Cambridge’s History Admissions Assessment, or HAA, is still a relatively new exam. It launched only in 2016, when the abolition of AS-levels deprived the university of a favoured metric which its colleges had used, up to that point, to help determine admissions decisions in history in place of a written exam in the style of Oxford’s well-established HAT. Since then, the Assessment has gone through a couple of iterations, with results that can produce confusion for Cambridge candidates and their families.
This short guide brings you up to date with what the HAA is, why Cambridge sets it, and exactly when and where you might have to sit it. Finally, it also offers some thoughts on what the HAA is designed to test and what sorts of strategies candidates can adopt to do well when they take the Assessment.
What is the HAA?
The History Admissions Assessment is a one-hour exam taken by most students applying to Cambridge to read history, or history with another subject as a joint honours degree. It is a source analysis paper that requires students to compare and contrast two short primary sources – there’s only one question, and no choice as to which passages have to be evaluated. The examiners may select two passages written from contrasting standpoints in roughly the same time or place, or ask candidates to consider continuity and change across a period of several decades, or even centuries.
Candidates are asked to compare and contrast aspects of the two passages. Cambridge offers them several hints as to things that are worth focusing on. For example, the Assessment may suggest that students think about “differences and similarities” between the ways something is described and used, or how the same thing was experienced by people in different periods.
Cambridge HAA past papers
Cambridge has quite deliberately restricted the availability of HAA past papers. Only three have been made available, and these can be found under the “Entry requirements” tab on the page that the university devotes to its history course overview.
Because I’ve managed to build up a full set of all the HAA papers that have been set over the years, it’s possible to add some general observations that go a little bit beyond what’s available in the sample papers by themselves. First, it’s well worth noting that Assessments almost always feature a suggestion to think about “people” or “societies”. Second, while the HAA has, in its short life thus far, looked at quite a variety of topics and quite a number of different periods – from concepts of democracy in ancient Athens to the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in late-18th century London – the papers offered to date have most often focused on aspects of social and cultural history.
Cambridge seems to want to expose candidates to less familiar periods, and the latest date involved in any paper set so far has been 1886. However, the settings chosen have not varied so dramatically as those selected for Oxford’s HAT. Except for one paper dealing with enslavement and society in West Africa, and one source written in the United States, all HAA papers set so far have been situated in Europe.
Of course, none of this guarantees that Cambridge will stick to the general course it’s steered thus far in future. So the final point to hear in mind is that, wherever the next paper is set, and whatever it asks about, the HAA is designed to be a test of aptitude to study history at the highest level. It requires no background at all in the time or place that its passages are set in, and candidates get no credit for introducing their own knowledge. The aim is purely to see how candidates handle historical evidence, and how they work with it.
The Cambridge HAA mark scheme
Cambridge has never published mark schemes for past History Admissions Assessment papers, but candidates have some access to useful guidelines nonetheless. First, a couple of HAA specifications have been published over the years. These state that the basic purpose of the HAA is to “test comprehension and the ability to read closely and deploy arguments effectively.” Specifically, HAA candidates are graded on their ability to:
- think analytically;
- produce a coherent argument;
- select and use evidence appropriately;
- address the question directly and clearly;
- make connections between sources and ideas;
- understand historical mentalities and comprehend difference;
- handle concepts precisely;
- write with clarity and precision under time pressure.
Second, it’s important to bear in mind that the Cambridge history tripos is practically identical to the history honours course offered by Oxford. The two universities are competing for the same students, and are looking for the same qualities in the candidates they select. This means that the mark schemes that Oxford published for its History Admissions Test are very likely to closely resemble whatever internal mark schemes Cambridge produces for its examiners. It would be very good idea for Cambridge candidates to work through the eight HAT mark schemes that are currently available and compile some notes on the sorts of qualities that Oxford values highly. Cambridge will be looking for exactly the same qualities.
Who has to sit the HAA?
Cambridge decided in 2020 to decentralise its admissions system, leaving colleges to make their own decisions as to how to structure their own admissions processes. This means that working out what exactly is going to be involved for you has got more complicated.
To be fair, any given college’s admissions process is straightforward enough, and is always clearly set out on that college’s own website. But that only makes things easier if you’ve already decided exactly where you want to apply. If you’ve only got so far as knowing you are interested in history at Cambridge, you need to grasp the different ways in which the 29 colleges approach the task of selecting students.
