*Zayn voice* Hey, what’s up – it’s been a while…
If you used to read my “10.5 Weeks” series and wondered what happened to the last 2.5 weeks, wonder no more. It’s been a long time coming, but if you were curious to know how the last weeks of my degree were, this post is for you! It’s a long one, so grab a snack and a cup of tea!
I stopped writing because the final two weeks before exams started were frantic in a way I cannot even begin to describe. Last-minute revision tutes were being scheduled in left, right and centre, meaning I had to do the work to go with them, which didn’t always coincide well with my own revision schedule. Any plans I’d had to do practice essays for all of my papers went out of the window, meaning I was facing the prospect of walking into most of my exams without having done a single past paper that year. Comparison was, unsurprisingly, the thief of all joy: I watched my peers hand in stacks of practice papers while I had to spend all my time simply reading books I hadn’t touched for two years. Week 8 (3rd week of term?) was spent entirely with my head stuck in one book or another: I burned through Goethe’s Götz (after failing to read Faust, as you may remember), Iphigenie auf Tauris, Stella, and the rest of Mann’s Felix Krull. I’m sure I’ve mentioned the latter on here before, but it’s definitely worth a read simply because it’s so funny – it’s a light-hearted romp around Europe and very similar to the film Catch Me if You Can.
The following week (9 of this series and the last before starting exams) was rather different, because I spent much of it covering material I’d never actually read or studied before. This is…not a move I would generally recommend if you’re the kind of person who likes a solid grounding in criticism and secondary literature before writing about a text or topic, but I often produce some of my best work when I’m writing about something for the first time with only my own ideas to go on! The new topic I was covering was the representation of Moors and moriscos (Christians of Moorish heritage) in a few different texts from the Spanish Golden Age, such a the short story El Abencerraje y la hermosa Jarifa and the Calderón play Amar después de la muerte. Only one other person had taken the seminar about cultural minorities, so I knew it would be quite a niche topic, which could stand me in really good stead if I produced something of high quality. The rest of the week was spent frantically reading three plays by Lope de Vega, and unfortunately not having time for any secondary reading apart from the introductions to each play.
Most of my time was spent on the sofa just reading – it felt like the biggest race against time and I was constantly having to sacrifice things I had included in my revision plan because I still hadn’t finished reading my primary material. One of my friends told me that she was, unbelievably, completely finished with revision at this point and I simply wanted to yell HOW?!. Not only had I not finished, I was also having to schedule in certain topics into the exam weeks themselves, which I had really, really, really not wanted to do. It was pretty helpful to talk to my best friend and hear that he was in a similar position, otherwise I’d have thought I were just really behind everyone else.
Despite that, and despite the fact that my motivation was not as constant as I would have liked, I still took time to have a break: to go to Zumba classes, on walks, out to dinner, to the supermarket, even when I felt I didn’t “deserve” to. One event I attended was the President’s Dinner: when you study at Magdalen, you are invited – as part of a small random group – to dinner in the President’s Lodgings at the start and at the end of your degree. In my first year and this time around too, I was sitting next to the President’s wife (and then the President of the college later, as they switch places), which was pretty enjoyable. The following day was a pretty big deal for the college, as the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) came to officially open our new library, so I went along to see what all the fuss was about. (Look at him in this terrible photo.)
I also enjoyed more casual activities to relax – my boyfriend and I went for a long walk through East Oxford and Florence Park, a lovely park that most Oxford students don’t tend to know about. Studying at Magdalen is great if you enjoy walks, too, as Addison’s Walk and the Fellows’ Garden are beautiful oases of calm which give the illusion you’re miles away from the city with its noise and traffic. My best friend and I also took time off to go for ice cream and just get out of a work environment when we could, although at this point it was difficult to find time! The stress meant that even going to Tesco with my boyfriend counted as an enjoyable break from work, and I made sure to pick up treats that would keep me motivated. We made fun meals at home, like these “tacos” (now, having been to America and eaten real tacos, I’m confused at the Old El Paso kits that are sold here…), and cooking was always a welcome diversion from reading, but we also went out occasionally, even if I did spend the whole of lunch in Loch Fyne reading about Spanish accounts of the Moorish conquest. Luckily, my boyfriend was really understanding and didn’t complain when I was terrible company, which was a total blessing at such a stressful stage.
