An introductory anecdote: last summer, holed up in my room in Florence as August came to an end, air conditioning blasting into my face, I found an Instagram account. It belonged to a student at Corpus Christi College, and they made embroidered stands, customised with different designs or quotes. One caught my eye: “What if something wonderful happens?”. After a couple of weeks of panicking at the prospect of a final year packed with work and stress ahead of me, which had been filled with “What if something terrible happens?”, this quote seemed both ironic and apt. I made a note about it and asked them to make me one over the Easter holidays. It took its place above my bedside table for the rest of my time at Oxford. And it turned out to be true.
Mindfulness fails, as much as people recommend it. I make obsessive to-do lists to calm myself down and remember my tasks, I spend a lot of time imagining worst case scenarios, I worry a lot. When an event has been hyped up or discussed thoroughly, my claws are out to defend myself from all difficulties, but my internal timed bomb tick-tick-ticks away. My determination is level to my worry, and that’s how I felt by the time I got to my last few exams at Oxford. Though I am fierce, I felt very small – smaller than I ever had done in tutorials and seminars, where in turn I often felt confident and outspoken, by way of a simple conversation about working hours or by seeing people leave the library only at closing time or by having break after break declined by people who simply did not have the time to even have lunch, let alone go and get a coffee from the college bar. I am in no doubt that half the university feels this way: what do we expect when a mixture of high achievers and perfectionists are thrown together, each one slightly unsure as to whether they’ll be able to meet the goals they’ve set themselves?
Finals are, according to many people (unhelpful tutors, competitive friends), the be all and end all of an Oxford degree. It is hard not to feel that way when they make up 100% of your grade, when the year above you begins to retreat to the library far more than they ever have done, and when the horror stories about sleepless nights and “moving to the library” are spread. But the less dramatic truth that no one really tells you is that Finals are tough, but they are not impossible.
Other things that Finals are not:
- a reflection of your academic journey – for you can know all there is to know and miss out on a First, and likewise the other way round
- a moral compass, acting as a way to measure your worth against other people
- a competition, where the person with the least sleep and the longest revision hours wins
What Finals are is a set of tiring, demanding exams that you will never know enough for, but need to tackle with gritted teeth and sheer willpower nonetheless. People do Finals differently, but it can be nigh on impossible not to get sucked into the way others live their lives at this specific time. I know that I found it hard more than anything else, and I know a lot of people felt the same way. This time last year, hearing “it’ll be fine” was just as useful as saying “I have been to Helsinki” in terms of calming me down. I was convinced it would be anything but fine, actually, and that it was all going downhill as of October. I was convinced I would not pass at least two papers, that everyone was lying about having had a hard time, that they couldn’t possibly have been alright when there was so much to do and get through. It is also hard to have people going to other universities fully understand this – most people are assessed every year (more than once a year in some cases), and this final, huge rush of exams is something that they may never have to encounter. I found that spending my summer pouring over books was seen as a nerdy wish rather than a necessity.
Though I don’t have the key to a First Class mark or to halting anxiety, I do have perspective over the year that has just ended, and I can tell you this: you should see this post as a reassurance more than as a guide. If I, the person who was crying into the library carpet in April, who didn’t quite manage to have Paper VIII go her way, and who lost (yes, lost) two years’ worth of notes a week before an important paper, made it through finals (and didn’t do badly at all, in the end), you can too.
1.Comparison is the thief of joy.
I know that you know this, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. Finals are a time where comparison begins to eat away at a lot of people.
It starts from the beginning of the year. “I’m a FINALIST”, people say as an excuse not to (*insert fun action*), feeling they need to adhere to this made-up prototype of a Finalist (TM) that works all the time. Tips start to circulate – work 9-5, don’t work in your room, don’t have a phone near you, use this app or that app or both apps actually. No, actually, forget that, work in the library all the time. Actually, spend the day in the faculty library. Don’t make detailed plans to revise… do make detailed plans to revise… when does revision start anyway? It’s a constant buzz of competitive panicking, and it can be very hard to evade – I myself am guilty of having become involved in it. But I wish I had known then what I know now – that it was entirely useless and rather than reassure me that others found things difficult or were behind, it had simply become a pretty cyclical coping mechanism that didn’t lead to anything other than more worrying. Side note: the Pomodoro method does not work for everyone.
