Sample essay questions and suggested reading
Here are a few sample essay questions for you to think about. Remember that you get 40 minutes to write a maximum of 750 words – ideally about 500-600 words. We also have sample answers to some of these questions. See download links at bottom of this page.
- How should judges be appointed?
- Make the best case you can for public funding of the arts. Answer
- Does it matter if some animal and plant species die out? Answer
- ‘It is right that students should contribute to the cost of their degrees.’ Do you agree?
- What disciplinary sanctions should teachers be allowed to use?
- ‘We must be prepared to sacrifice traditional liberties to defeat terrorism.’ Discuss.
- Should the law require people to vote in general elections?
- Should private cars be rationed? If so, how?
- What is ‘political correctness’ and why does it matter? Answer
- There are more essay topics on our practice tests.
As part of your preparation you may also like to look at some materials on critical thinking. Here is a selection. Some of them include exercises that can help you develop your LNAT skills.
A. Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2001) ISBN 0521009847
R. van den Brink-Budgen, Critical Thinking for Students (How to Books 2000) ISBN 1857036344
N. Warburton, Thinking From A to Z (Routledge 2000) ISBN 0415222818
P. Gardner, New Directions: Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking(Cambridge University Press 2006) ISBN 0521541727 (mainly for those who have English as a second language)
Fifteen years on, I still shudder at the memory of my unsuccessful interview for a place to study law at Cambridge. If only my curtain-haired 18-year old self had been more like the accomplished student who excels in the mock interview video on the Oxford law faculty's website.
How does she do it? At the end of the clip, the interviewer, law tutor Ben McFarlane, singles out for special praise the student's capacity for "looking carefully at words and drawing fine distinctions, building up an argument and applying that to examples", while emphasising how the university is testing for motivation, reasoning ability and communication skills rather than prior knowledge of the law.
I vaguely recall being similarly advised before my interview all those years ago. But like many Oxbridge law rejects, I failed to consider properly what these criteria meant in advance. One of the consequences of this was that every time my interviewer asked me a legal question, as McFarlane does frequently in the mock interview video - without expecting an informed response - I panicked.
It wasn't just the interview I fluffed; I bombed on the written test, too. These days, the test has been formalised, with the specimen questions on the Cambridge law faculty website a good example of how legal conundrums don't always require a QC to answer them. One begins ominously:
(1) A person who is not a party to a contract (a "third party") may in his own right enforce a term of the contract if—
(a) the contract expressly provides that he may, or ...
Overcome the initial impulse to freak out, though, read on a bit, and all the question is asking is for some rules to be applied to some facts. In its own way, it's no more complex than one of the more esoteric debates on Match of the Day about whether or not a striker has strayed offside.
The point about prior legal knowledge not being a prerequisite for Oxbridge exam and interview success is an important one. But legal knowledge shouldn't be confused with an understanding of the fundamental aspects of how society works - which is helpful for would-be Cambridge undergraduates, as illustrated by the first question in the Cambridge specimen test essay section. It states:
"Judges should be given no discretion in sentencing criminals: all criminal penalties should be fixed by statute. The exercise of discretion in sentencing requires an exercise of moral judgment by the judge, and judges in a modern democracy should not be allowed to exercise moral authority over their fellow citizens." How far do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.
Clearly those with a basic grasp of the mechanics of democracy, in particular the separation of powers doctrine, are at an advantage here.
This is one of the many areas in which the Cambridge test differs from the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) used by Oxford and several other top universities (LNAT is completely separate to the Oxford oral interview). LNAT steers well clear of anything that could be construed as legal, focusing instead on themes like feminism and imperialism. As such, the scores it generates seem less vulnerable to manipulation by the coaching of students in advance. Still, a familiarity with publications like the Economist – to whose editorial style the passages in the LNAT comprehension section bear more than a passing resemblance – can't hurt those sitting the test. A example of its mixture of multiple choice questions and essays is available here.
Despite the efforts of LNAT setters to make it accessible, most students aren't keen on the test. Summing up the general sentiment in a post on my blog LegalCheek.com, law student Jack Harris, who took the exam in 2008, describes LNAT as "pain, suffering and misery." Indeed, many are so averse to the idea of sitting the test - which was introduced in 2004 - that they deliberately do a non-law degree, then convert to law via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Surely, though, in the future more will simply grit their teeth and face LNAT as the trebling of university fees creates a strong incentive to minimise the number of years spent in higher education. There is already some early evidence of this trend: Ucas figures released earlier this week – which recorded an overall decline of 8.7% in numbers applying to university - showed the fall in applications for law undergraduate courses (3.8%) to be significantly lower than average. GDL numbers, meanwhile, have dropped substantially over the last few years.
Of course, there are plenty of universities offering undergraduate law courses ranked highly by the Guardian that don't require candidates to sit the LNAT or attend an interview. Indeed, Harris (who got an average score on the test) chose to go to non-LNAT Queen Mary's (ranked fourth in the country for law), graduated with a first and is now studying for the bar with the aid of a large scholarship from Lincoln's Inn.
Alex Aldridge is the editor of LegalCheek.com