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Friday, 11 July 2014

The Oxbridge Exam Experience


June is a strange month in Oxford. The weather is (relatively) cheerful, the sun pops out, the city warms and the country prepares itself for summer. Birds sing, bees buzz. But, there is always a certain air of tension in the city during the first half of the month. Students scurry backwards and forwards, heads bowed and arms buckling under the weight of books, people disappear from the streets and the usual student haunts empty of an evening.

Trinity Term, stretching from late April to June, is exam term at the University of Oxford. The thrills, social events and happy, carefree pub sessions of Michaelmas and Hilary terms are exchanged for feverish library sessions, late night revision and study groups. Students are still seen in the pubs but the atmosphere has changed; laughter and flirtation is transformed into the quiet drowning of sorrows, commiserations and the camaraderie of soldiers facing battle. And battle it is.

I always get a little shiver of sympathy when I observe these desperate creatures, because I myself was once among them; an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the most famous in the country, do attract a certain type of student. What I would describe as 'Type A', as much driven by their desire to succeed as by their academic talents, and such people certainly pile the pressure on, both to themselves and those around them. I had always considered myself relatively immune to the paranoia, I had never been particularly overawed by Cambridge (hoping instead to go to drama school) and spent most of my time there in the warm and cosy confines of the theatre rather than the library. But as finals approached, even I started to wobble.
The first change was social gatherings. Texts of "Pub?" that had usually been greeted with replies along the line of "God - yes - I'll be there in 5" started to return curt replies; "No - sorry can't", "Sorry - REVISION - argh!" and, even worse, sometimes no reply at all. The common room emptied and the library filled up. I started to get anxious, I too should probably turn my attentions to my studies.


Students relax on the grass at Queens' College during a break from revision (Credit: Katie Alcock)

Exam term at Cambridge consisted of days spent in the library, alternating between reading feverishly and staring wistfully out of the window into the sunshine. Dates crossed off on the calendar counting down to the inevitable big red box marked "FIRST EXAM", and weeks of hurried conversations with classmates along the lines of;
Smug Undergraduate: "How many hours of revision have you done this week?"
You: "Oh, erm, I don't know I haven't really been-"
Smug Undergraduate: "I've done 70."
You: (With a sense of soul-crushing ineptitude) "Oh..."
We compared length of lecture notes, length of revision notes, number of days/hours/weeks spent revising, grades on practice essays, length of practice essays, rumours about exam content; the atmosphere at college transformed into the sort of sea of nerves and anticipation that I imagine must accompany world class athletes before their event in the Olympics. Days, weeks, months of relentless, keyed-up anticipation.

And then of course, the wave of exams themselves come crashing down upon you. As standard they are each three hours long. The evening, night, morning before each one I spent religiously going over my notes, hoping against hope that after each viewing an extra fact, an extra date would stick. Then the alarm goes, you throw on your comfiest clothes (in Cambridge - haha - we don't have to wear academic dress like the poor Oxonians do!)and you shuffle, hands shaking in terror, to the exam hall where you will spend the next three hours of your life scribbling so fast you run risk of causing yourself serious wrist injury. The days between exams are spent worrying, revising, worrying again, crying, calling your mother to check that she will still love you if you get a third, revising, worrying, re-evaluating life plans based on inevitable exam failure, crying, worrying and revising some more.
And then. Suddenly. It's over.

I thought I would feel something more than I did, but in truth I, like everyone else, was numb. The examiner tells you to put down your pen in your final exam, there is an initial surge of relief; you can relax - and then - nothing. I stepped outside, I can remember vividly, blinking into the sunshine, where my friends were waiting. There is a tradition in Oxford and Cambridge, more so in Oxford, of "trashing" after your final exam. In Oxford, as you are dressed in gown and formal attire, this involves having any number of substances such as egg, flour, beans and confetti, showered over you as you leave the exam hall. In Cambridge we prefer things a little simpler; you lie in wait for your friend and then shower them with champagne (or Sainsbury's Cava for the more financially conscious).


Students are sprayed with champagne after finishing their final exams. (Credit: Helen Swift)

So there I was, fresh out the horror of the exam hall, dowsed liberally in champagne, greeted by my ecstatic boyfriend, fellow historians and even my best mate from back home who had travelled up to see me, and I felt... nothing. Numb. There was a smile on my face don't get me wrong, but in truth I was exhausted, I couldn't feel anything. All those weeks of revision, anxious late nights spent pouring over obscure texts and months of worry, had drained me of every last piece of emotion I had at my disposal. We walked back to college, had a few drinks and within 20 minutes I was asleep on the sofa.
The real joy, the real satisfaction, takes a little longer to sink in. At first, you simply can't believe it. You are so primed, so pumped, so full of adrenaline, that to begin with you find it hard to let go. For the first week after finishing I would still wake, frequently, feverishly, during the night, convinced that I had more revision to do or another examination to sit. My eyes would fly open in the early hours of the morning, I would sit bolt upright in panic, and then, as realisation hit, I would snuggle happily, smugly, luxuriously back down under my covers; safe in the knowledge that never again would I have to venture out into the misery of an exam hall. Initially, you don't know what to do with your free time either. With no revision to fill your hours you suddenly find yourself wondering what you did with all that spare time beforehand - I couldn't have spent it all at the pub - surely? Also, of course, many of your friends will not yet have finished, and (fresh from the horror yourself) you are sympathetic enough not to bombard them with invites to picnics and Pimm's in the park.

But, eventually, one by one, your friends join you in the post-exam glow and slowly, you relax, bathe, sink into the happiness of it. The sun is shining and the world is full of promise. The stress, the worry, the panic, the hard-work is all over. Now there is nothing ahead of you but the glory of May Week. A solid week of garden parties, May Balls, outdoor theatre, live music, food and alcohol. A week of happy joy and oblivion. And then? Well then starts the small matter of the rest of your life... but growing up can wait just a little bit longer.

Students Katie Alcock and Jane Ashford-Thom celebrate post-exams (Credit: Thomas George)

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