Classical Honour Moderations, the tests which second-year classicists face in Hilary of second year, are widely known as some of the most gruelling examinations in Oxford. Yet this year, for the first time, Mods will take place over ten days, rather than the usual eight. The change in the exam format may spell the end of Mods’ reputation as the hardest set of exams in the world.
Candidates will sit between 10 and 11 papers in the period spanning Monday of 7th week to Friday of 8th, with a break over the weekend, rather than between Wednesday of 7th and Wednesday of 8th with a Saturday exam, as in previous years.
Last year’s Examiners’ Report explains the rationale for the change: “A number of candidates were identified as having Specific Learning Difficulties; markers were instructed to note this (explicitly, in their notes) in reaching their judgements. The Examination Schools has requested that the examination timetable should in future be extended, to avoid SLD candidates having two papers on one day; the Faculty has therefore agreed that from 2013 Honour Moderations should begin on Monday rather than Wednesday of 7th week.
Apart from the entrance exams to the Chinese civil service, Mods were traditionally held to be the the most intense exams in the world. The New Statesman claimed in 1999, “There is some debate over which is the hardest exam in the world. Honour Moderations in Classics, again at Oxford, were the holders of the title for years, with their 12 three-hour exams over six days. They were usurped this century by the Chinese civil service entrance examination, a ten-day, all-day ritual.”
The new extended time frame for the exams further weakens their claim to be amongst the hardest in the world. Charlie Greig, a second year at Exeter about to sit the newly altered Mods, expressed his disappointment, saying, “It would have been nice to have done ‘the hardest exams in the world’, simply for bragging rights.” He also pointed out that having more time is not necessarily better, as “It will make a shit time even longer.”
Camilla Simpson, another second-year, expressed her relief at the changes: “The format change is such a relief for everyone doing Classics. As impressive as the claim to being the toughest exams in the world is, I shouldn’t think there’s a single second-year Classicist who would rather maintain this title and not have the extended exam period.”
Simpson’s greatest concern with the format is that the exams end on a Thursday rather than a Wednesday. “We’re being deprived of the last Park End of term, something which I’m sure will be more upsetting to most of us than the loss of the title,” she explained.
Classicists who have already sat the exams were split in their opinions. Ronan Magee, a third-year classicist, said he had “No particularly strong opinions except that I’m very very glad not to be doing them again!”
Tom Painter, in the fourth year of his Classics degree, commented, “I don’t think the extension of the period makes a huge difference; Mods are still very, very hard! One thing is sure, that objectively speaking 10 or 11 papers is still more than any other subject.”
One third-year classicist commented, “This is a sad development and will sap Honour Moderations of much of their rigour and prestige. Then again, I suppose tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.”
Tutors have also pointed out that the exams remain extremely difficult. Professor Stephen Harrison, a tutor at Corpus Christi, concurred: “The extension of the timetable of Classics Moderations this year does not mean they are any less challenging for our students. There is still no longer or denser undergraduate examination known to me. I wish all the candidates (especially my own students!) the best in what Image: Ieva Maniustye remains a highly demanding test.”