And it was stressful. The week or so before exams started, I found I had even more problems sleeping than usual. I’m a great sleeper and normally have no issues, so knew that my broken sleep in the weeks leading up to that point was solely due to the intense stress, but by this point everything had reached such a pitch – the struggle to get enough done, the stressful routine of classes and lectures when all I wanted to do was revise, the toll that being a supportive friend takes – that I would just break down and cry for ages before going to bed every night. The worst thing is, despite the fact I didn’t tell anyone else about this, I’m pretty sure that isn’t even an abnormal reaction to have. I’m trying really hard not to glamorise this process, because it has a terrible effect on most finalists’ physical, mental and emotional health. I know everyone has exams and stressful circumstances, but the Oxford system is such that you’re redoing (or doing) two years of work in the space of a few weeks, with the knowledge that 90% of your degree depends on these eight three-hour exams, and I don’t think it’s easy for anyone, no matter how competent they are.
Luckily I had enough friends around me who weren’t finalists to remain sane and on track: it was really helpful to be able to vent to people who weren’t just as worried as I was, as I didn’t have to feel guilty about taking up their time and adding to their stress, and it didn’t set off a downward spiral of “no I’ve done way less than you, look”, which I have never found to be very helpful. Motivational texts, food and flowers (the most beautiful flowers) were greatly appreciated at this point: I also really valued not living alone as I always had someone to listen to my complaints and worries, and gently tell me I did deserve to sleep, even if I hadn’t finished the book I was supposed to have read by that point.
My eight exams were spread over an eleven-day period. The first Monday rolled around unfairly soon, and neither my best friend nor I felt at all ready by this point. But that’s the thing about these finals that we had to come to terms with: we may have felt like well-practised athletes casually stretching before our A Levels, safe in the knowledge we’d revised everything we could, but for these finals we felt so unbelievably underprepared that it was more akin to leaping out of a plane with no parachute and shouting “WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!!” to stay afloat. Wise tutors, irritatingly, kept saying that no one ever feels prepared for finals, and by this point we had no choice but to believe them.
The first Monday, for me, was a six-hour day involving four translations from German and Spanish into English (German IIA, IIB, Spanish IIA, IIB). The morning was fine – the Spanish was about an insomniac man and the German was a slightly tougher text about a woman trying to change her password at the French National Library. My boyfriend came to meet me with lunch, and we ate in the common room of the Computer Science department. The afternoon, however, was a total nightmare: the Spanish text was a vague philosophical ramble, with one sentence halfway through that was a whole page long in my answer booklet, and the German was even worse. It was an extremely convoluted text about a strange butterfly and then some even stranger snow, but it was very difficult to work out even these basic facts, as the word used for butterfly was a very uncommon one I had never seen before. Plus by this point it was late in the afternoon, half the room had gone, and I’d already done three translations so my brain wasn’t at its best. Everyone came out at 5.30pm looking exhausted, but the German/Spanish students particularly looked absolutely traumatised.
