Reading history at Oxford and Cambridge
Candidates who are applying for a place to read history at either Oxford or Cambridge, and who take the time to look at the papers that the two universities offer their undergraduates, soon realise that the two courses are practically identical.
Until very recently, in fact, one of the most obvious differences between Oxford and Cambridge lay in the very different selection processes that the two universities developed to help them choose between candidates. Oxford has run a centralised admissions exam, the History Aptitude Test, ever since 2004, while Cambridge long argued that AS level results provided the best indicator of how well a candidate would do at the university, and so chose not to set up its own equivalent to the HAT.
The abolition of AS levels has forced Cambridge to follow Oxford in creating its own centralised assessment, and since 2016 students applying to read history at Cambridge have been asked to take the History Admissions Assessment, or HAA. The HAA has introduced a new sort of uncertainty to the process of applying to read history at Cambridge. This is not only because its format is quite different to the HAT’s, and not only because it is new – so there are fewer past papers available to practise on. It’s also because Cambridge has chosen not to reveal some critical information about how the two papers that make up the HAA are marked and weighted.
So how does the HAA work, and how can candidates best prepare to sit the assessment?
How is the HAA structured?
The History Admissions Assessment consists of two one-hour papers, which candidates take on the same day. This is quite similar to the structure of the old Oxford HAT, which until 2018 was a two-hour paper with three parts. This year, however, Oxford has changed the way in which the HAT is run. It is now a one-hour paper with only one question to answer – so there is, once again, a significant difference in the structure of the two universities’ admissions procedure for historians.
The two parts of the HAA are quite distinct. The first paper is designed to assess a candidate’s “critical reading” skills – which Cambridge defines as the ability to understand ideas, analyse detail, and grasp implicit meaning in texts written at the sort of level that its undergraduates will be expected to tackle on a weekly basis. This part of the HAA consists of eight passages – six of them short, and two of them long – which are grouped into four tasks. Candidates have to answer 36 multiple choice questions on these passages in total.
The critical reading paper has been designed to be quite demanding, and it is definitely an assessment that needs to be practised and prepared for. The eight passages, together, run to more than 3,500 words of text, and this means that candidates will have to read or skim them quickly, yet still be able to make precise distinctions between the various answer options. The four tasks also test different aspects of a candidate’s comprehension skills. Between them they look at the ability to identify opinions, purpose, or inferred meaning; to locate where in a group of passages a specific idea is expressed; and to find and understand arguments and evidence in longer passages.
The second part of the HAA is a one-hour paper designed to assess the ability to handle historical evidence. Students are asked to compare and contrast two primary source passages which focus on the same broad subject – the two papers produced to date have looked at ideas about Athenian democracy at the time of the Peloponnesian War, and at changing attitudes to duelling in Britain between the 1790s and the 1850s.
It’s important to note that this paper is actually more than just a compare and contrast exercise – something that a lot of the students sitting the assessment seem to miss. Candidates are asked to produce a short essay that not only assesses the various ideas and themes set out by the two authors, but also comment on “what we might learn from them” – in other words, what sort of use an historian might actually want to make of the two passages. This part of paper 2 brings the Cambridge HAA back in line with the Oxford HAT.
How does the HAA mark scheme work?
Cambridge have not been very explicit about how the HAA works. We do know that the critical reading paper consists of 36 questions that are worth one mark each, and while the university stresses that it does not deduct marks for wrong answers – meaning candidates maximise their chances by answering every question, even if this means they have to guess at some. However, nothing at all has been said about the marks available for the compare and contrast exercise.
This is deliberate, and the university stresses that this is because it wants to view candidates holistically – it takes into account their educational backgrounds, their exam results to date, submitted school work, and performance in both the HAA and potentially at interview before reaching its final decision. It wants to be able to give different weight to the elements of information it extracts from all this data, depending on the candidate.
This approach is understandable, and indeed commendable, but it has not satisfied some of the parents of Cambridge candidates, and thanks to two recent Freedom of Information requests that were submitted to Cambridge in January and August 2018, we have learned quite a lot more about the internal workings of the HAA.
The most important bits of new information that have been revealed are these:
- The marking of the two papers is handled differently. The critical reading papers are marked by computer, centrally, and the results are sent out to the colleges that the candidates have applied for, or been allocated to. On the other hand, the compare and contrast exercise is marked by hand by one of the dons at the relevant college.
- Most candidates perform significantly better on one paper than the other, rather than equally well on both. On the whole, candidates score less well on the critical reading paper than they do on the compare and contrast paper.
- The marks awarded for each of the papers are converted into scores out of 10, producing an overall score out of 20. This suggests that – at least as a default position – Cambridge sees the two parts of the HAA as carrying equal weight. This is rather different from the way that Oxford ran the old-style HAT, where the three questions tested different skills, but were weighted differently.
How does the HAA compare to the HAT?
It’s fair to say that, while Oxford and Cambridge agree as to the qualities they are looking for in their history candidates, they now differ quite considerably as to the ways in which they try to identify them.
The new-style HAT has dropped the comprehension exercises that used to form more than half of the assessment. Oxford has decided that the one remaining exercise, which asks candidates to respond to a primary source passage, is a sufficient test of their critical reading skills and their historical imagination – which means their ability to “fill in the gaps” that always exist in any piece of evidence in a sensible and credible way.
The Cambridge HAA, in contrast, is a much more technical exercise than the new HAT. By using two passages and focusing on a compare and contrast exercise, the HAA’s second paper is also arguably more demanding than the HAT’s single passage paper.
It’s arguable that this difference is a good thing. Most candidates will find they prefer one format or the other, and will perform better at either the HAA or the HAT. Since candidates who want to read history at Oxbridge have to choose to apply to one university and not the other, this can be a real help when it comes deciding which university to place on the UCAS form.
Similarly, while I regard the HAA as the more stretching of the two challenges, it can certainly be argued that all this means is that the assessment will produce a broader spread of marks than the HAT does, and make the process of deciding between candidates at Cambridge as sure and as fair as possible.
How should I prepare for the HAA?
Candidates should use the resources on the Cambridge website as intensively as they can. Both past papers and a specimen with a few extra questions on it are currently available, together with mark schemes. Make sure that you also read all the rubric and all the advice Cambridge offers to explain what the various parts of the HAA are designed to assess.
Although only a relatively small number of multiple-choice critical reading questions are currently available, the format of the assessment is quite similar to elements of both the LNAT (sat by candidates to read law) and the TSA (sat by candidates for philosophy and for several social sciences). Students who want to get extra practice on the critical reading paper can find past papers for both these assessments online and several books that focus on the TA and LNAT and contain further practice questions are available.
The Faculty of History at Cambridge also runs a virtual classroom that allows candidates to access some other useful resources. This includes some extensive sets of source exercises and secondary literature exercises which use quite similar compare and contrast materials to explore ways of looking at primary and secondary sources. These sets of matched passages can be used to practice writing compare and contrast exercises in the style required by the HAA.
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for a tutor to support your preparations for the Cambridge HAA. We have a number of tutors with experience of the test, some of whom have done extensive work on understanding how the new assessment works and on developing strategies for tackling it.
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