How to Survive Oxford Finals

The Oxford finals process is hardcore and, to be honest, rather mean. Famously, women do not do as well as men in these exams. In 2013, male Oxford graduates received more first class degrees in 26 out of the 38 schools in which both genders were examined. This is not reflected nationally; it is hard to find a similar phenomenon in any other university. Having discussed this with other women students, we all agree that we were never more aware of the gender problem than when waiting in that marquee (the pre-exam ‘holding area’). Over-confident public school boys parade around in their scholars’ gowns, with no notes, boasting about how well they are going to do and making loud conversation, pointedly not about the exam they are about to take, as if determined to show everyone how confident they are and how little they need to revise.

Many women, in contrast, can be found stood alone or sat on the floor surrounded by notes, desperately revising until the very last moment and trying to block out the gloating of the aforementioned students. The gender problem is particularly evident in my degree, PPE. Indeed, in 2015 27.8% of men got firsts, but only 10.7% of women. I took some pretty niche papers, and in some of my exams I found myself surrounded by men, all in scholars’ gowns, leaning confidently back in their chairs with their hands behind heads, whilst I sat there terrified, desperately trying to maintain the yoga breathing techniques I had been working so hard on all year.

As for the exams themselves, we are repeatedly told that women do worse because we sit on the fence. Those confident scholars do well because they come straight in with a hard-hitting argument, whereas women are traditionally more hesitant. Confidence is key here; men tend to do that not because they know it’s a better exam technique, but because they are genuinely more confident; they believe their argument is right. Women, in contrast, panic and sit on the fence. We do worse in exams because we have far less confidence in ourselves.

If you’re super confident and have sound mental health, you might not bat an eyelid as finals approach. (Being white, coming from an educated family and having a fancy private school education probably help, too). Yet many people, especially those who don’t tick any of the aforementioned boxes, find themselves terrified. Nonetheless, though the system is flawed and I firmly believe it needs to change, you can still beat it.

I have just recently completed my degree, graduating with a first. It still feels extremely strange writing that, as I never thought I’d manage it. Not because I thought I wasn’t capable enough, but because I have had issues with panic attacks and anxiety in the past, and used to get a bit self-destructive when I was really stressed. I messed up my first year philosophy exam, for example, because I panicked, and I ended up with a 2:2. (Now I’m doing a masters at Oxford in it…which just goes to show exams really don’t always reflect your abilities.) Plus, even when I had worked hard all year for my finals, I was diagnosed with some health problems which necessitated various medications and restrictive diets, and then on top of that I caught glandular fever just as exams began, an illness that made it nigh on impossible to stay awake.

Things did not look good! And yet I survived it, and I did well. And compared with my previous years at Oxford, my final year was the calmest of the lot (bar the final few weeks of exams). I’ve made a little list below of the things that I found useful during my final year, in the hope that it can help other people get through it, too.

1. Organisation

This probably seems like stating the obvious, but you really have to be organised right from the start. For example, have separate folders for each module you’re taking, and within those folders, have dividers for each topic. (Also, a tip if you can’t afford ring binders — visit charity shops! That’s where all mine came from.) By your second term, have a rough idea of which 4–5 topics within each module you are going to revise for your exams. I’m basing this on my own PPE course, for which I sat 8 exams, each with 3 essays. For each of my 8 modules I had 8 tutorials each on a different topic, and then I chose 4–5 topics from each module to revise for the exam. This means you are protected if one of the questions on a topic you like is particularly nasty.

Lots of people at my college had super detailed, intense revision plans. In my experience, these don’t really work unless you have iron willpower. Moreover, don’t listen to people moaning about how far behind they are on their revision plans, or boasting about how far ahead they are. You do you! I had a much looser plan: in final term, for example, I would commit to revising 3 modules a day, each for the same amount of time, and by the end of the week I had revised each module twice. And it didn’t really matter which order I did them in, as long as by the end of the week I could say I had revised a bit of everything.

