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Fascinating questions from 'world's hardest test' at Oxford University

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

All Souls College at Oxford University is known for its notoriously difficult entrance exam, the All Souls Prize fellowship exam. Among those who both passed and failed this exam are some of the most brilliant people and academics, including Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (won) and Scottish novelist, historian, and politician John Buchan (failed).

In the past, the exam had a reputation for being the hardest in the world and for almost a century required Oxford graduates to write a coherent essay about a single word (!) for a duration of three hours. It didn’t become much easier, however, even after dropping an infamous one-word essay question. The exam now includes four papers of three hours each: two general ones, and two papers from a specific discipline (for example, philosophy, English, history).

One of the most fascinating things about the general paper is the deceptive simplicity of some of the questions and the way they’re formulated. Even contemplating them is an intellectually challenging and exciting task.

Just have a look and wrack your brain over some of the questions from the 2009-2014 General papers!

General paper

Candidates should answer THREE questions

  1. Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?

  2. Is dislike of politicians a sensible default position?

  3. Why is a leather jacket more acceptable than a fur coat?

  4. Can any public and political institutions be trusted to reform themselves?

  5. Is it an extremely unnatural condition for a male and female to live continuously together?

  6. Do children's games involving blindfolds reveal an essential cruelty in human nature?

  7. Why does the UN tolerate so many bad regimes?

  8. Isn't global warming preferable to global cooling?

  9. Can a painting change the world?

  10. Can you love someone if you don't respect them?

  11. Should intellectuals tweet?

  12. Should all citizens receive a basic income from the state?

  13. Should prisoners be allowed to watch television?

  14. What are universities for?

  15. How should we listen to music?

  16. Can travel writing be literature?

  17. Devise a new punctuation mark – and defend it.

  18. Are exceptions part of the rule?

  19. What’s so bad about envy?

  20. Is altruism really a form of self-interest?

  21. Are all Internet users equal?

  22. Is the brain a computer?

  23. Is it rational to fear your own death?

  24. What is wrong with plagiarism?

  25. Is the internet changing the ways in which we think?

  26. Why are some jokes funnier than others?

  27. Can charity be selfish?

  28. Has morality made progress?

  29. Could there be a British Barack Obama?

  30. Is a generation gap inevitable?

  31. What is the significance of binge drinking?

  32. Do the innocent have nothing to fear?

Want to know more about what it's like to study in the UK and how to get into the best universities in the country? LEO International Online School offers a diverse and intensive two–year A-Level programme designed to prepare students for university entry in the United Kingdom. Learn more about this programme and our other courses here, and don't hesitate to contact us at

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