“If I stay in my room all day, maybe I’ll become a Real Finalist (or maybe I’ll just stare out of the window all afternoon)”
Just do you. Do not think about whether there is a pre-established way to behave, to work, to revise, even to sit exams (to cram or not to cram? big breakfast discussing something else? a very slow walk from college to Ewert House? the options were endless). It does not matter whether you have an Excel spreadsheet to highlight out the papers you’ve done, whether you’re timing revision, whether you’re doing more or less hours. It does not matter whether some people keep up four sports and a play at the same time, nor whether you’re spending less time in the library compared to your year. You have to do what works best for you, and nothing other than that.
When it came to revision, people around me started around March (I hadn’t even got a draft of my coursework done at this point given that I barely understood most of my material). In exam season, I was revising every single day until late, trying my best to fit a lot of information on a single topic into my brain, whilst other people were taking whole weekends off because they’d been in the game for much longer. I made notes til the very last hours before exams, I didn’t do regular exercise, I often went days drinking only green tea, Ribena light and with odd (mainly cold) meals eaten at my desk (strange concoctions involved peas on toast, hummus and apple, and on a particularly bad day, an orange that I accidentally ate like I would a peach), I spent quite a lot of time in bed worrying about work in the mornings instead of getting on with it.
There were a lot of topics I ditched last minute, and others I decided to add a mere four days before sitting a paper. It was a very different working technique to what I had done before: receive an essay title, sat down at my desk until it was done, with perhaps a half hour break over the space of five hours if I was very focused. More unfortunate days meant work took much longer, but it was still always done by the end of the day. Finals just don’t work like that because the work supposedly never ends (which is seemingly the case in term time, but you need to learn to stop at some point when you think you’ve done enough).
Always an uplifting find in a folder full of past essays
I did more or less everything you shouldn’t be doing during exam season, essentially, and it certainly didn’t help me stay calm. But the thing is, deep down, I knew my brain worked well in different ways. Though I didn’t sit at my desk all day long with tidy notes around me, I *did* chant topics aloud in the shower, pace my room saying the names of German flowers out loud, and stand, hands on hips, staring at my Dante’s Inferno map pinned onto the wall trying to take all the sinners in, day after day.
When you get to the exam itself, your brain suddenly begins to make connections between things and to remember things you read a while ago. I found myself writing things I’d never even considered in some of my papers. I’ll give you an example.
In my Paper X (Special Authors) for German, I decided it was a very good idea to set off on a rant about The Graduate (that’s the 80s film with Dustin Hoffman which had absolutely nothing to do with GDR Literature) as it supported my argument that Wolf’s writing was anything but confined to the GDR era (the question stated the opposite). I used Nachdenken uber Christa T and Kassandra as my main texts in writing, and stated that so long as an issue could continue to affect readers of another era, the text it was contained in could never lose relevance – it would, by definition, be a classic.
It’s because of this very reason that films like The Graduate (which I think is more about the evolution of the self and the development of your own personhood than a love affair, and the evolution of the self so to become an individual is exactly what the core of Nachdenken is) and The Handmaid’s Tale (recently made into a Netflix show) continue to be relevant. Attwood’s novel in particular deals with an alternate reality that isn’t so far off from a contemporary patriarchal reality, and what Atwood describes is, with different kinds of extremes, the same Wolf illustrates in Kassandra. This is why people are gripped by the aforementioned Netflix show and have been gripped by her book: to them, the Republic of Gilead could plausibly become a reality. As long as Wolf’s literary issues continue to have a hold on issues that contemporary readers experience, they will never be relevant exclusively to the era they were penned in, and the same can be said of any author.
