Saturday, May 29, 2010

5-29-10: The End of an Old Oxford Tradition

Every morning I listen to the New York Times’ Front Page podcast (it has vastly improved over the last few months) to get a feel for what’s going on. The other daily news podcast I listen to is the NPR Hourly Newscast, which also provides a great synopsis.

Yesterday morning I heard a story on the Front Page podcast about how Oxford’s All Souls College (the abbreviated name for “The Warden and College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford”) is no longer requiring students to take a traditional admissions exam. The exam: given three hours and a single noun, write a coherent essay.

As a senior in high school, I was asked by the English department, along with several other students, to take part in a remarkably similar exam. It was voluntary, and there was a prize for the best essay. We were given a single sentence and had to write an essay in under two hours revolving around that sentence. Unfortunately, my vocabulary wasn’t quite, oh what’s the word, large enough, and one of the words in the sentence was brand new to me. I forget what it was, but it was a good SAT word, for sure. I didn’t win the prize.

I enjoyed the experience, but I can see where Oxford is coming from. As interesting as it sounds, after about an hour, you’re just trying to stretch it out. I can see where a single noun can be spun into something quite interesting, but what value can you get from a student trying to impress? They may babble on for pages and pages about some story in their life that they found relevant. How do you measure brilliance based on that? What’s the standard? Length? Coherence? It’s tough.

I think I’ll try something like this out, actually. I’ll be done with my Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering in August. Maybe once that’s all done and dusted, I’ll give this a shot. I’ll keep you posted.

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