Then I’d do the same again the following week. Each time I revised a topic, I’d revise something new — don’t fall into the trap of revising one topic for ages. It’s not worth it. Revise for the amount of time you’ve decided on (1 hour, 2 hours), then stop and move on to something else. If you do this for say, a month, by the end of the month you should be able to say that you’ve at least looked at everything you need to know for the exams, even if you haven’t gone into intense detail on some things.

2. Routine

Getting into a daily routine was really important for me, right from the beginning of the year. I got up at the same time every day, I ate breakfast (if your hall does breakfast, take advantage of it!) and I got to the library early. I treated each day a bit like I would an office job. In the evening I would go to yoga at the same time every day, then come home and relax.

This was really helpful for me; I never, ever worked in my bedroom. My bedroom was just for listening to calm music, doing yoga, sleeping and skyping friends and family. I decorated it with plants (little ones are less than a quid at the Covered Market), soft lights and photos, and never opened a folder in there. This meant I could completely shut off when I got home each day.

3. Tech

I am a geek, so I relied on two apps during my final year. The first is a Chrome extension called ‘Strict Workflow’, which is free. You install it in your browser, and a little red tomato button appears on the top right hand corner of your screen. When you click that tomato, all ‘popular distracting sites’, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Buzzfeed, etc become banned, and you get the message on the left when you try to visit them. (You can edit the list of blacklisted sites to add/remove sites.) After 25 minutes an alarm rings and the app lets you browse those sites for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, another alarm bell rings and it suggests you stop and start the clock again for another 25 minutes of work. This is really great if you procrastinate.

The second is called A-Tracker, which I installed on my phone, which is also free. This is just a simple time-logging app, and the Apple Store has loads of other ones if you don’t like this particular one. Basically, I set up 8 categories for the 8 modules I had to revise, and when I was revising one, I started the timer for that category, and stopped it when I finished it. Then at the end of the day/week/month you can look at a pie chart to see how much you’ve revised of each module, which is a useful way of making sure you’re splitting your time evenly between modules. My mum laughed at me for how nerdy this was, and I fully agree with her. But hey, I was trying to get through Oxford exams — I would have tried anything!

Other apps I recommend are Flux, which makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day (kinder for your eyes and helps you sleep better), Forest, which enables you to grow little virtual trees for every minute you don’t touch your phone when you’re working, Calm and Headspace. The latter two are mindfulness and meditation apps that are great for beating anxiety.

4. Ways to revise

Here is a rather long list, some things more obvious than others. The key with revision is it must be ACTIVE. Just passively reading notes or books will not help.

  1. Read books on the topics and make notes, by hand or typed
  2. Print out articles and highlight them as you read
  3. Revisit old notes and type them up again, or cut them down to neat summaries
  4. Write out your notes and colour code them
  5. Re-attend lectures from second year — you may think you remember them, but you probably don’t
  6. Highlight lecture notes
  7. Listen to relevant podcasts (search iTunes university) or watch documentaries
  8. Read notes out loud
  9. Teach topics to people, and discuss your revision with people you know won’t stress you out/make you feel bad about how much you should know
  10. Sit past papers — do this in two ways. a) sit the full paper, timed and b) spend 15 minutes on each question planning how you would answer it. a) is useful if you struggle with timing, but b) is probably the best for reinforcing your knowledge and getting used to quickly coming up with an essay structure
  11. Make mind maps and diagrams. Everywhere you looked in my college library during finals were big A3 sketchpads full of multicoloured mind maps. Make them using your notes first, then try it without them- write the name of a topic in the centre and see how much you can remember about it
  12. Index cards — really useful for exam week. Summarise key issues in bullet points, in different colours. These are great for looking at just before you go into the exam
  13. Read through examiners’ reports
  14. Read book reviews — a useful way of getting a quick summary of an issue or argument (especially useful for history essays where you need to talk about historiography)
  15. Make glossaries of important words

5. Self-care

For me this is the most important aspect of finals. It’s an endurance test, and key to endurance is taking good care of yourself.