Stop asking me about the future
However, this is only applicable to a certain extent: while Kassandra (and The Handmaid’s Tale) may at some point, in their dystopia, become obsolete, given that Nachdenken deals with characterial and human issues it will most probably remain relevant forever (unless, of course, we all suddenly wake up to find we’ve become robots lacking individual personalities and incapable of ageing). Think of epic poems: why do we still study Homer?
The Iliad and the Odyssey are much more about characterial traits and individual action than they are about war and travelling: Telemachus maturing throughout the Odyssey acts as a fundamental secondary plot to the development of the aforementioned, because it deals with his transition into adulthood whilst lacking a father. Patroclus and Achilles in the Iliad in turn offer a moving portrayal of friendship: to watch the unbreakable and fierce Achilles, so different in attitude towards Patroclus compared to his fellow warriors, be overwhelmed by grief in losing his friend is to gain insight into the human psyche and to see, in Homer’s words, a reflection of what was or is our own inner turmoil, or if anything to comprehend that of someone we know.
There are countless examples of human behaviour and error in both poems, as there in the Divine Comedy, where despite Dante seeing his journey ordered by God, we often see him sympathising with sinners or, more frequently, moved at the sight of them (there is a lot of fainting going on). Dante as a pilgrim differs from Dante as a poet: the former proving to ultimately be as terrified and as clueless as any other mortal thrust into the depths of Hell would be, the latter describing what he sees, with the occasional vain flourish (I’m thinking of Inferno’s Canto XXV in particular, see his “Taccia Lucano / Taccia Ovidio”).
Isn’t this more generally why we read literature? To see our own feelings and thoughts expressed by others, to gain comfort in knowing that it is anything but individual, to find our fictional equivalent? I know that for me it is one of the reasons – and it helped, when thinking about my texts, to see the individuals described as human, first and foremost, before fictional. It meant being able to pick them apart.
Anyway – the point is, I read The Handmaid’s Tale in bed, after revising, as a relaxing distraction in the week before I sat that paper, and it ended up sneaking its way into my exam. So long as you can argue what you believe in, you’ll be alright – don’t worry too much about the examples. Maybe it shows you’re well read. I did much better in my X than I thought I would (my third question was a disaster), and I often wonder whether these slightly wacky comparisons played into that.
Another piece of advice relating to something the Modern Languages faculty absolutely loved doing this year: don’t let yourself by thrown by bizarre questions. You’ll be able to write an answer once you dismantle the question. Dig deep – your brain knows something. One of my VIII questions was about Svevo’s way of dealing with time. My initial reaction was, essentially, panic stations.
(my brain during the exam)
9:25 We NEED to open this paper. I can’t wait any longer.
9:30 Ok. OPEN!!!! Skim skim skim skim. Film is fine, D’Annunzio’s fine… Oh crap. Time. Great. That literally means nothing. Now what? Right. Fun anecdote to kick it off maybe? When were clocks invented?? I KNOW we answered this in that pub quiz in second year. Surely earlier than the 1600s. I know it’s Huygens, I just can’t bloody remember when that was.
9:38 It was either 1600s or 1700s. It must’ve been 1600s. Think. THINK. I literally can’t invent a date. Detail or nothing.
9:40 Ok, I’m wasting time, this is stupid, you could argue that an hourglass is a clock, there’s no point over obsessing over modern ones. I wish I knew everything about every modern object ever.
9:45 Maybe I’ll make a list of things I need to know about in terms of invention. When this is over, anyway. ONE MORE !!! Stop it, focus on the clocks. Right, well I can’t say the 20th century saw clocks being invented at any rate.
9:47 I swear that clock’s moving too fast. I HAVE to start writing by ten. I should be drafting all three, not thinking about clocks. Do I know anything about clocks….?
