Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A favourite exam question

When I invited readers to 'discuss' one of my provocative asides in the post on my proposed 'three phases' of expat life, my über-commenter, Tulsa, made a remark which implied she was unfamiliar with the common use of this instruction in academic exams - and later explained that her 'selective memory' allowed her to forget tests within an hour of doing them. A strange skill, indeed.

I have always had a pretty good memory for exams. Heck, as a teacher, I have set a lot of exams - which can be a lot of fun. I've also marked a lot, which is not fun.

When I applied to Oxford (and Cambridge, as a back-up), they still had their own entrance test (this was phased out some years ago, although they still use interviews to whittle down the candidate pool - a highly contentious procedure) to supplement the results of the upper high school 'Advanced Level' subject exams. Although it was possible to attempt your application in the middle of your final year of high school study (something I would much have preferred to do, to get it out of the way), it was deemed to be such an arduous process that - back then (I think there might have been quite a shift in policy since) - almost all schools ran a "7th term" application process; i.e., you would wait until after you had completed your A-Levels in the summer term of your second year of the "6th Form" (the upper high school), and then come back for the start of an additional year, spending the winter term entirely on preparation for the Oxbridge Entrance exams. For me, it was pretty much a waste of time: I was well enough prepared anyway. It was, however, quite a pleasant change of pace from the high pressure of A-Levels: a very light timetable, a very relaxed lifestyle - this is when my poker, pool, and bar football skills started getting really good!

In addition to specialist papers on subjects related to your intended course of study (I was applying to read Classics, so had to do papers in translation and literary appreciation for Latin and Greek, and, I think, in general history also), there was a 'General Paper' of varied discussion topics, to see how well you could structure an argument off the top of your head. This was easily the most fun part of the whole process.

I remember on one of the papers (not the one I sat for the application itself; by then, we had spent nearly three months reviewing examples of past papers), they actually had this essay question:

'How would you differentiate between the erotic, the pornographic, and the obscene?'

A good question! Feeling in flippant mood, I answered:

'Only by careful scrutiny.'

I wonder if I could have got away with that in the Entrance Exam proper? I would like to think so!

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