knowledge and whatever other skills you had. Then they’d come back in a year’s time and see how you fared.

    Alternatively, they could just use PowerPoint Karaoke.

  4. This is such typical British academy bullshit — people so full of themselves that they’ll never advance beyond some silly ideal of classical scholarship. What, do you get some entertainment or power trip from having people “apply” to you, as if you’re the hottest shit around? For a sub-poverty level grant of £13,000 per year? Anyone who’s not useless will be putting their knowledge to better purposes than trying to impress this bunch of jerks.
    It’s as if you interviewed people to fix your toilet by requiring them to take IQ tests, give a credit report, and pass a background check.
    Smart people have better things to spend my life on.

  5. I think Dr Get a Grip completely misses the point of the All Souls fellowship. The fellowship does not tie you down and many actually pursue a non-academic career while holding the 7 year prize fellowship, so they are in many case receiving the grant in addition to a fabulous salary (especially for the lawyers and banker). The academic fellows usually have little trouble gaining further funding from other sources because of the sheer prestige of All Souls. Oh and yes All Souls actually is the hottest shit around.

    I think it is an exaggeration to say that Lord Curzon only got in because he worked and revised so hard. He was an incredibly intelligent man and the main reason that he was so embarrassed to get a second was that he had up till then been a star performer and the winner of the major essay prizes attached to his subject.

  6. Regarding their lack of a science exam, I believe that any appropriately-trained scientist should probably have enough material to answer questions in the Philosophy test. Perhaps that’s my bias as a biologist; with a few neuropsychology courses under my belt, I feel qualified to at least try and answer the question “Can animals think?” Looking through the other philosophy questions, I could easily pick two and write on them. I’d imagine other fields likewise would have an easy time of it; reading a computer scientist’s impression of language would be quite enlightening. Anyway, just because they don’t have a science test doesn’t mean scientists can’t apply.

  7. “Hottest shit around”? These fellowships exclude all science and mathematics and much of the humanities (no languages beyond Latin and Greek, nothing in any oriental history or culture). And perhaps they would be more impressive if they were based on something more than passing exams, such as the original work required for a PhD.

  8. Great post – the leader, that is. Since it is “impossible to prepare for these exams” no more time or life or knowledge “that can be usefully applied elsewhere” is “wasted” than a weekend (and weekends are mostly a waste for most people). I am all for inclusivity, (and for sausage-quaffing quests and SUV-lifting contests). But I also want Joe the Plumber WITH a license and a diploma — NOT ‘degree’ from a ‘university’ — and no MENSA membership. Still, should In Praise of the Drain be in disdain of the brain? Certainly, we hurt both plumber and philosopher? As surely, we can be more nuanced than the Great American Middle? P.S. ‘Intellect’ doesn’t rhyme or flow with ‘drain’, hence ‘brain’!

  9. I find all of those questions easy. But there might be someone out there with better answers.

    Nevertheless, this is not and will not be the toughest test I ever see. Maybe I’ll take it for lulz someday.

  10. Some of the disparaging comments above put me in mind of Peter Cook’s observation (in the persona of the tramp, E.L. Whisty):

    ‘I could have been a High Court Judge, if only I’d had the Latin.’

  11. Just took the All Souls exam. Was fun. The last question I answered was “Should England declare independence?” I wrote a speech about how England should take a sabbatical of one year’s independence to work out what English culture really is.

  12. I would love three hours to write on water, I was overjoyed to see that question as I spent a few years studying water and its inhabitants as a hobby … but wld they let me in !!

    Such as ‘can animals think’ i cld give a good one on that too.

    Oh well ….. but not bad for an ‘uneducated’ man.

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