9:48 I bet the Italian SubFaculty is really smug about how nice and complicated they’ve made these questions. Look at that 18th century section, it’s hell. Why am I looking at this?! I’M NOT WRITING ABOUT THIS. I’M TRYING TO THINK ABOUT CLOCKS.
9:55 Ok. Historical terms are out of the window. Philosophy?? Philosophy?? Do I know any philosophy… I don’t know any philosophical theories about time.
10:00 Right. We’ve established I have no historical or philosophical knowledge to kick this intro off. But I really need to write this introduction. I’m getting stuck in this stupid essay question. Ok. Define. Define is the way out, define is the way forward. Let’s start with a definition.
[10 minutes thinking about whether you can define time]
10:10 (screaming inside) I WISH I’D READ FOUCAULT. I’M SURE HE WROTE ABOUT TIME. I need to reread my philosophy notes when I’m home.
10:15 I wonder what Romain’s writing about.
10:20 Oh my God, I’ve now wasted almost an entire hour thinking about clocks. OK, leaving this last. Power through the Moravia question NOW.
Once I calmed down a bit, I realised I could make the way he shapes his novels around a certain type (inept, middle-classe, lacking social skills) had often to do with age. So I (very hurriedly given I had about half an hour left….) talked about ageing and the passing of time as being a major trait in terms of clarifying why his characters behave a certain way, and (drum roll) that their behaviour in itself was often one that didn’t know how to adapt to making the most of their time (either wasting it or acting too fast – there’s lots of examples I could make here for the Inetto series, but I would say mainly connected to romantic choices and career decisions – missing out on ‘The One’ or a promotion)
Bottom line: you have to trust yourself and the way you work. Your brain got you here – and it will get you through Finals, no matter how the rest of the university tackles them (and even if it starts thinking about advert jingles .
2. You cannot get through this alone.
Finals are an endurance test. They go on and on, and it gradually becomes very easy to fall into a hole of solitude and loneliness. People are busy, of course, and so are you. But it is so important to keep human contact (I even added it to my star chart list – another failed attempt to keep up with a revision schedule I never managed to follow). I would not have managed to get to the end of it had I not had a wonderful set of people helping me out – not just working with me (which became a good way to combine revision and human contact), but cooking with me, taking walks with me, even having a 15 minute Skype conversation with me before going to bed.
It would become so incredibly toxic to sit in my room and just stare at essays and books for hours on end that I honestly craved company. Coursework especially, during the Easter holidays, proved to be a very hard time. With everyone home, it was easy to retreat to my (new, unfamiliar) room, and I often felt like a mole going back underground. Thankfully, my friend Margherita took me home with her – and in her lovely kitchen in the middle of the countryside, I finally wrote the bulk of my coursework.
It takes effort to reach out to others, and plans fall through a lot. But you need to do it. Stories of people not leaving college for weeks are real, and they are alarming. You are not programmed to be alone. Even Mount Athos sees monks live in one another’s company. Make phonecalls, plan meals, take walks. See other people. In a place such as Oxford where work can suck you in and never spit you out, I think sharing that feeling with others can be liberating.
A whole day spent in a Brasenose bedroom, going through the entirety of the Divine Comedy (that’s my map as a work in progress)
It isn’t just your friends that should be a port of call. My tutor might as well have had a “COME IN WHENEVER” sign on her door for us finalists. We all did a lot of flapping, and she constantly calmed us down. I think it’s important for there to be a figure of authority to not only pull you together but also reassure you that things will fall into place, someone that has gone through it before. They have seen it all, so do not hesitate to go and worry aloud. You’ll come out feeling better, I promise (and if you don’t, they are not the only people you can talk to). Tutors can change your experience at Oxford in the way they approach your exam performance – but a tutor who cares about you first and foremost will put that aside and focus on you as an individual. More often than out, that will actually help you perform better once the pressure’s off.
