And it had all seemed so simple.
For the past several years, from 2016 to 2019, Cambridge had joined Oxford in setting all the candidates who applied to the university to read history, or joint honours degrees involving history, a written assessment that was taken at the same time as the Oxford HAT – about a month before the interview stage. This exam, known as the History Admissions Assessment (HAA), consisted of two one-hour papers. The first was a multiple-choice advanced comprehension test that was taken not only by historians, but also by almost all students applying to read humanities and social science subjects at the university. The second was a one-hour test of a candidate’s historical skills – specifically in interpreting and evaluating two primary source passages, which had to be compared and contrasted.
This year has seen the university take a different approach. Candidates applying in 2020 will face a potentially confusing set of options, and Cambridge’s decision is going to have some significant impacts on college choice and, potentially, on a candidate’s chances of winning a place at the university.
What exactly has Cambridge done?
The university has dropped the idea of asking candidates applying to read history and joint honours courses involving history to sit a pre-interview assessment at all. Instead, most colleges will require applicants to sit a revised version of the HAA later, during the interview process.
Eight colleges – Churchill, Corpus Christi, Downing, Girton, Homerton, Kings, Pembroke and Selwyn – won’t ask their candidates to sit an at-interview test at all. One college – Trinity – has decided to go its own way. It introduced its own at-interview written assessment last year, setting it in addition to the HAA, and has confirmed it will again set its own at-interview written test this year.
What will the new HAA look like?
The revised History Admissions Assessment will last for one hour instead of two, and will look exactly like the second part of the old HAA – we know this because the three sample papers that Cambridge have now published, which can be found under the Entry Requirements tab here on the university’s admissions site, are all either specimens or past papers from the 2016-19 HAA.
Why has Cambridge done this?
The university hasn’t commented on the change, but it seems there may have been some disagreement among the history dons who are responsible for admissions at its constituent colleges.
There seems to be general agreement that setting a multiple-choice comprehension test has turned out to be a poor way of assessing the real skills that candidates need to read history at Cambridge. I don’t find this decision fantastically surprising – the comprehension test always seemed to be designed to assess candidates’ ability to deal with complex, fairly concept- and jargon-heavy texts. History is, for the most part, not a very jargon-ridden subject, and so the comprehension test had always seemed more useful and appropriate for students applying to read subjects such as Human, Social and Political Sciences, which tend to incorporate a lot more academic jargon and a lot more technical terms than history does.
With that said, it’s interesting that even HSPS has abandoned the comprehension test in its old form. In this respect, Cambridge’s timing is interesting – the first candidates who sat the comprehension test in 2016 would have completed their Part I exams (the first really serious university-wide assessments they’d have taken since then) this past summer. So it’s possible that internal Cambridge tracking showed there was no correlation between their results in real university exams, and those they recorded in an admissions assessment deliberately designed to feature numerous ‘distractors’ – those possible responses that are carefully written to look like right answers when they’re not.
The fact that some colleges are sticking with the HAA while others are rejecting it, meanwhile, implies that many of those same dons are happy that the primary source compare-and-contrast exercise that formed part of the HAA remains a useful tool for helping them to distinguish between potential candidates for their colleges. But some, clearly, are less confident that the HAA really is the best way of assessing their history candidates.
What are the colleges that have decided not to offer the HAA, or set their own at-interview test, going to do?
The applications process will vary slightly from college to college.
Four colleges that have opted out of the at-interview HAA – Churchill, Corpus Christi, Pembroke and Selwyn – have said they will feature assessment of written material as part of their interview processes. I’d expect that most, but by no means necessarily all, of the others will follow suit.
In the past, these sorts of assessment have typically involved giving a candidate a passage, which might be either a primary source text or an extract from an academic book, to read before they go into one of their two interviews, and discussing the extract with them during the interview. The extracts that have been set in the past are unique to each college, and they change every year. They also vary fairly substantially in terms of length – many are just a page or two long, some might be a book review or something of a similar length, and a few can be longer extracts of anything up to 15-20 pages of text. The amount of time available to read and think about them can vary from about half an hour up to as much as two hours.
If you are interested in applying to one of the four colleges – Downing, Girton, Homerton and Kings – that have not confirmed as yet what they plan to ask their candidates to do, it is worth keeping an eye on their websites to see if any announcements are made. If none is forthcoming, you can get in touch with the college of your choice direct. Admissions officers are usually very friendly, and they shouldn’t mind if you write to them to ask what their plans for history applicants are. It’s their job to help with this sort of thing.
The decision as to whether or not to offer candidates any specific advice as to how they might prepare for the interview stage is up to each college. If they choose not to, that’s fair enough – all applicants ought to be in the same boat, and either all of them will have some idea of what they’re facing, or none will. But some schools are better at preparing their students for interview than others are, and some candidates may find it unsettling to face an assessment they don’t know anything about. If that applies to you, you might be better off choosing a college that still offers the HAA, and so makes the admissions procedure for student historians more transparent overall.
Will the new process make a difference to my chances of being offered an interview – and a place?
