Saturday, 26 January 2013

Exams at University

It is a very deliberate decision at Oxford to call the periods in between each 8-week term "vacations," rather than "holidays." The point being that you are 'vacating' the premises, but yet the work goes on. There are no holidays.

The most annoying part of this vacation was the fact that it was ruined by the looming prospect of whatever was coming afterwards. This Christmas I was procrastinating away, as I always do, when a little nagging voice surfaced and perpetuated in whining at me about how there really wasn't any time for fun, and I ought to be cocooned in a nest of thick dull textbooks and learning everything there is to learn about Logic, Utilitarianism, and the intricate workings of microeconomics.

The first exam session of my time at university was, to put it bluntly, grim. My university has an exam at the start of every term, except when you take Prelim exams at the end of the last term of your first year, and Finals at the end of the last term of your third year. These are 'mocks' officially, testing you on whatever you learnt over the last term, but they felt a lot more serious than that. If you don't get a 2.1 (over 60%) you have to retake them. If you don't get a 2.1 in the Prelim exams, you have to retake those too, and if you fail the retake, you'll be, quite simply, booted out. 

Having talked to the Second Years, people stop caring about Collections (the start of term mock exams) as much as time goes by, but for us they were also our first ever university exams of any sort, and given that I hadn't received any official marks during my first term, they were for me and for several others the first chance we had to see where we are. Here's some advice I would give to anyone wondering what uni exams are like (or to my past procrastinating self).

There's so much of the same stuff to say about how to prepare, but in essence it's everything you've ever been told about exam preparation... times 100. If you happen to be one of those lucky people who can skate through A Levels by cramming, that absolutely doesn't cut it here. Long term revision is the key. There's no set textbook, you can't just read that 100 times and know all you need to know. You need to really and truly explore outside the subject, know the core principles like the back of your hand, practice every single past paper you can. The work you've been set during the term is supposed to introduce you to what you need to know, and never does it ever cover everything. If you only read over past essays when revising, you won't be able to answer anything. 

I felt like I had done a lot of revision, but when it came to the actual exams I realised it absolutely wasn't enough. I guess an upside of making a really serious error in one of the questions is that you'll never forget what you got wrong (mixing up truth functionality in my case, oopsies). I was disappointed in myself. However, two weeks later, I realise that I've learnt from it and it was good for me. 

Whereas an essay might have been completed in the dead of night or a few minutes before the deadline, I'm making a major effort to get up early, stakeout the library, have time to truly think about the question and I'm enjoying myself so much more. When you have time to pause and reflect on what you're writing, instead of completing everything in a frenzy, it's so much easier to understand it all, relate it to other concepts with which you are familiar, and it pays off in your marks.

I was originally a little scared by being around people who are incredibly dedicated and brilliant and inspiring. Now, it's motivating. Everyone feels lazy and reluctant at some point, but I had a kind of bizarre realisation that I want to do well. That's hardly an uncontroversial thing to say, but I felt like it was never something I'd directly said to myself for various reasons - I felt like I couldn't, I wasn't sure how to go about it, I got distracted by other things. We've all worked so hard to get where we are and we don't want to look back in 10 years and be disappointed in ourselves for wasting this opportunity. Having difficult goals forces you to put in the hours, and that's what I intend to do, this term and for the rest of my degree.

As always if you have any comments or questions, I'll be happy to answer.