Oxford admissions essay: “simple, yet devilish” … An evaluation aptitude test?

Many thanks to Michael Quinn Patton for sending us through this gem (from the New York Times) about a rather interesting essay exam for selecting graduate students into All Souls College in Oxford.

Oxford Tradition Comes to This: ‘Death’ (Expound)

OXFORD, England — The exam was simple yet devilish, consisting of a single noun (“water,” for instance, or “bias”) that applicants had three hours somehow to spin into a coherent essay. An admissions requirement for All Souls College here, it was meant to test intellectual agility, but sometimes seemed to test only the ability to sound brilliant while saying not much of anything.

“An exercise in showmanship to avoid answering the question,” is the way the historian Robin Briggs describes his essay on “innocence” in 1964 …

“Brilliant fun,” a past applicant named Matthew Edward Harris wrote in The Daily Telegraph recently, recalling his 2007 essay, on “harmony.”

But did it work? Apparently not – and that’s why the one-word essay test has now been scrapped after being used annually since 1932.

“For a number of years, the one-word essay question had not proved to be a very valuable way of providing insight into the merits of the candidates,” said Sir John Vickers, the warden, or head, of the college. …

“Many candidates, including some of the best, seemed at a loss when confronted with this exercise,” said Mr. Briggs, a longtime teacher of modern history at Oxford.

Click to view the full NY Times article

There are numerous instances across the world where ineffective personnel evaluation and student assessment practices have persisted despite being poor predictors of future performance. Another that came across my desk just this morning was a survey of UK personnel selection practices showing that it is still the selection tools with the lowest predictive validity – such as informal, unstructured interviews and CVs – that are the most widely used. [Zibarras, L.D., & Woods, S.A. (2010) A survey of UK selection practices across different organization sizes and industry sectors Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 2, 499-511.]

Most people working in program and policy evaluation will agree that there are several intangible aptitudes and competencies that a good evaluator needs but that aren’t easily captured in the usual selection processes for evaluation graduate programs or for professional positions. So, perhaps we should have a light-hearted test run for the one-word essay exam as applied to our own profession …

Today’s essay question: ‘Genuine’ (Expound)

You may reply in the ‘comments’ section, below! Let’s see if we can get one entry from each continent or geographic region around the world (please state where you are beaming in from).

2 comments to Oxford admissions essay: “simple, yet devilish” … An evaluation aptitude test?

  • Reminds me of the urban myth about the philosophy exam question that was, quite simply, “Why?”.

    Legend has it that the top grade went to the student who answered, “Why not?”

  • Joe Albano

    Isn’t this fairly indicative of the tendency for organizations to want to use evaluation (formal or informal) to confirm and support what they are already doing rather than as a potential challenge to the status quo and reason for change. In my work, I often ask “what changes are you willing and able to make as a result of this evaluation?” fairly early in the engagement process. It has lead to some interesting conversations.