The World’s Toughest Exam and Other Tidbits about Oxford

Today we had the opportunity to take a day trip to Oxford, and it was absolutely wonderful.

To get to Oxford we decided to take a bus from London, which was an enjoyable way to make the trip.

After a quick lunch, it was time for a free guided walking tour of Oxford. The tour guide was outstanding, seemingly knowledgeable about all aspects of Oxford and the town.

We learned lots of interesting facts about Oxford, including the following:

  • J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both taught at Oxford at the same time (how great it would have been to be an English lit major back then), and they both used Oxford landmarks in their writing of the Hobbit and Narnia
  • a student cannot apply to both Cambridge and Oxford; if a school finds out that a student has applied to “the other” (which is how they apparently refer to each other), then the student is automatically rejected.
  • there are a few Harry Potter connections around the campus
  • Lewis Carroll got his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland from his experiences at Oxford
  • Queen Victoria apparently liked Alice in Wonderland so much she wrote to Carroll and said he must write another book; he did, and sent the Queen a copy of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations
  • church bells chime each night at 9:05 because it is estimated that the college is five minutes away from the prime meridian, so it is really only 9:00
  • All Souls’ College, arguably the hardest graduate school to get into in the world, used to have, as part of its admissions process, an exam simply called “The Essay”

Here’s a little bit more about the essay.

Students arrive the morning of the essay and are handed an envelope. Inside the envelope is just an index card with just one word on it.

The applicants now have three hours to write an essay on just that one word. Here are some of the words that have been used:

  • bias”; “censorship”; “chaos” “charity”; “comedy, “conversion”; “culture”; “diversity”; “error”; “harmony”;  “innocence”;  “integrity”; “mercy”; “miracles”

That seems quite challenging, and it brought back memories of when I had to do something similar in an English class in college.

The teacher asked us to write a 500 word essay on one word, but we had a week to complete it. I chose the word legerdemain, but through some sleight of hand, I got an A on the paper and only wrote about 20 words. A story for another time.

Anyway, back to Oxford. For the candidates who are successful in passing the series of exams (of which the Essay is one) are accepted as Fellows for a seven year period, with full tuition and room ad board, as well as a stipend. Typically only 1 to 3 students are accepted each year. Here is more about the essay, which was sadly discontinued in 2010.

It was a fascinating tour, and a great way to learn a lot about a place in a relatively short time period. I’d highly recommend Footprints Tours.

At the end of the day we met up for a pint with one of the faculty members associated with the EUSA program I am teaching in. It was the perfect way to end the day, with good conversation and good beer.

By the way, the pub we were at is the Turf Tavern, where Bill Clinton claims he smoked, but never inhaled. There’s even a chalkboard commemorating this (click to enlarge):

The perfect fun fact to end the day with.

2 thoughts on “The World’s Toughest Exam and Other Tidbits about Oxford

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