Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) at Cambridge is a three-year BA Hons degree in politics, international relations, social anthropology and sociology. Although students can focus on one of these areas from the start, HSPS is also the broadest and most flexible political and/or social science degree at Oxbridge. Optional papers are shared with archaeology, biological anthropology, history, history and philosophy of science, and psychology, making HSPS the closest Oxbridge equivalent to an American liberal arts degree.
Structure of the course
The first year (Part I) covers the foundations, with students choosing three of the four main HSPS areas; a fourth option is taken in archaeology, psychology, or biological anthropology. For the second and third years (Part II), students can specialise. The ‘single-track’ degree can consist of politics and international relations, sociology, or social anthropology, while a ‘double track’ combines two of these, with the further possibility of Sociology and Criminology.
An HSPS undergraduate may therefore wind up studying gender, race, criminology, religion, globalisation, democracy in cross-cultural comparison, the anthropology of ethics, the history of political thought, statistics, human rights, development, economic anthropology, and international conflict – even without the additional papers shared with other degrees. Although students sometimes report essay overload from the breadth of courses, HSPS’s flexibility makes it a uniquely enriching and diverse choice.
How to apply for HSPS
Like its course structure, HSPS is one of the more flexible degree programmes in terms of secondary school background. No specific A-level combination is required, although an A Level or IB Higher Level in an essay-based subject is recommended. It is competitive, with 6 applications per place in 2018’s admissions intake, and a typical offer requires A*AA at A Level or 40-42 points for the IB, with 776 at Higher Level. As with all Cambridge degree programmes, the candidate’s examination record to date, predicated grades, UCAS application, written work (one or two pieces, depending on college), and performance at interview are all key elements in the admissions process.
HSPS also requires a written assessment, the Human, Social, and Political Sciences Admissions Assessment (HSPSAA), before selection for interview.
Human, Social and Political Sciences Admissions Assessment (HSPSAA)
The HSPSAA tests candidates’ critical thinking, ability to work through previously unseen material, and capacity to build an argument. The two-hour assessment is made up of two 60-minute sections.
Section 1: Reading Comprehension
This multiple-choice section of the test is not subject-specific. The question paper is shared with multiple disciplines, including history and chemistry, and the text extracts used therefore cover a range of topics: those of past and specimen papers have included urban development, animal morality, crime fiction, and philosophy.
In other words, there is no previous subject knowledge required here. The section exercises comprehension skills, challenging the candidate to identify main ideas, distinguish opinions and attitudes from facts, extract implications, consider a writer’s intended audience and purpose, and compare and contrast within and across texts.
The paper is divided into four segments:
1) Understanding Short Texts (up to 200 words)
2) Multiple-Matching (matching ideas within and across multiple short texts)
3) Understanding Extended Text (up to 1000 words)
4) Understanding Extended Text (up to 1200 words).
Answers are multiple choice, designed to make candidates think hard about what exactly the question is asking and to distinguish approximate from specific critical thinking. Cambridge explicitly say that this test is designed to be challenging, differentiating candidates in a very competitive field. Some strong candidates may not even have time to complete the paper, but there is no negative marking in this section – marks can only be gained rather than lost.
Section 2: Essay
The second section of the test is a one-hour subject-specific essay.
The paper offers eight essay questions (of which candidates must choose one) falling broadly within social anthropology, politics and international relations, and sociology. Previous and specimen questions have included ‘Are societies becoming more unequal, and is that a bad thing?’, ‘Is American politics democratic?’, ‘Does the recent migration crisis in Europe challenge or reinforce racism?’ and ‘Why do celebrations typically involve feasts?’.
Essays are assessed according to the essay’s relevance to the question, logic and coherence of argument, appropriate and accurate use of evidence, and clarity of English and expression. As Cambridge have no expectation that candidates will have studied any of the HSPS subjects at school, they say that questions can be approached in a variety of ways, depending on the candidate’s knowledge, background, and interests. The key to success in this section is the candidate’s ability to build and sustain an argument using relevant knowledge.
How to register for the HSPSAA
In 2019 the HSPSAA will be taken on 30th October. It is undertaken separately from the UCAS application, and requires registration in advance through a centre (usually the candidate’s school or college; the candidate cannot register themselves). The registration deadline for 2019 is 15th October, although some centres may set an earlier deadline, and the candidate should check the deadline and arrangements at their own centre. More information can be found here and here.
How should I prepare for my application?
In all the components of the admissions process for HSPS, Cambridge admissions tutors are looking for evidence of academic ability and potential, reasoning capacity, commitment, enthusiasm, and curiosity about human social and political life.
Reading beyond your subjects at school, including a variety of news and opinion, and thinking critically about what you read, will help inform both the written and interview aspects of your application. Cambridge offers a preparatory reading list with non-fiction and even fiction suggestions in each of the HSPS subject areas, from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (politics and international relations) to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (sociology). Admissions tutors encourage prospective applicants to pick what interests them, and follow that, rather than trying to read everything on the list. Whatever you read, HSPS interviews a relatively high number of applicants and so you should be prepared to talk about what you have read and work through related ideas orally.
Specimen and past papers for both Sections 1 and 2 of the HSPSAA are available on the Cambridge website. While Section 2 (the essay section) will test similar skills to those needed for an essay subject at A Level or IB, preparing for Section 1 (the multiple choice section) is something that many students find difficult, as there are only a few of these papers available. Helpfully, though, the website offers specimen answers and explained answers, which explain why the right answer is right and why the wrong ones are wrong. Working through both the specimen papers and the explained answers will be invaluable tools for brushing up your reading comprehension skills.
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for a tutor to support your HSPS application process. We have a number of tutors with expertise in preparing for HSPS admissions.