Cambridge won’t want it to, but potentially it might. This is because even the colleges that still plan to offer the HAA this year will have to decide which candidates to interview based on a smaller number of datapoints than usual.
Cambridge has always handled the admissions process a little differently to the way that Oxford likes to – it sets stiffer entrance requirements, insisting its candidates must score at least one A*, while Oxford makes AAA offers on the whole. This means many would-be Oxbridge students think that Oxford offers a safer path, and so Cambridge gets substantially fewer applications – about a third fewer in the case of history – than Oxford does. In consequence, Cambridge has always been able to interview a higher proportion of its applicants than Oxford can.
While the university had considered past exam performance, exam predictions, contextual information about the school attended, submitted written work and the results of the HAA in making its interview decisions, however, this year it won’t be able to factor in the HAA. So Cambridge’s decision does remove one potential way of making your application stand out, and as such it puts a bit more weight on making sure that both your exam predictions and the written work you choose to submit are in tip-top shape.
Will it make a difference if I sit the at-interview HAA – or choose a college that opts out of it?
It certainly might do, but it’s very hard to know in advance what sort of difference this choice makes.
The HAA offers the colleges that set it an additional set of datapoints that those that don’t set written assessments won’t have. That means some colleges will have additional information about your application. If you’re a strong candidate, that ought to be a good thing. And if you take the at-interview HAA, perform well in it, and then interview exactly as you would have done in any case, your chances of being offered a place certainly ought to rise. But, of course, the opposite does also apply – so the best advice that I can offer is that it can be a good idea to take the at-interview HAA so long as you feel sure you have the time and the desire to prepare for it, and to prepare for it well.
Conversely, the new process does also offer a potential advantage to candidates who get overwhelmed when they face multiple different challenges in a short space of time, or who feel they can show themselves off to better effect in an interview situation than they do in written exams, because it’s now possible to apply to a college that you know won’t require you to sit a written test just when you’re worrying about your interviews. Be aware, though, that you are placing more pressure on yourself to perform well at the interview stage if you do this – and the interviews are, by their very nature, that bit harder for you to control than a written assessment is.
On top of all of this, you may not be the only applicant making a decision on this basis. If too many candidates opt to try to avoid the at-interview HAA, colleges that have ditched the assessment will be overwhelmed with applications, and some candidates may be asked to interview at a college other than the one that was their first choice. That college may require the HAA.
How should I prepare for the revised Cambridge history entrance process?
I wrote an earlier blog post that covered preparation for Cambridge applicants, and if you are applying to a college that will offer the at-interview HAA, most of the advice that was offered there still applies.
Students who are going to be asked to take an at-interview HAA have been given three practice papers to work on. Cambridge also has a very good virtual classroom that offers exercises that student historians can work through by themselves to build their skills – and, by implication, find out about the things the university itself thinks are important when you’re reading history. That’s a good start, but Cambridge still doesn’t offer as many past papers as Oxford HAT candidates have to work on, and I’ve had to write 10 additional HAA-style practice papers in order to offer my Cambridge candidates the same sort of chance to work on their technique as their Oxford counterparts have got to hone theirs.
Ultimately, though, every written assessment that Oxford and Cambridge set to their applicants is going to test similar sorts of skills, and – given that the great majority of Cambridge candidates will be asked to read, and then either write or talk about, texts of some sort as part of the revised entry process – getting to work now on developing your skill-set would be a very good idea.
If you are applying to a college that isn’t offering the at-interview HAA (and even if you are), do try some Oxford History Aptitude Test papers – these are in a different format to the one Cambridge prefers, but they still require candidates to develop their historical imagination and build interpretation and evaluation skills that can be crucial at interview, and they also have the advantage that Oxford had made its assessment criteria and mark bands available, which Cambridge hasn’t – so it’s much easier to mark yourself on a HAT past paper and get an idea of how well you are doing.
Bear in mind that both the HAT and the HAA are primary source assessments, but that many colleges set their candidates secondary source extracts to read for interview. Try to find some academic history books to practice on – books that offer up fresh interpretations of ideas or ideologies, such as Linda Colley’s Britons or David Armitage’s The Elizabethan Idea of Empire, are especially suitable for this sort of preparation, because the sorts of passages that colleges choose to set are often ones that focus on how we can best interpret the ways that people thought about things differently in the past.
What do we know about the special at-interview written assessment that Trinity will set for its applicants?
The at-interview assessment that Trinity set its candidates last year was a pretty searching one, particularly as those applicants had already taken the HAA! Those who were selected for interview got a two-hour exam which they took by themselves in the college library just before one of their interviews. They had to read a long, fairly complex secondary text and summarise the arguments its author made. They were also given eight short primary sources to read – these related to the ideas in the secondary source, and applicants were asked to evaluate the author’s arguments in light of the information provided in the primary sources.
Trinity had obviously put a lot of thought and effort into setting its at-interview assessment, so it may be this year’s will follow a similar format. But the college will have made its own analysis of how well the 2019 exam worked, and it’s free to do whatever it likes – so there’s certainly no guarantee the 2020 test will be anything like the 2019 one.
