Advice for taking the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT)

What is the English Literature Admissions Test?

The English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) is a paper-based test for students applying to study English at Oxford, at undergraduate level. You will need to sit the ELAT if you are applying for the following courses:

English Language and Literature

Classics and English (candidates are also required to sit the Classics Admissions Test)

English and Modern Languages (candidates are also required to sit the Modern Languages Admissions Test)

History and English applicants are required to sit the HAT (History Admissions Test) and not the ELAT. 

The ELAT lasts 90 minutes and is and sat under timed exam conditions. The ELAT is designed to test a candidate’s close reading skills, and their ability to shape and articulate an informed response to unfamiliar literary material. You will be asked to write one essay comparing two passages, focusing on elements such as language, imagery, syntax, form and structure.

You can see examples of previous tests here.

Below, you can find tips on the ELAT from a tutor and some current students who wanted to share their experiences with you. If you have any further questions, our Outreach Officer, Rebecca Costello, would be happy to answer them via email: outreach@ell.ox.ac.uk.

 

A Tutor’s Advice: 

The ELAT might seem daunting but it’s simply a chance for you to show what you can do with material on which you haven’t been taught. We introduced ELAT in order to give candidates a further opportunity to show what they can do, in particular any candidates who are happy writing but are more nervous and less articulate in interview. ELAT is just one of a range of assessments we’re looking at, and the greater the range the more chance for every candidate to show their individual skills. 

ELAT is a very straightforward exercise. The paper simply consists of a collection of passages, poems or excerpts that share a common theme past themes have, for example, included food, murder, and the city. Your job is to select any two passages and to write a comparative essay on them. Don’t expect to recognise the passages we try hard to select texts that you are unlikely to know in order to see how you respond freshly to new material your own analysis and thinking, not what you’ve been taught. It’s just about reading your chosen passages closely and carefully, and structuring your thoughts on them into a clearly argued essay, rooted in detailed attention to the material in front of you. You won’t get any credit for bringing in reference to other texts or wider contextual details, so just relax and focus on your extracts.  

My advice on approaching the paper? Do one or two practice papers in advance, but no more  just to get used to the timing and the format. Take at least 30 minutes to read the paper, to jot down ideas and interesting features. Think about how each passage approaches the material. Think about tone of voice, imagery, perspective, atmosphere and emotional texture, and even humour (it’s all too easy to miss when you’re writing under pressure). You also need to give a rationale for why you’ve chosen your two passages which often makes for a good starting point for your introduction. 

Plan your essay carefully before you start writing, so you know what you’re going to say and in what order. Support your argument with close reference to the texts, but don’t waste time copying out long quotes  remember, unlike closed book exams, you’re not getting extra points for quoting! Make your points clearly, then move on to the next point. Don’t waste time repeating yourself.  

And my best tip steer into difficulty. If there’s something ambiguous or complicated in the extract, don’t avoid it or skip over it. Engage with it. If it’s ambiguous, explain how and why. If the tone is uncertain, again explain the different possibilities. As Oscar Wilde said, criticism is not like the answer to a sum more than one interpretation is valid, so it’s your response and your ideas that we’re looking for. 

 

How would you describe the process of sitting your ELAT?

On the day, myself and one other girl applying for Natural Sciences at Cambridge were shown to a spare classroom at 9am. My exam was one hour and a half, and I was presented with a blank working book and a selection of six unseen literary passages, instructing me to write a comparative essay on any two. The theme uniting the selection changes every year, and this time it was ‘Clothing’. I ended up picking an extract from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ and a modern poem about female body image. The question asks for analysis of any interesting features, and it stays the same every year – so it’s obviously a very broad task! In fact, I think this eases the pressure: there’s so much scope for expression of your unique writing style that it feels like a welcome break from the assessment objectives and strict guidelines of most classwork and coursework. You feel as if you can truly focus on the features you’re confident with identifying and examining, and you can form an argument linking any themes and concepts you like.

Did you prepare? If so, how?