I had a few days’ grace after that to get back to revision, but it was incredibly difficult to even stay awake: I hadn’t anticipated just how exhausted I would feel after only the first day. Once I had started the exams, I just wanted to sit them – I didn’t want to go back to revision, but I had to. Revising Jelinek’s work was easy, because that had been the topic of my most recent German essay: I had written about space in Die Liebhaberinnen and Die Klavierspielerin and analysed the power and race relations in the latter. The examination of race was apparently something new – after all, I hadn’t seen it in any of the articles I’d read, which seemed strange to me – and so my tutor suggested I could use it as the basis of my own article or conference paper. In fact, during my revision period I spotted a Call For Papers for the Women in German Studies Conference this November, so I submitted an abstract on that topic and was delighted to see it had been accepted. I’ll be presenting on race and power in Die Klavierspielerin at Aberystwyth this November, which I’m excited but also nervous about! As a result, revising that material was easy, meaning I could quickly move onto a topic I had never really studied before: May Ayim’s poetry. I had presented a short paper on this Afro-German poet back in January, at a conference in Cambridge, but wasn’t sure if I would revisit this for Finals, considering it wasn’t something I’d studied as part of my course or written a proper essay on. As it turned out, though, I didn’t feel super confident with my post-WWII topic and was desperate for the chance to revise something – anything – new, so spent a brilliant, absorbing evening in a nearby cafe reading about postcolonial theory which would apply to Ayim’s work.
That Thursday brought another language paper, German I: a translation from German into English and an essay in German. The translation wasn’t awful, but I obsessed over every tiny detail far more than I would normally have, and I was so tired that simple words seemed to escape me. I found the essay much easier, and wrote on translation, even talking about the translation workshop I mentioned in a blog post here. The weather was beautiful during the first week of exams so my best friend and I usually walked back from Summertown together to give us (but mainly him) time to fully dissect the exam. However, we were frequently stopped by curious tourists who wanted to take pictures of us in sub fusc and scholars’ gowns, which reminded us of how unique and bizarre Oxford is – for us, it’s now totally normal to sit exams in this strange school uniform!
Friday was finally time for German Paper VIII (I have no idea why we use Roman numerals; I’m so sorry), which was my Modern period paper – I’d been feeling unsure of how to meet the demands of this exam since I started studying for it in second year, and by this point was actually excited to sit the paper so I could just have it over and done with. It’s a huge paper – over 50 questions and you pick any 3 – and I wrote about May Ayim as an underrated writer, Gottfried Keller’s short stories (using a lot of information I’d only gleaned from Wikipedia the previous night), and capitalism in Jelinek’s novels (using some of the material I’ll be speaking on in November!). I really enjoyed the exam and felt I’d done a better job than in any of my practice essays, so I felt content and proud. I spent the afternoon with my friend, who – being a total worrier – was convinced he’d done extremely badly, and we had ice cream and walked around Christ Church Meadow in the sun while I tried to reassure him.
No matter how I much I enjoyed the exams, it didn’t change the fact that they were a huge physical strain, not only on my energy levels, but also on my hands and arms. I suffer from RSI because I hold my pen all wrong (and it’s too late to change it unfortunately) and I’d been going to see an osteopath since January to help me get through revision season. After 12 hours of exams and 3 more to go that week, I was feeling completely destroyed in every way: my arm and hand hurt so much that it was a struggle to hold a pen, and I was so exhausted that even 8 hours of sleep didn’t refresh me in the slightest. The emotional effect of worrying about my best friend probably played a part, too. By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, bringing with it the Spanish Early Modern literature paper (Spanish VII), I felt terrible. I couldn’t nap, either, as I was still revising poetry for that afternoon. As a result, I didn’t feel nearly as alert and insightful as I had the previous day, and everything hurt. I wrote about the texts I mentioned above, about the Christians and Moors and the projection of the Self onto the Other, about Garcilaso de la Vega’s sonnets and their Classical sources (which was so much fun, and I hope I quoted the line from Horace correctly), and about Lope de Vega’s plays (although this essay was the last one, and I was exhausted and I didn’t feel it was as good as the others). After this exam, I was honestly so glad I didn’t have anything until the following Wednesday, because I don’t think it would have ended well otherwise… These exams are so much mental work because the essay questions are relatively vague and open-ended (they’ll give you a short quote and say “Discuss”, or ask about the significance of one term for one poet, for example), and especially if you want to do well, you have very little time to come with a both substantiated and original response.
