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Coming up this summer, we will be running an online course for students preparing for the HAT. The course will introduce students to the different question types involved in all components of the HAT and recommend strategies for tackling them. View our schedule and more details.
Students often feel a little uneasy about the Oxford HAT at first, because its format has changed over time, and because it is very different from A-level exams. To make the test a less daunting prospect, I have created an introductory guide for candidates as to what it entails and how best to prepare.
What is the HAT?
All candidates for Oxford degree courses involving History must sit the History Aptitude Test (HAT).
Why does Oxford use the HAT?
Colleges must distinguish between applicants who vary by age, home country, and background, yet share excellent personal statements, references, and predicted or awarded grades. The HAT offers additional insight when comparing candidates.
What HAT score do I need to get a place at Oxford?
No specific score guarantees interview or acceptance. Test marks vary year by year according to the difficulty of the paper in question. Your HAT result will be considered alongside those of other applicants, as well as alongside the other elements of your application.
Is the HAT an online test?
The HAT is a paper-based written assessment. You may apply for Access Arrangements, such as laptop use, when registering with a test centre. For further information, see the Admissions Testing site.
How is the HAT structured?
Since 2018, the HAT has featured one question only, based on an extract from a primary source, to be answered in one hour. The question follows the format and mark scheme of Question 3 on pre-2018 papers.
Where can I find past HAT papers?
The Faculty of History provides past papers on its HAT page.
What is special about the HAT?
The HAT presents certain unique challenges to an A Level or IB History student.
Most obviously, in a typical year, the examiners will have gone to considerable lengths to select a primary source from an unfamiliar context. Even in the unlikely event that you do happen to be intimately familiar with the period in question, you should not refer to specific contextual knowledge in your answer. Whatever your situation, the test invites you to consider what tentative inferences you can make on the basis of the source and its provenance (its origin) alone.
The second difficulty is the great length of the source in recent years. Most likely you will not have time for multiple readings of the text in full.
Therefore, for efficiency’s sake, it is especially important to find and understand the question first, so that you can then analyse the source accordingly as you read through it. The question may be printed at the end of the paper.
It might be tempting to skim cursorily through the source in search of a few key quotations from which you can construct some grand claims. This approach would be a grave mistake, however: you are expected to understand the source in its entirety before planning and writing your response. (If you find that your eye tends to dart around the page, particularly in exam situations, then you might try placing a spare sheet of paper or a ruler under the first line of text to focus your reading, and then moving it down line by line as you read on.)
In consequence, you will need to allow plenty of time for full source comprehension before writing your essay. There is no hard and fast rule on timings that will apply to all candidates; you will need to experiment. That is why timed practice is such a good idea. You might try the following method, perhaps adjusting it to allow a little more reading time if needed:
- 10 minutes to read
- 5 minutes to plan
- 40 minutes to write
- 5 minutes to edit and proofread
What are the examiners looking for in the HAT?
Reading past HAT mark schemes carefully is one of the best things that you can do to better understand what strong source analysis entails. I hope you will find that, despite the difficulties described in the previous section above, much of what you must do in the HAT resembles what you should do to truly excel in A Level or IB History primary source analysis.
I have cited the 2020 HAT mark scheme in my explanations below, because it also includes a weighting system not shown on previous mark schemes. Although the examiners are entitled to alter the marking framework without warning in future years, nevertheless careful analysis of the 2020 weighting system may provide some additional insight into the priorities for your answer.
|Historical insight and perceptiveness||4|
|Comprehension, content and analysis||4|
|Use of evidence||4|
|Structure, organisation and relevance||2|
The following three criteria seem to be especially important:
1. Historical insight and perceptiveness
The examiners are very clear about what not to do; you may well recognise the following qualities of a poor answer from your experience of source analysis so far. In 2020 the examiners put it as follows:
- contains little evidence of imaginative engagement with the text or of deductive thought
- tends to read the text uncritically
- makes no attempt to evaluate the quality of the evidence, or merely asserts that the author is ‘biased’ without specifying why and how this may have shaped his representation of events
- tends to accept the author’s statements and judgments at face value
- fails to see that the author may be presenting a subjective view, or to explore the author’s subjectivities
- asserts conclusions too emphatically without qualification, or is overly negative about the document’s historical interest and potential value
In the light of the above indicators, take time now to consider what they imply about the corresponding qualities of a good answer.
