The English Literature Admissions Test needn’t be terrifying. In fact, it is simply testing a couple of skills that you’ve been cultivating since at least your GCSEs, and probably well before that: the skill of reading slowly, closely, and creatively, and the skill of writing with clarity, purpose, and insight. The ELAT is designed so that you can do well in it regardless of your prior knowledge. This isn’t an exam where you’ll show off how much you know. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to showcase your ability to interpret and reflect on unseen literary texts in a thoughtful, responsive, and convincing manner.
What is the ELAT?
The English Literature Admissions Test is a ninety-minute exam taken by anyone applying to read English Literature as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge or University of Oxford. This includes joint honours degrees at Oxford, just as English and another language. However, applicants for the Cambridge degree entitled ‘Education, English, Drama and the Arts’ do not take the ELAT.
Is the ELAT the same for Oxford and Cambridge?
Yes. Oxford and Cambridge applicants sit the exact same paper.
The ELAT test format
The ELAT requires you to write an essay on two unseen texts, comparing and contrasting them by paying close attention to the language, form, and style of the texts.
You’ll be given a selection of six short texts all relating to the same theme. For example, the texts might all be about storms, or birds, or memories, or the passing of time. The passages will be from lots of different genres of literature. There will be poems, sections of novels, and scenes from plays, as you’d expect. But there might also be extracts from works that are less obviously ‘literary’, such as history books, government reports, sermons, letters, diaries, and essays. The texts are usually from a wide historical range: from the late sixteenth century right up to the present day. You can expect to see texts from familiar and well-known authors (such as Woolf or Dickens or Shakespeare) and from less famous authors. You’ll then have to pick two of these texts to discuss in an essay. It doesn’t matter which two you pick, so long as you find them interesting and have something to say about them.
How difficult is ELAT?
The ELAT is not designed to be “difficult.” In fact, it is designed so that you can do well in it regardless of your prior knowledge. This is absolutely not an exam where you’ll show off how much you know. Rather, it is an opportunity to showcase your ability to interpret and reflect on unseen literary texts in a thoughtful, sensitive, and convincing manner.
The ELAT is a test of skill. It’s designed to test three particular skills that you’ve been cultivating since at least your GCSEs, and probably well before that:
- the skill of reading slowly, closely, and creatively
- the skill of writing with clarity, purpose, and insight
- and skill of comparing and contrasting literary texts.
This means that it’s not a problem if there is a text on the exam paper that you find difficult to understand. You can just ignore it and choose a different text to write about. The ELAT is not trying to trip you up or catch you out. There are no “bonus points” for writing about the most challenging text on the exam paper. Instead, you should just pick whichever texts you find most compelling and have the most to say about.
Examiners want to see sensitive, nuanced, thoughtful, elegantly written, clearly argued, and well-evidenced essays that shed light on the chosen texts and help us to see them in a new way.
How is ELAT scored?
The ELAT is marked by two separate examiners, each giving a score out of 30. These two scores are then combined to give a total score out of 60. A score of at least 50 is generally needed in order to get an invitation to interview. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, however: some successful applicants have scored as low as 45.
How important is the ELAT?
The ELAT is only one part of your admissions “portfolio”, that also includes your academic record, your predicted grades, your personal statement, your submission of written work, your school reference, and your interview performance. That said, the ELAT is an important part of the application because it show cases (a) your independent work and (b) your facility with the key skills of literary study.
How much should you write for the ELAT?
Students with typical handwriting should aim to write between 2.5 to 3 sides of A4. That works out to between 800 and 1200 words. It is important to aim for quality, not quantity, and also to ensure that the essay is well-structured, with a proper conclusion.
Is the ELAT an online test?
No. The ELAT is taken in person at your school or college, or at a test centre.
Where can I find past papers for ELAT?
These are available at the ELAT website. Unfortunately, copyright reasons prevent the examiners from publishing extracts from more recent literary texts, so these are blanked out on the past papers, except for the first and last lines. It is a good idea to look up these extracts in the original texts when you practice so that you have sufficient experience working with contemporary literature.
Tips for the ELAT
A few tips for how to write an excellent ELAT response
- Choose the texts that you like the best.