Online there are examples of past answers which are marked and given general comments. I’d say this is the best preparation you can do. As an Oxford applicant, you’re very likely to be the kind of student who is very prepared to work hard, scour the web for resources, and pore over books in search of study aids for the entrance exam. However, as frustrating as I know it is to hear, I would caution that this really isn’t the answer. The most you can do is familiarise yourself with the online mark scheme, but for a humanities subject these are so broad that you simply have to trust your own abilities and produce the quality of work you’re capable of. Your unique style is what makes you a potential applicant for such a well-established academic institution, so it would be counterintuitive for the university to publish strict guidelines and rules for an entrance exam designed to allow your individual style to flourish. In preparation, the most I did was occasionally pick a random page from a paperback on my bookshelf, prop myself down, and give myself ten minutes of close analysis of interesting linguistic features, before spending the next five minutes sketching a plan of how I would combine these into an essay. Remember, though, that this is what you will be doing regularly in your core A Level studies, so don’t feel like you need to carve out extra time in your schedule for incorporating hefty amounts of extra practice.

Do you have any top tips?

As natural a reaction as it is, don’t let your nerves and determination convince you that loads of extra work is necessary: you have the skills, and this is purely a chance to show them off.

Anything you wish you’d known beforehand?

There are no hidden complexities to this exam that only the super-geniuses among us can perceive: the question really is as straightforward as it seems. Oxford isn’t trying to catch you out: they are creating a nice, even baseline to assess everyone’s style on similar grounds. Try not to overthink these 90 minutes of your life, as monumental as getting to the stage of applying to such a highly academic establishment is: please just enjoy yourself, and have faith in your own abilities!

 

How would you describe the process of sitting your ELAT?

The exam was pretty different to the sorts of exams I’d taken before, so it was challenging but also an exciting opportunity to be creative and explore new ideas.

Did you prepare? If so, how?

I mainly prepared using past papers I’d found online which helped me get to grips with the style of answer the examiners are looking for and get used to reading and thinking about texts that I’d never seen before.

Do you have any top tips? 

It’s important to remember that there really is no ‘right’ answer or interpretation, so see where your thoughts take you and use that as a starting point! On a practical level, make sure to note down all your thoughts and things you notice as you’re reading the texts in the exam as this really helps when planning your answer.

Anything you wish you’d known beforehand?

Although it's important, the ELAT isn’t the be-all and end-all of the application process, so it’s better to try not to stress about it too much, and instead enjoy the creativity it can unleash. Also, it’s OK to find the exam difficult; it's designed to challenge you beyond the restrictions of an A-Level syllabus and the freedom to be creative can be really daunting as well as exciting!

 

How would you describe the process of sitting your ELAT?

My ELAT was a relatively casual affair – it took place in an office in my school, and it had the same atmosphere as any other exam I’d done. Having an hour and a half for one question was unusually generous compared to other exams. It was remarkably similar to other English Literature exams, and as there was no reading to do, I was excited to just analyse new texts and see what I could come up with. I knew that a place at Oxford was at stake, but being just one component in the admission process took some of the pressure off. Of course, I was really nervous, but as my test centre was just in my school and I had prepared as much as I could, I was no more nervous for my ELAT than any of my other end of year exams. 

Did you prepare? If so, how?

I prepared for the ELAT in much the same way I prepared for my other end of year exams. I went through the past papers, which are available online, and I practised under timed conditions, and I practised all the time. Writing on different passages each time, or writing a totally different argument using the same two or three passages really developed my ability to think on the spot. 

Do you have any top tips?

Be flexible! I went into the ELAT with some very fixed ideas on what I wanted to write about. I was completely certain that I would be writing something very profound about the nature of linear time, or something similarly edgy. I ended up writing about vegetarianism, something I’d never prepared for. But that was the arguments the texts lent themselves to best, so it was really important that I was open to writing about anything. Don’t try to force an essay on something you think is impressive or sophisticated! Write from inspiration instead. 

Anything you wish you’d known beforehand?

I wish I’d known that i wasn’t preparing an essay I could reproduce in the ELAT, but instead building the skills I would need to write any essay. Instead of preparing a single essay to replicate in the ELAT, I've realised that it’s more important to be open minded, practise close reading, and work on preparing a single, thought-through argument.

For further information on registering etc please see: https://www.admissionstesting.org/for-test-takers/elat/about-elat/