All Souls College, Oxford, England
Image by Ross Parker
Could you write a story based on a one word writing prompt? Don’t be too hasty--and, perhaps, overconfident--in your answer. After all, some of the brightest students seeking admission to All Souls College (a division of renowned Oxford University) had trouble with this writing prompt.
Since 1932, All Souls College has included a one-word writing prompt essay (which was always a noun) as part of an entrance exam that has become known as the hardest exam in the world. This part of the exam was intended to showcase one’s mental agility. After all, if the potential student could write an exceptional essay from a one-word writing prompt, thought school officials, then his or her mental acumen must likewise be exceptional.
This one-word writing prompt, which the applicant had three-hours to build an essay around, was an exciting tradition at Oxford. In fact, according to New York Times reporter Sarah Lyall, “[t]he unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even non-applicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out. Applicants themselves discovered the word by flipping over a single sheet of paper and seeing it printed there, all alone, like a tiny incendiary device.”
While some students considered this writing prompt a fun challenge, others (many others) developed major writer’s block (or stage fright) when confronted by this single word--whatever the word might be for that year.
And these were not your average students taking an admittance exam, either. Rather, they were the crème de la crème of near genius-level intellectuals from all over the world. Still…they choked on this one-word writing prompt.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, All Souls College has recently discontinued the part of the exam that they call “Essay” because they feel that this one-word writing prompt exercise is not a true test of a potential student’s mental agility.
As writers, we might be tempted to scoff at the failure--and right down terror--of the many applicants who froze at writing an essay based on a one-word writing prompt. But would we have fared any better? Here are some of the words that past applicants had to struggle with in the Essay section of this exam:
How easily could you have written an essay, or a story, based on one of these one-word writing prompts? Think about it.