The ELAT will feature a mix of famous ‘canonical’ writers, such as Woolf or Dickens, and other authors that are less well-known. Don’t feel obliged to choose the big names. Don’t feel obliged to choose older texts. Pick whichever texts that are most interesting to you and that you feel that you have the most to say about. Play to your strengths: if you are particularly good at writing about, say, drama, then choose play extracts if possible.
- Take time to read and plan carefully.
It is always better to start writing a little later than everyone else than to find yourself running out of ideas halfway through the writing process. By taking your time with planning, you give yourself the chance to notice subtler aspects of the texts. Try and notice the tone of the text: what mood or moods can be felt throughout it? What vocabulary or imagery reinforces these moods?
- Make an argument.
It is advisable to advance an argument in your ELAT essay, rather than just trotting out a directionless commentary that meanders all over the place. One way to do this is to ask yourself: how are these two texts similar, and how they are different? For example, you could argue that although both passages are about the unfathomable power of water, one passage presents water as a magical, shape-shifting phenomenon that is enchanting as well as intimidating, while the other passage presents it as solely a force of merciless violence and menace. Doing this gives you something to prove. It puts a burden on you as a writer and helps to drive forward your essay. Writing an essay should be like arguing with a friend: you’re trying to prove something! Once you have your thesis statement (the argument you’re trying to prove), take time to outline the three points that you’ll make to convince your reader. These should form the basis of your three body paragraphs. At the end of each paragraph, your reader should feel more convinced of your thesis than they were at the end.
- Write with style and elegance.
English is the only subject in which the way your write has critical and argumentative power. Sure, it helps to be a clear and fluent writer in History or Philosophy or any other subject, but in English the words you use actually tell the reader what you’re thinking and feeling: they reveal something about how you’re responding to the text. This means that you should choose words that do work for you. It’s better to write something bold and beautiful such as ‘the poem reveals the tragedy of life’s transience while also celebrating its manifold beauties, no matter how fleeting’ than something pedestrian and dull. Just remember to earn these bold statements through the evidence you use! It’s important to note here that writing elegantly doesn’t mean trying to sound clever. Often the best writers steer clear of jargon and Latinate words (for example, writing ‘utilise’ or ‘facilitate’ where ‘use’ or ‘help’ would do just fine). It is entirely possible for your writing to be clear, precise, and elegant all at the same time. When you’re practising, take the time to read your work aloud to check if it is well-written. Short sentences are always helpful.
- Tune into what is unusual.
Close reading is about being a connoisseur of literature. It’s about noticing the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of the text that you’re examining. This means that it is always fruitful to examine what is unusual, distinctive, striking, and perhaps even downright odd about a text. If there is something really strange about the passage or poem, don’t be afraid to talk about it. You’ll likely get much more interesting insights from this than you would from something that is fairly commonplace.
- Trust your intuitions, but check everything.
The ELAT mark scheme does not have a list of points that you are supposed to ‘get’. Instead, the examiners are prepared to be surprised and enlightened by your ideas. You might even show them something that completely changes their mind! This means that you need to trust your intuitions. You might, for instance, have a hunch that the text is being subtly sarcastic or that another text is being a bit coy or reticent about its subject matter. You might feel that the speaker is being disingenuous or untruthful. In another text, you might feel that there is a subtle sense of admiration and awe being created. You shouldn’t disregard these hunches! Instead, you should check them. See if you can trace your feelings back to the text. Patiently re-read until you can pinpoint the precise thing that created this feeling in you. Perhaps it was an unusual word choice or the syntax or the sounds of the words involved. Working like this will help you avoid any worry about ‘making a stretch.’ If you have traced your feelings back to their source in the text, then you can be confident about discussing this in your essay. Of course, it might also be the case that you try to trace the feeling back but then realise that you misread something or you can’t quite find what caused it. No problem! You can just re-read and find something else to talk about. In other cases, it may be that your initial intuition needs refining: perhaps you realise that the text is expressing grief, but that there is also a bittersweetness to it that makes the grief bearable, even delightful.
- Don’t leave your sense of humour behind.
While it might be a tall order to expect you to laugh in an exam, it’s important to recognise when an author is using irony or satire or hyperbole to comic effect. You can drastically misread a text if you miss the fact that it isn’t being entirely serious.