What difference will the COVID-19 pandemic make to Cambridge applications this year?
Quite a bit – in fact, the pandemic will almost certainly make more difference to the application experience than the change in the format of the assessments will.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have announced that they will be holding interviews remotely this year. This means you will have two 20-minute conversations with dons at the college you apply for (or are allocated to, if you make an open application) over a video link. You’ll need to be in email communication with the college and make certain you know what times your interviews are being held, and are standing by for them. You’ll also want to be in a quiet, controlled location, and will need to be sure that you have the best, fastest and most stable internet connection you can possibly find to avoid the risk of losing it during the interview – colleges will, of course, make allowances if this actually happens, but because the interview schedule is a very tight one, it could become a real problem if you’re out of touch for more than a few minutes – and losing your train of thought and your rhythm more generally can be very disconcerting in such a high-pressure situation in any case.
If you are based overseas, you’ll also need to make sure that the college is aware of this, so you can be sure you’ll be offered interviews at suitable times.
All-in-all, this is obviously a less satisfactory way of conducting the interview process than doing them in person, or Oxford and Cambridge wouldn’t go to the trouble of requiring candidates to travel to their universities in person during normal years. It’s just harder to make eye contact, establish a rapport with your interviewers, and give a good impression of yourself when you’re not present in person – just as it can be harder for you to work out what the interviewers are thinking, or pick up hints from their faces or their body language that give you clues as to how you are doing yourself.
The process will be the same for all candidates, and there’s nothing to be done about it. It would certainly make sense, though, to practice being interviewed online rather than in person if you possibly can. Make sure your school is aware of the new situation, and ask if it is possible to take account of the changed circumstances when it sets up the help that it will hopefully be offering you.
How will I take an at-interview written test when the whole interview process is happening remotely?
Cambridge will be working on this problem. The university had experience of just these circumstances earlier this year, when it had to ask its undergraduates to take their final exams remotely, and it seems very likely that it will use the same systems it built for that purpose to run its entrance examinations.
What this will probably mean is that you will be sent log in details to a special exams portal. For the Oxbridge finals this year, all candidates were told to log in just before the exam start time, and the paper was made available for downloading on the dot of that start time. Candidates had to write their responses in Word and then save them as a pdf. They then went back to the exam portal and uploaded the pdf, which they had to do at the end of the three hours allowed for each exam. They were given a few minutes of extra time to allow for any problems in the uploading process, but marks were deducted for any uploads received after a given cut-off point. As always, though, the university promised to be take account of any special problems or circumstances that got in the way of uploading a completed paper in good time.
It’s hard to see how this exact process could work for candidates who are being interviewed at different times across several days. There seem to be two possible options for Cambridge. They might set the at-interview HAA at the same time for everybody – say right at the beginning of the first day of interviews – and use the same procedure as they did for their finals students. Or they might choose to email a special login to the exam portal to each candidate individually, an hour or two ahead of one of their two set interview times.
The latter option will be more complicated to administer, because it will be imperative to make sure each candidate gets the right email at exactly the right time. But it would be much fairer to applicants who are overseas, in different time-zones. We’ll have to wait to find out what the final decision is.
So, to sum up – what does the change in Cambridge admissions procedures mean for me?
In one sense, the changes Cambridge are making shouldn’t make any difference to your chances of admission. All the colleges at the university remain committed to recruiting the best candidates they can find, and there hasn’t been any huge change in their idea of what sort of skills those students need to study history. Whether you take the HAA, or some other written assessment, or nothing at all, every college will be judging you on the same essential criteria.
In another sense, though, the changes do make a difference. Knowing that you will be taking the at-interview HAA, or won’t be, will certainly impact on the way you prepare, and it might make a difference to the college choice you end up making. You should certainly consider looking at the sample HAA papers that have been published to see if you enjoy the assessment and think that you are good at it. If you do feel confident that the HAA is a paper that suits you, it might well make sense to apply to a college that still offers it. If you hate it, then of course you’ll want to avoid the at-interview HAA altogether – though I’d certainly caution that candidates who struggle with an HAA-style assessment are also likely to struggle badly at Cambridge, and it may be that a different university choice would suit them better.
One final point also needs to be made. I think that it makes less sense this year than in a normal year to make an open application to Cambridge. To do so means entering a lottery where you may find you have to prepare for the at-interview HAA, but might learn that you are not required to take it. Of course, the skills that the HAA teaches you are still useful ones to have, and I’ve already recommended that all Cambridge candidates familiarise themselves with the Cambridge compare-and-contrast format in any case. And, of course, there are only a few HAA papers to practice on, and if you do make an open application you will be told where you will be interviewed some time in advance. Still, if you wait to find all this out before you begin your preparations, you may put yourself behind other candidates who have been preparing in a more focused way, for longer – and applying to Cambridge is tough enough as it is.
Whatever you decide, though, and however the application works out, I do firmly believe that it’s an experience worth having. Just thinking about history in the more advanced ways that Cambridge will require you to, and practising the skills that Cambridge will be hoping to find in you, will make you a much better historian – wherever you end up studying the subject.