There are now essentially three different groups of colleges, though actually discovering this is not all that straightforward, as it requires you to click through four different pages on the admissions site. Most colleges – 19 in 2022 – require their candidates to sit the History Admissions Assessment, in addition to submitting two pieces of written work, and then taking two interviews. Another eight colleges – Churchill, Corpus Christi, Downing, Girton, Homerton, Kings, Selwyn and Trinity – do not currently ask candidates to sit the HAA, and rely instead on the interview process and assessments of submitted written work – plus, of course, school references and contextualised GCSE results. Finally, two other colleges, St Edmunds and Wolfson (both of which admit only mature students as undergraduates) set their own written admissions tests, using a different format to the HAA.
All this seems tricky enough in itself, but things can get even more complicated from there. For one thing, colleges are completely free not only to decide for themselves how they want to assess their candidates, but also to change their minds about how they’ll do so from year to year. Pembroke, which was at first a holdout, has started asking its candidates to sit the HAA – while Trinity, which originally decided to go its own way and set a standalone written assessment of its own devising, has dropped that requirement for 2022.
It’s also important to point out that, just because a college does not require its candidates to sit the History Admissions Assessment, it’s not necessarily the case that they won’t be asked to look at any sources at all. Indeed, in one case at least, candidates applying to a college that don’t require the HAA will still be asked to submit some thoughts on sources in writing. Let’s look a bit more closely at this last problem.
What are the colleges that have decided not to offer the HAA doing instead?
It very much depends, which means it’s necessary to go through the position at each of the eight colleges that have decided against requiring their candidates to take the HAA in turn.
Churchill, Downing, Homerton and Kings currently offer no specific guidance as to the form their interviews will take.
Corpus suggests that its candidates may be asked to study a secondary source – “an article or essay” – just before interview. Discussion of this will form the starting point of one of the two interviews.
Girton will send its candidates a “short piece of historical writing” before the interview – how long beforehand they don’t say. This will form the subject of one of the two interview sessions there.
Each of the two Selwyn interviews will focus on a different piece of submitted written work. During one of these interviews, candidates will also be shown a source or piece of data they haven’t seen before – the college says this may be “an image, a graph or table containing data, a map, or perhaps a very short piece of text” – and this will form the basis of part of the discussion.
Trinity appears to have decided to retain what amounts to a version of the standalone exam that it set its candidates for several years. Students applying to this largest and richest of Cambridge colleges will be given a set of sources immediately before one of their two interviews. They will be given time to review these, and will be asked to “put down some thoughts in writing”, which will then be discussed in the interview itself. Trinity doesn’t offer any further details as to what this task involves, or how the thoughts are to be submitted to the interview team, but in previous years they asked candidates to look at a core piece of historical argument, and then a set of short primary sources, and posed questions about how far the sources supported the argument. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this year’s assessment will follow the same format.
How does the HAA differ from the Oxford HAT?
Should the different format of the exams play a significant part in deciding which university to apply to?
The HAA was created a dozen years after the HAT, and Cambridge decided to adopt a rather different format for its new assessment. While both exams are highly pressured, requiring candidates to respond to complex primary sources in just one hour, Oxford asks students to look at a single, very long, source – nowadays comprising up to 1,300 words of text. Cambridge, on the other hand, has settled into setting two sources of around 300 words each – which, even considered together, will be very much shorter than the HAT text.
This difference has a couple of significant consequences. First, Cambridge candidates get a lot more opportunity to offer close readings of their texts, looking in detail at things such as language and tone – whereas Oxford, nowadays, seems to want to test its candidates’ ability to pull meaningful conclusions quickly from a complex text (which, when you think about it, is a sort of simulacrum of the way in which Oxbridge history students face the task of writing a weekly essay). If you think that you are significantly stronger at one sort of assessment than the other, that should figure in the decision that you make.
Second, Cambridge’s compare and contrast assessment requires a more technical response, and, I would say, ideally more practice – not least because, while it used to be the case that A-level exam boards set similar tasks, nowadays only the OCR board (and, to a lesser extent, IB) even slightly encourages history students to actually compare and contrast sources, rather than assess them separately.
How you feel about this is really down to you. In one sense, if you happen to be taking AQA or Edexcel history A-levels, it can be seen as a slight negative to have to take a tricky test from an almost standing start, when other candidates, sitting OCR papers, will have at least some experience of handling the compare and contrast task. On the other hand, you might decide that Cambridge’s decision to make fewer practice papers available is a good thing overall, if it means that privileged candidates at private schools are given less opportunity to hone their exam technique in special classes run by teachers who have extensive experience of Cambridge admissions.
