4 tips for withstanding an oral exam

4 tips for withstanding an oral exam

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Oral exams can be an daunting experience for students, so today we're sharing some advice on how to get through an oral exam with as little pain as possible.

1. Preparation

The best way to prepare for an oral exam is the same way that you would prepare for a written exam or a presentation – be truly comfortable with your material. This doesn't mean that you need to memorise every single possible relevant fact – in fact, specific factual knowledge is less important that a solid overall understanding of the topic. To show that you're really confident with the material, it's good practice to read up on arguments both for an against any particular position or issue which you might have to discuss. Then when you're asked about an issue, you can mention that this is one way of looking at it, but this contrary position raises good points too. This will show that you have a nuanced understanding and aren't single-minded in your focus on one approach. Remember that no one is expecting you to have simple answers to the deep and complicated problems in your field, rather, the examiners are looking for indications that you understand the scope of these problems and are capable of thinking about them and discussing them in an academically mature way.

2. Controlling your nerves

It's inevitable that you'll feel nervous before the exam, but there are ways to deal with this. Firstly, avoid coffee or other caffeinated drinks for a few hours before the exam, and switch to drinking water instead – the last thing you need when you're nervous is a ton of extra energy making you even more jumpy! Another good tip is to get yourself outside and engaging in some light physical activity before the exam – so arrive 20 minutes early, and spend 15 minutes walking around the block. Also, if there are other exam candidates waiting around, go and chat to them and make an effort to be positive and friendly. These people aren't your competition, they're your peers, and having someone to smile at you and wish you luck before you go into the exam can be a surprisingly big comfort.

3. Dealing with the examiners' questions

During the exam, if you're unsure about the question being asked, you can absolutely ask for clarification. Academics have a tendency to sometimes talk at length, including when they are acting as examiners, so it can be hard to grasp the key element of what they're asking you. If possible, try to frame your request for clarification as a choice between two or more options, such as “Do you mean that you would like to hear more about the general statistical methods which I used, or about the specific statistical software that I worked with?” This shows that you have understood the general theme of what the examiners are interested in but are tailoring your answers to give them the most helpful information for them.

Finally, remember that you can take your time to answer a question during the oral examination process. When an examiner asks you a question, you may well feel as if you have to respond right this very second, and start talking before you have finished thinking the question through. Resist this impulse! It's absolutely a good idea to take a deep breath, and take a few seconds to think before you start speaking. This will feel like a long time to you because of the pressure that you're under, but it won't appear so long to the examiners.

4. General presentation tips

In such a high-pressure environment as an oral exam, you will naturally want to convey the scope of your knowledge, and you may be tempted to speak very fast, or talk about everything you know which might possibly be related to the question you were asked. However, going too quickly or giving too much information actually harms your performance, as the examiners will find it hard to extract the relevant information from your answers. Keep your answers to a few sentences of only the most applicable information, knowing that examiners will ask for further details if they require them. Speak in even, measured tones and make yourself slow down to ensure that everyone can follow what you're saying. If you're concerned about this, you can set up a practice exam with a friend and ask for their feedback, or even video record yourself so that you can watch back your own performance and adjust your style as required.

Good luck with your oral exams!