  • At the front of my revision folder I had a list, which I constantly added to, called ‘Reasons why everything is gonna be ok’. I listed reasons why I was at Oxford, positive comments I have had on work, people who have inspired me, my ambitions, inspiring quotes. Super naff, but it was comforting to me. I had a load of Instagram photos printed and wrote little encouraging messages on them, too.
  • Don’t retreat into yourself — make sure you do see friends, even if it’s not as regularly as you used to. If you’re in halls, try and cook together every night. My friend and I always ate breakfast together and it was a nice way to start the day. Just talking to someone else for half an hour can make you feel so much better. (I was also quite partial to post-revision g&ts in the college bar.)
  • Plan nice things to look forward to, like concerts or family visits or meals out, and put them in your diary as constant positive reminders of what’s to come. My mum brought the family dog to see me a week before my exams started and it was so great. Also, if you’re organised, you can buy up £1 Oxford tube tickets via Megabus a month or so in advance, for cheap travel to London.
  • Don’t listen to other people talking about their revision, unless you find it helpful. I actively avoided talking to the people on my course who loved to discuss their revision, as this just made me very stressed.
  • In second year when I was struggling quite a lot with anxiety, I got into drawing and colouring as a way to stay calm, and found it really useful. So for final year, I brought with me a couple of colouring books (I like this and this, although you can get cheaper ones), paints, pens and other arty stuff. If you can fight back the inner voice that says ‘this is so pointless’ or ‘this is childish’, these kinds of activities can be a great way to clear your mind.
  • Yoga. I started going to classes at Yoga Quota at the beginning of my final year. It’s a little pricey if you only want to go once a week, but good value if you go several times or every day, like I did. There are also classes at the Said Business School, University Club, the gym in Summertown, loads of places on Cowley Road and several colleges across Oxford. Yoga helps you clear your mind, it teaches you useful breathing techniques and it leaves you feeling very grounded and calm after a class.
  • Exercise generally — if yoga’s not your cup of tea, there are loads of alternatives —weights, running, sports clubs, dance classes…They all have the same effect of helping you clear your mind. I loved Les Mills BodyPump classes — once you’ve spent an hour lifting weights, revision seems like a piece of cake! Lots of people I know would go for a run the night before an exam to calm themselves down. In the same vein, you’ve heard it all before, but try to eat well too. Finals are exhausting, so you don’t want to be feeling ill or unhealthy on top of all that. There’s no need to be obsessive about it, but make sure in addition to the motivational chocolate bars you’re having a fair amount of fruit and veg too!

For all of the above suggestions in this post, I think it’s important to start early. Ie, don’t start planning a new exercise regime, a new diet and a new revision technique midway through Trinity. If you get into a good, calm routine early on in the year, Trinity really won’t be as painful as you might think. Note, of course, that everyone needs a different routine to suit them, so don’t follow mine to a T — I just hope it has given some useful suggestions for how to order your revision and stay calm. I’ll try to keep updating this article as more things come to mind, but in the mean time, good luck!

Edited to add: since writing this article I realised it was a big oversight to focus only on the gender problem of finals, ignoring the role racial privilege also plays. Not very intersectional of me. I didn’t want to edit the article and insert the data as if it had always been there because that would be covering up my tracks.

The finals results gap between white people and POC is sadly (but unsurprisingly) just as conspicuous — more info on it here. It doesn’t receive as much press as the gender gap, but it should. I recently did some digging into the Oxford graduate funding process too and found out, quelle surprise, that white people are also far more likely to get funding for masters degrees. Oxford has a long way to go.

Enjoy Lucy’s advice? Spread the love. Be well.

Lucy is on Twitter.

And runs the small Medium (ha!) publication British Feminism.

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