Then compare your ideas with what the 2020 examiners considered “higher level indicators”:
- contains evidence of imaginative engagement with the text and a willingness to draw plausible historical inferences from it
- offers a critical reading of the text
- reflects carefully on the quality of the evidence (e.g. by noting that the author is an eyewitness writing within a decade or so of the events he describes)
- registers that the author may present a subjective view, and is prepared to speculate about the nature of his subjectivities (e.g. he is a Persian male commenting on Mongol political structures in which women played an important role)
- registers that there may be important things that we do not know about the author that could have influenced his treatment of the events he describes
- therefore draws conclusions or makes suggestions with a degree of caution
- sees that the text is, nevertheless, full of interest and has considerable historical value
2. Comprehension, content and analysis
As the examiners put it in 2020, they are looking for an “advanced, intellectually mature understanding of the text”.
In other words, they hope that you will fully appreciate the significance of the evidence at hand.
Ideally you would assess your current level by completing an answer under timed conditions and then comparing your points with those specified in the relevant mark scheme.
You might wish to concentrate at first on one or both of the following papers, because afterwards you can watch the accompanying video featuring Oxford students discussing their thoughts:
Although the examiners are at pains to stress that no additional study is necessary, you may nevertheless feel that wider background knowledge of history might help you to understand the primary source better. You might read an accessible summary of world history, such as one of the following guides:
3. Use of evidence
The top achievement level for this criterion was set out thus: “The answer is densely argued with close reference to the text and consistently substantiates points with well-chosen examples, precisely deployed.”
As you no doubt know, a strong essay will explain the textual evidence for each claim, through brief, well-selected quotations or paraphrases.
The other three criteria had lower weightings in 2020. I discuss them here in descending order of importance:
The highest level for this objective was expressed in this way: “Engages with an excellent range of themes and takes account of material from throughout the text.”
To repeat, it is vital that you take the whole source into consideration. Do not be ‘that student’ who misses crucial information in the introductory explanation of the source’s provenance, or fails to notice a phrase buried in the final paragraph that develops the text’s meaning significantly.
5. Structure, organisation and relevance
Here is what the examiners most wanted to see in relation to this criterion: “Answer has excellent structure and flow, maintains a clear focus on the terms of the question throughout, is structured around well-chosen themes, carefully prioritised.”
That is why you should spend a few minutes planning before you begin to write. You will probably not be able to cover all your points in response to the question; therefore, you should prioritise the points that you consider most relevant, significant and interesting.
You should also seek to group your points around at least three key themes. For example, if you are asked about what we can learn of the society in question, then you might decide that the text is especially illuminating about the themes of childhood, family and social structure in that place and time, more so than it is about, say, religion or politics. If you have inferred a point about religion, you could link it with your analysis of one of your central themes.
Bear in mind that often, questions may offer two or more analytical categories of their own, for example, “social and cultural values”. If so, then you will need to consider how to group your points accordingly.
If you are unsure about the meanings of the analytical categories that feature in past questions, then it should suffice at this stage to look them up in a good dictionary, or to use a simple introductory guide such as ‘History Concepts’ by the teachers at Alpha History.
You may even be able to make a case that perhaps one of your themes is the most significant of those you present.
Your introduction should be brief and serve the purpose that it typically serves in other History essays: showing the examiner that you have understood the question, and giving some insight into how you will answer it.
Likewise, your conclusion should offer your key ‘takeaway’ in response to the question. If you are pushed for time, one sentence should suffice.
Despite the desirability of a well-constructed answer, always bear in mind that delivering a wide range of sophisticated inferences is more important than demonstrating ideal ‘essay technique’ through long and lovingly linked paragraphs.
6. Presentation and use of English
The examiners wanted the following, which is to be expected: “Sophisticated use of English in terms of grammatical sense, sentence structure and vocabulary usage. Clearly and neatly presented.”
Crucially, your answer must be legible. It should also be clearly and concisely expressed. Ideally you will use accurate historical terminology to enhance the sophistication of your response.
However, again, you will not have time to obsess over phrasing. The fact that the exam only gives you 60 minutes to analyse a totally unfamiliar source strongly suggests that the examiners are not expecting to see scintillating prose! In the HAT, it really is the thought that counts.
Tutors for the HAT
Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching university aptitude tests for Oxford University including the HAT. Our History Admissions Test tutors have extensive experience with the HAT, both through having successfully sat the test and then gone on to tutor it. Contact us to find out more.