- Don’t bluster.
Writing something like ‘it is clear that…’ or ‘it is certainly the case that…’ is bluster. It makes your reader immediately ask ‘is it clear?’ Instead of trying to beat your reader into submission with overconfidence, add lots of evidence to back up your point. And if the text is genuinely ambiguous, there’s nothing wrong with expressing some uncertainty about its meaning: it might be that the writer wants to confuse or disorientate the reader. This might be the case, for example, in a poem about grief or loss or mental illness, so you should be prepared to investigate this.
- Don’t rely on comments about ‘engaging the reader’.
Every written text – from prize-winning novels to instruction manuals for microwaves – need to ‘engage the reader’ in some way. The observation that a writer uses a certain technique in order to ‘engage the reader’ is too bland, too obvious, and too general to have any use or explanatory power in your essays. The same goes for comments about a text being ‘accessible’ or ‘relatable’ to the reader: these aren’t nearly specific or interesting enough to warrant inclusion.
- Don’t rely on jargon.
A good knowledge of literary terms can be useful, but don’t think that they are substitute for perceptive critical analysis. The examiners will not be impressed by a checklist of technical observations that have no relation to your overall argument or the point of each paragraph. Yes, it might be true that the novelist uses synecdoche or that the poem is an example of the Petrarchan sonnet, but so what? What is the relevance of that observation to what you are trying to say about these texts? It might also be the case that you don’t know the technical term for a certain aspect of the text. Don’t worry about this! Just talk about it anyway. In fact, putting things in your own words can often sound better than an essay crammed with technical terms.
- Don’t reduce texts to generalities of genre or time period.
Don’t be too quick to lump a text in with a historical trend or generic commonplace. It doesn’t necessarily tell us much to say that ‘the passage is an example of Renaissance humanist thinking’ or ‘this trope is a staple of science fiction’. Better to look at what is distinctive about the passage. Tell us about this text. Be as specific as you can.
- Don’t forget to notice contrasts.
While the ELAT is a comparative exercise, this doesn’t mean you’re supposed to only point out similarities. Instead, think of comparison as a methodology: when we put two texts side by side, we begin to notice things about each that wouldn’t be apparent if we hadn’t done the comparison. The contrasts between the texts are often especially fruitful to discuss because, once again, they enable you to tune into nuances and idiosyncrasies of the texts you’re discussing.
Preparation for the ELAT
Aside from doing practice papers, available on the ELAT website, there are a few things that you can do to prepare:
- Read widely, actively, and slowly. The best thing you can do in order to prepare is to read a wide variety of literary texts in an active manner. That means reading with a pencil in hand, scribbling in the margins, underlining words and phrases that strike you, and keeping notes in a reading journal of your ideas. It might also mean branching out from the usual novels, poems, and plays to look at essays, religious texts, memoirs, philosophical texts, political tracts, and song lyrics. You might also investigate texts from time periods or countries that you haven’t explored before. There is no ‘set syllabus’ here: you just want to make sure that you’re able to respond to the wide variety of material that comes up.
- Read critical works and learn from their style. Reading the work of other literary critics can help you develop your own prose style. Notice how the writers you read construct arguments, use quotations, and conduct analysis. Chances are you’ll find a few stylistic elements that you can emulate in your own work. You might also notice things that don’t work so well, and which you can then avoid. Here are a few general texts that might be of interest, but really you can just follow your interests:
- Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics
- Criticism by Catherine Belsey
- Seven Types of Ambiguity and Argufying by William Empson
- The Force of Poetry and Essays in Appreciation by Christopher Ricks
- Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Literature and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum
- Understand the rudiments of poetic analysis. John Lennard’s Poetry Handbook and Philip Robert’s How Poetry Works are two really helpful guides. I also recommend The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. But remember: while knowing the jargon can be helpful, it is definitely not a substitute for creativity and sensitivity.
Tutors for the ELAT
Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching university aptitude tests for Oxford and Cambridge University including the ELAT. Our English Literature Admissions Test tutors have extensive experience with the ELAT, both through having successfully sat the test and then gone on to tutor it. Contact us to find out more.