How to ace the HAT: an Oxford student’s guide

Nuance, subtlety and analysis. Three words that have probably become a horrible cliché from your history teacher, and the HAT is no different. At its heart, the HAT is trying to test your historical skills and sensitivity; it wants to see your perceptiveness and ability to read between the lines, as well as your even-handedness and ability to consider a wide range of possibilities. 

The test is a one-hour source question. It will likely have a provenance and genre which you have not encountered before, so it’s important to try not to be spooked by this. Similarly, the period of the source will likely seem quite new and obscure, but there’s no reason to fear this, as you’re not expected to bring in any own knowledge and doing so would mean wasting your own time. 

Let’s see what you will need. Firstly, you’ll need an interpretation. This is where you’ll need to strike quite a difficult balance between making sure you have a clear view on the source’s core message and still ensuring that your analysis doesn’t sound formulaic, forced or lacking in nuance. Your interpretation could be a number of things, a core theme which seems to run throughout or a theme which binds different elements of the source together. Matt Williams in his extremely useful video on YouTube suggests your interpretation could be “a value from which all others are derivative.”

You’ll also need to consider the source’s provenance and its limitations. The mark scheme specifically uses the word genre, so it’s useful to comment on that, especially as the genre will likely be pretty unusual. There is a fairly standard set of things you can look at, authorship, purpose and tone for example. But it is especially worth bearing in mind how you approach this delicately and sound too damning or suggest that the source has little value. The mark schemes actually note that a candidate will be marked down if they go through asking if each claim is true or false. 

But one striking difference from A-Level might be the way in which you could suggest how limitations are useful. As well as suggesting what is useful about the source’s provenance, you can also suggest what the very fact that this source, with its particular provenance is created, tells you. For example, if we took the 2016 example of what the 1685 French legal code on slavery in its Carribean colonies tells us about relations between masters and slaves, it might be suggested that the very existence of a legal code on slavery suggests the state is involved in the relationship or that these relationships need regulation perhaps due to extreme or violent treatment. 

The HAT also wants you to be analytic, and there are a few ways of showing this suggested in the mark schemes. It goes without saying that inference rather than observation is essential, but the mark schemes reward finding “ambiguities” and “tensions”. You can look for what the author seems to be deliberately hiding or elements which seem conflicting, and ask why that might be and what it might say about your question. It also seeks to reward your intellectual curiosity in giving marks for questioning the terms of the question, it doesn’t have to be too fancy, but you might come up with your own short definition, for example of “social and cultural values”.

But what should you not do? The worst thing you can do is show dogmatism and an inability to consider a range of ideas. However tempting it might be, you ought to avoid giving a moral verdict on the source as the mark scheme specifically punishes it – though, interestingly, an exception is made to a limited extent on the 2016 question on slavery. Similarly avoid broad generalisation about the text. This is particularly important as the sources are chosen to have several layers and conflicting details, therefore if you find yourself driving one line of argument very forcefully with no mitigating remarks, you probably need to read the source a little closer. 

The question you’re probably most desperate to hear the answer to is probably how do I revise, how many past papers should I do or how long should I practice for? Though you can’t revise for the HAT per se, like any unseen paper you can familiarise yourself with the approach and practice your technique, so there are three things that I really commend. 

Firstly, you can watch Matt Williams’ video on Jesus College YouTube channel called ‘How to DEMOLISH the HAT’: he gives quite precise suggestions about what you need to include, gives a suggested structure, how to prepare, things to avoid and watching it is probably the best way you could spend an hour preparing. Secondly, use past papers, I would say about three or four of them is good. It’s also worth doing them under timed conditions so that you are familiar with the time pressure. But perhaps even more important than that is reading the mark schemes themselves and working out what you ought to include and avoid.  

Alongside the usual advice about good sleeping and eating well, with a source-based question try not to work yourself up too much with stress, it’s not like you can cram in last minute revision. Similarly, it’s important to stay fresh for this exam in particular as you’ll need to be able to react and think quickly. Above all, try to enjoy it. That might seem unlikely, but the source presented should be complex and interesting, so try to think of it as a puzzle that you’ll enjoy solving. Good luck! 

Oxford History Review would like to outline that this is not a definitive guide on how to do well, but an individual student view of the HAT, as well as possible advice you could follow when approaching the exam. We would like to point out that there are plenty of other sources available for you to use in preparation, and that everyone prepares differently! Read on for some useful links.


HAT mark scheme 2020

HAT mark scheme 2019 

HAT mark scheme 2018

HAT marking scheme 2017

HAT marking scheme 2016

‘How to DEMOLISH the HAT’ – Jesus College Oxford