It is certainly true that it is far harder for schools to offer their candidates special help with the HAA than with the HAT. For one thing, they’re just less used to doing so – the HAA is newer, and more students apply to sit the HAT each year in any case, if only because Oxford’s admissions offers are lower than Cambridge’s. It’s also much, much harder to set mock HAA papers than it is to do the same for the HAT, as I discovered for myself when I decided to create additional practice resources for my Keystone Cambridge students. It took me quite a few failed attempts to assemble a set of 10 practice History Admissions Assessment papers that are at the same difficulty level as the real HAA, and work in the same way that it does, and I doubt that many history teachers, with other responsibilities at school, have time available to do the same.
The fact that the HAA requires a more technical response than the HAT does – specifically, it’s harder to pace and control your analysis when comparing two sources than it is to do the same thing for a single source – need not be seen as a negative. One real issue that Oxford faces with its Test is that the majority of candidates score within a relatively few marks of each other, which means that, each year, the “guillotine” that falls and determines which candidates get interview offers, and which don’t, divides students who are, objectively, almost identically as good. While Cambridge has never divulged the breakdown of its HAA results, I would expect them to be much more widely spaced than Oxford’s, meaning that it’s probably easier for Cambridge to make fair and valid distinctions between the candidates sitting its Assessment. Cambridge’s decision to interview a far higher proportion of its applicants than Oxford does helps here, too.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that while Oxford uses the HAT as a means of selecting candidates for interview, Cambridge doesn’t use the HAA in the same way. All candidates shortlisted for interview at colleges that require the Assessment will sit the HAA, and, since the system was decentralised, they have done so about a month later than their Oxford equivalents sit the HAT. That means Cambridge students have a few weeks longer to prepare for their written assessment.
Will it make a difference if I sit the 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 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, choosing a college that does not require the HAA might 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. 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.
When do I sit the HAA?
The HAA is a “Cambridge college registered” assessment, meaning that it is sat later than the Oxford HAT, and in conjunction with the Cambridge interviews. However, for reasons that have to do with problems of the contents of the paper potentially leaking, it is a practical necessity that all candidates take the assessment on the same day. Because it takes colleges three to five days to complete the interview process, this means that the HAA cannot be sat on the same day as a candidate takes the interviews. It is sat as a separate exam a few days in advance of the interviews instead.
Is the HAA an online test?
Exactly how the HAA will be sat in 2022 was not decided at the time of writing, but there are only two real possibilities as to what will happen this year. For the past two admissions cycles, during the COVID pandemic, candidates were asked to take the exam remotely, via an electronic portal that made the paper available to download at the time the exam starts, and required responses to be typed and then turned into a pdf and uploaded back to the portal at the end of the exam. This system seems to have functioned well, and it’s possible it may be retained. The alternative is that Cambridge will revert to the old system, which had candidates sit the exam under invigilation at their schools, or at a local exam centre, such as a British Council office. The HAA doesn’t depend at all on access to books or notes, so, if that happens, the main difference will be that the HAA will be a handwritten exam.
Your college will give full details closer to the assessment date, and you can also check the admissions part of your chosen college’s website for information closer to the time.
How should I prepare for the HAA?
Ultimately, 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 entry process – getting to work now on developing your source analysis skill-set would be a very good idea.
As we saw above, students who are going to be asked to take an HAA have been given three specimen 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.
You might also try some Oxford History Aptitude Test papers – they may not help with your compare and contrast skills, but they still require candidates to develop their historical imagination and build interpretation and evaluation skills that can be crucial at interview. As we’ve already seen, HAT papers also have the advantage that Oxford’s mark schemes are available, so you can get an idea of how well you are doing. Finally, you can also browse through collections of primary sources, and practice evaluating those. Fordham, an American university in New York, is noted for the extensive selections of online primary sources it makes available for free via its Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
To write this guide, I went carefully through not only the central Cambridge admissions site, but also individual colleges admissions sites. However, colleges can and sometimes do update their sites with fresh information from time to time, so it’s very important that all candidates take a close look at the admissions information offered by their chosen college for themselves. If you’re in any doubt at all, you can call a college’s admissions team for guidance – they’re always very helpful, and can find out the answers to most questions you, or they themselves, may not be sure about.