3. You’ll come to hate parts of a degree you once loved.
I don’t think I’ve ever hated anything as much as I hated studying Dante, besides physics. I’ve said it: my whole year loved it, raving about its intricacy and making Inferno-related jokes, while I despised every minute of it (ok, this is not completely true: I actually loved Inferno, but I think it gets worse as it carries on – Purgatorio was a real drag even though it started quite well, and Paradiso was a parade of saints and heroes that was mind-numbingly boring). Medieval literature is not for me nor will it ever be. I was thrilled to get back to post-war literature as soon as I finished the paper.
The irony is of course that I live in Danteworld (Florence), and that I should have supposedly loved the paper. It surprised me, too (and began to annoy me quite quickly when people made the same joke over and over again). You will come to hate parts of your degree, and the opposite of that may well be true. One of the papers I struggled with the most gained a First (the infamous late poetry coursework) which, trust me, was anything but expected. It is no secret that when I got here I was undoubtedly much stronger in Italian literature (mainly because I’d been studying it for longer and had a good knowledge of historical/philosophical context), but it turned out to be what let me down in Finals compared to German. I was also always strong in German oral, and that ended up being a disappointing exam, too.
It all balanced out for me to do well, as I got a strong 2:1, but I remember feeling so disappointed in seeing those two marks – not that Dante was a surprise, despite my tutor telling me I’d be really good at it, based on my essays. I always found I excelled at analysing snippets of it and was hopeless at giving a broader commentary. But that German oral mark still sometimes irks me. Oh well. Be prepared for a favourite topic to become anything but your strongest paper, and be braced for surprises. And with this, do not underestimate your performance in anything – you have no idea how it went, and you will not know for months. Just don’t worry about it: when people say you know more than you think you do, they are right. I used to get so irritated at that piece of advice, but it’s really true.
4. This is a sentence between brackets in the paragraph that is Oxford
Success cannot be measured by grades. I wrote than down a lot, during Finals, and never quite believed it. It may feel like the end of the world to not achieve what you want, but it will never change how you have worked, and what you have done during your time at Oxford. It is so easy to think that this is it, and that nothing else matters. People always joke about needing to leave with a blue, a spouse or a First, and the pressure generally really is on, mostly because of your own expectations of yourself.
But the truth is that this is simply a tiny part of your life, not only academically, but indeed overall. You will get a degree whatever happens. You will pursue something, and with luck and endurance, you will get it. If something happens that causes finals to go lop-sided, there is a whole range of people waiting to help you. You can get through this hard part of your life. You can get through it, and you can come out the other side.
I used to beat myself up for not reaching perfection in everything I did, but I have come to peace with the fact that I am not the best person at my subject in everything and never have been at Oxford, but that doesn’t matter. There are different strengths to each person: mine are translating (ironically! I was terrible when I first got here) and modern literature, even if I’m crap at German essays and Dante. You have yours. Imagine if we obsessed about the things we’re great at, rather than those we feel terrible at.
5. Everyone feels this way.
Lilli (dressed in celebratory fairy outfit) jumping into the river after finishing Law finals
If I’ve failed to convince you you’ll be alright, maybe these words from some wonderful women who got through it and speak from the other side will.
“What is your advice to other finalists? What do you wish you could tell past finalist you?”
Ariane (Ancient and Modern History, Brasenose): “Those months/that year (depending on your perspective) are a part of your life and of your experience at Oxford. Both fortunately and unfortunately life doesn’t stop for finals revision and exams, so allow yourself to have fun and enjoy Oxford!”
Sleep, and pub evenings, and Port Meadow swims, and shredding notes, and trashing friend after friend, and endless delightful hours reading for pleasure, watching films, basking in the sun. Make a list of things you want to do after Finals, and save it to read when it feels like it’s all too much. Take the time to revel in your freedom when it’s all over.
Finals make up such a huge part of the Oxford degree. They are so anticipated, so feared, there is such a build up. But you have to remember that they end, just like all exams do, even if there are days where you feel like life IS Finals (I know I felt like that!). And then, there’s the rest of your life ahead of you.