Once again, it was very difficult to sustain the necessary momentum over the following days to prepare for the exams on Wednesday on Thursday. I visited the osteopath on that Tuesday and it was genuinely the worst pain I’d ever experienced, such was the extent of the damage on my hands, arms, back and shoulders. Wednesday was a tricky day, because it was 6 hours – I had my German Special/Prescribed Authors (Paper X, Goethe and Mann) in the morning, and Spanish I (translation into Spanish and an essay in Spanish, my worst paper by far even on a good day) in the afternoon. The weather had changed for the worse by this point, rather reflecting how I felt. I had felt very positive about the morning, because this was the paper I’d probably prepared the most for, but I didn’t feel it went very well, which was a huge disappointment. The questions for one of the authors were far more restrictive than usual, meaning I couldn’t write about the big novel I’d studied, and I had to settle for a question on short fiction I would normally not touch with a bargepole. This confusion meant my commentary felt very rushed, because I hardly had any time to allocate to it and had to omit really obvious points. I was so overwhelmed and disappointed afterwards that I admit I cried, a result of the confusion and exhaustion by this stage. I also found it very difficult to care at all about the afternoon exam, which led to me leaving a good hour before the end because the translation was difficult, the essay was as good as it was ever going to get, and I was exhausted and hungry and just didn’t care anymore.
One benefit of having all your exams squeezed into a really short period of time is that at the very least, they’re over quickly. And so, after that long and exhausting day, after nearly two weeks of people walking through the exam room with loud shoes while you tried to concentrate, and invigilators whose sole job seemed to be to patronise you as much as possible, it was time for the final exam. It was finally time to wear my red carnation (which prompted the now infamous photo for the #OxfordObject campaign and multiple tourists asking me a few weeks later if I were the “carnation girl”) and travel to Ewert House for the last time. I didn’t feel enormously prepared for this exam – Spanish X, Cervantes and Góngora – but, as with so many of the others, I was just so ready to be done with it and not have to revise for it any longer. The Spanish students in my cohort are generally a really friendly, chatty bunch, so there was never an intimidating atmosphere before any of the Spanish exams – you have to wait in this chilly marquee area before they call you in to the exam hall, and so everyone’s nervously revising, listening to music, eating, talking, resolutely not talking, etc, and I found that the atmosphere before the Spanish exams was a lot more relaxed than before the German exams for some reason.
The last paper was fine – I recognised the commentary and was able to respond to it well, despite getting the chapter number wrong, I enjoyed the question on Góngora’s use of Petrarchan tropes, and I had fun writing about Cervantes and the conflict between fiction and history. It was incredibly strange sitting in the exam room highly conscious that these were the very last three hours of my degree: I have never been so excited to hand in an exam script as I was that afternoon. I was the first one to leave Ewert House and found my boyfriend and wonderful friends waiting for me to “trash” me – an Oxford tradition where your friends meet you after you finish your exams and give you presents and cover you with various things from glitter and silly string to shaving foam and water. I’m not a huge fan of being covered in strange substances and ruining my skin and clothes, and so it was mainly glitter and party poppers, as well as a flower crown. For me, it was less about how much shaving foam I could get sprayed at me, and more about the emotional impact of seeing three of my favourite people in the world there waiting to celebrate me. We went to Starbucks and then to a pizzeria nearby, but I was so exhausted that I could barely eat anything and I almost fell asleep in the restaurant. Luckily my boyfriend and friend could entertain each other.
It took a very long time to get my head around the fact that I was finished and didn’t need to revise any more, but I decided to help my brain along by filling the following weeks with as many fun activities as possible, while distracting myself from the wait for results – but this post is already 3500 words long, and everything I did after exams, as well as my results, will appear in a separate post. I’m going to Barcelona for a few days so it will probably be written when I get back. As always, if you have any questions, please let me know! And if you managed to get all the way through this and are still reading this, let me know in the comments on here/anywhere else you follow me!