A final anecdote: on the last day of my last year at university, I sat, sunbathing, on the college lawn, looking over the river, thinking that the bells marking every day and every hour of revision, every moment I left college, seemed to have lost the noise they were making throughout my whole degree.
It made me realise I would miss the most ridiculous things. That maybe I sense things differently to when I first got here. That despite it all – despite the stress, the tears, the mountain of work, the constant sense I’d missed out on something to do – I am someone new, now, I think. I am someone resilient, and determined, and a bloody good friend. I care about people and I started OWSC, I worked and read and laughed and partied and travelled and met people that will be with me forever. Nothing can take that away from me, or from you. Does anything that seemed to be important at the time – a collection gone badly, a revision day gone down the drain, a hard exam, a mark, a degree result, even – really matter when these things obscure it overwhelmingly?
Chalk writing in Radcliffe Square during exam season in 2014
This was the real realisation: Oxford was the hardest time of my life, especially this year, but the happiest, too. I hope that in reading this, you will have nodded and smiled and felt relief loosen your tense heart. No matter what you get, no matter where you go, you will carry your time at this university with you forever. You are exactly where you were always meant to be.
Much like I did when writing my last post on this blog at the end of my year abroad, I feel as though this one, too, deserves its own final “thank you”s to a ridiculous amount of people. I said when I started my Finals year I wouldn’t let these exams become my life and did the exact opposite. Because of that, I wouldn’t have got through without a formidable bunch of people.
Everyone who had lunch and dinner with me in Hilda’s hall, indulged my whining and didn’t question my referencing breakdown before handing in coursework, everyone who shared mock listening exams with me (including the one where I managed to break the detachable desk), language classes, walks to and from tutorials, chats before lectures and comments online on desperate OWSC posts – all of you deserve a medal, but there are some who need a statue on top of that.
Sazzle in Queen’s Quazzle
Sara – my partner, my neighbour, my best friend. You cooked with me, chatted to me til late at night, put up with my loud laughing but also with my crying, watched me hyperventilate my way through Exam Schools and dragged me out for endless walks in the meadows, walked to and from and across Teddy Hall, Hilda’s and Sainsburys’ with me over and over again. You encouraged me and battled for an extra two weeks while I lounged in the sun without ever showing a tinge of bitterness. You, more than anyone else, have been a complete rock throughout the whole process – a post-Finals life without being able to knock on your door feels inadequate.
Margherita – you have taken the time to not only pratically teach me Dante from scratch, but to listen to me, to edit and reread my coursework, to reassure me and to make me chickpea-based dishes when everything felt very much wrong, to push Finals out of my head by making Zumba Wednesdays (followed by Gloucester Green) a thing, and spent many an hour in my room sipping tea with me and typing away at your work instead of being in your (let’s face it, much nicer) own room, just so I could keep up with work. You also pretended you found my singing the tongue song funny.
Fran leaving after a Christa Wolf – themed sleepover
Fran… you (and your bot) did all of what Marge did, plus listening to me repeating the same jokes over and over again (and always laughed at them…)
David, Marcus, Romain, Kitty, Flossie, Chiara, Rosie, Liv, Lilli, Susannah – for unfaltering support, lending me folders and helping me work, dinners, coffees, Taylor Institute breaks, Union library sessions, advice, your time, and lots and lots of tea in my room.
A selection of stallions, pictured at the end of orals
The Stallions for always proving to be supportive, hilarious, and more than anything, close-knit, sharing notes and lectures and everything else without the tiniest doubt or competitiveness, and for a wonderful end of term party. You have lit up every hour in Wellington Square (much needed in rooms that lack windows). I look forward to the day I get a text from any one of the guys alerting me of his Uomo al Duomo status again.
And of course, all of my tutors, especially the formidable Dr Paul. But then again, I’ve already told her everything I wanted to.