Hello everyone, and welcome to one of the most-requested posts I’ve had to write: namely, my guide to surviving Oxford Finals in one piece.
Now, I’ll need to add the obvious disclaimer: what worked for me may not work for anyone else in the world, you ought to do what suits you best, please don’t yell at me if you did something totally different and think my advice is terrible, et cetera. This is a personal set of advice based on what I did and found worked best: feel free to ignore everything written here.
Why am I writing this post? I’m definitely not claiming to be an expert on revision, but I didn’t find any of the conventional narratives of this process worked for me. I didn’t buy the idea that staying healthy and getting the best grade you can are two mutually exclusive concepts. One of my most important beliefs this year – and, in fact, thoroughout my entire degree – is that the dichotomy of “work super hard and get a First” vs. “take care of yourself and don’t score as highly” is totally useless. The number of times I’ve had to bite my lip and sit through endless iterations from friends of “Well, I could get a First, but I’d rather stay healthy, you know?”: as you know, I had to get a First Class mark in order to do my Masters, but I also wasn’t about to sacrifice my mental and physical health to do so. Thus I had to build a routine that would allow me to have the best of both worlds in that respect, and thought I’d share a few things that I found worked for me.
This is a really, really long post. Normally I would have split this up into two parts, but I decided to keep it as one in case anyone wanted to bookmark it and keep it for easy reference later. I do cover two broad areas in the post: holistic wellbeing advice, and concrete revision tips. This post is written for anyone sitting Modern Languages finals at Oxford: the wellbeing advice and some of the revision tips may come in handy if you do a different subject/study at a different university, but I’ve mainly written it for people who were in the position I was a year ago.
I know it’s tricky because everyone’s emotional/physical/mental/academic situation is different, but I hope some of the advice helps – even just a little!
Okay. Are you ready? Grab a snack, make a cup of tea, and let’s get started.
Don’t: Pretend Finals don’t exist until Trinity term
Do: Think about the year as a whole and start planning as early as you can
One piece of advice I received before starting my final year was “don’t be a Finalist until the summer – just be a fourth-year until then”. This was a pretty good piece of advice: it was meant to discourage me from locking myself up all year and missing out on the fun that comes with being back in Oxford. However, I would caution against the other extreme – taking on the role of an ostrich when it comes to the prospect of sitting exams at the end of the year. It may make you feel better to pretend it won’t happen, but it won’t help your preparation or your state of mind when Trinity does eventually roll around. Work out from the summer onwards what still urgently needs to be done: did you miss any essays in second year that need writing? Did you cover a key text in such superficial detail that you’ve totally forgotten what it says, but it packs a hefty 1000 pages? It’s important to work all this out before Michaelmas madness sets back in and the deadlines become overwhelming – which leads me to say:
Don’t: Wait until your workload gets too much before asking for help
Do: Take responsibility for planning your own terms
How many tutorials will you need to do this coming term? In your experience, is that manageable? You’re an adult now, so tutors should take you seriously if you feel your workload is too much. I had a severe mental health crisis in Michaelmas of my final year, but I was open and honest with my tutors both before and during the worst of it, which prevented the situation becoming so serious that suspension would have been necessary. I knew having 8 tutorials plus language work would be tricky for me, so I completed one essay before term started, pushed two till the Christmas holidays, and abandoned two more completely. When things became really difficult, I had a few meetings with my tutors, decided literature would be my priority that year, and was able to opt out of all my language work for the term: translation tutorials, vocab learning, grammar classes, oral practice etc., which helped so much. If you decide to cut down on your workload in a similar way, be aware that it will be your own responsibility if your marks decline as a result. The most important thing here is that I would not have had this amazing support if I had not asked for it. You can’t hide your problems from everyone, hand in late or sub-par work without an explanation, and then wonder why your tutors are so mean. I can’t guarantee that they will be as accommodating as mine were – and I did have a very good track record to back me up – but it’s important that they know if you’re struggling, so they are aware of how to help you. Don’t wait until it gets too much and you’re having a 3am breakdown: look at your timetable and workload, and try and work out whether it’s doable or whether you’ll run into problems along the way.
Don’t: Abandon all your friends and outside interests
Do: Keep up with hobbies and a non-academic life
From what I observed over the year, the people who tended to struggle the most emotionally were those who didn’t have much to their identity outside of work. Now, there are some people who eat/sleep/breathe their work, and that’s great – but they also have ways to keep themselves balanced, whether that’s spending time with friends or Skyping their family. Having hobbies and outside interests, whether that’s sport, volunteering, a blog, or a society, is essential for when you begin to doubt your academic worth. It happens to everyone, even those who seem to sail through and win all the prizes, and it’s absolutely vital to have a reminder of what makes you *you* when you start to feel like you’re terrible at your subject. If you have something else that you know you’re good at outside of work, it won’t affect you as much when the temporary doubts pay a visit, as your entire self-worth won’t be invested in academics.
Don’t: Let yourself be pressured into ditching your revision
Do: Set clear and firm boundaries
All that said, it’s important to work when you feel you need to. Particularly if you have a lot of friends who aren’t sitting Finals, the repeated offers to “just take a break!!” and get on Skype or go out all evening can be really tempting. However, you may not have time on that particular occasion, or you may just really want to get an evening of work in while you have the motivation! When I said this, though, people often assumed that I’m just a terrible workaholic who doesn’t know how to relax, and that it was their job to drag me away from my desk for the night. Yet putting off my work yet again when I hadn’t planned to usually left me feeling irritable and panicked, and I wasn’t really able to enjoy the hangout.
I found it very helpful to set clear boundaries as early as possible – I made it clear that I wasn’t reachable on Facebook, and messaged several friends explaining that I really liked spending time with them, but wouldn’t be able to contribute to the friendship until June. Everyone was really understanding, and I felt better for having been open and honest. It’s also okay to just say no to invitations to hangout – it doesn’t make you boring or a bad friend! Some people want to spend every evening relaxing, while others want to carry on working – it’s important to do what you feel is right for you, and to make your intentions clear to those around you. Your friends and family will understand, and you’ll have months of free time to spend with them when your exams are over!
Don’t: Ignore your health because you feel you don’t deserve self-care
Do: Take care of yourself emotionally, physically and mentally
This point is going to be a little lengthy!
I talked about the bizarre “punishing work” vs “self-care” dichotomy earlier, because I saw a lot of people decide they were going to throw their absolute all into Finals, which somehow translated to erratic eating habits, days on end spent alone/inside, a dangerous reliance on stimulants and/or depressants, the total separation of body from mind, and a refusal to acknowledge the effect of all this on their mental health. And I don’t mean just during the last weeks – I saw this happen over the course of many months! If you’re relatively healthy anyway then this may not have many repercussions, but if you’re already vulnerable then please do not take this approach.
There’s this worrying belief that these unhealthy behaviours are just part and parcel of the Oxford experience, and that any kind of breakdown, anxiety or depression is just standard Finals baggage. Of course, everyone reaches a level of stress they never knew was possible, but if you’re feeling really miserable, unstable, or otherwise not-quite-okay mentally over the course of the year (and only you can know whether it’s just stress or something else), I will tell you now for free that it is NOT just something you have to deal with because “that’s the way it is in Oxford”. When we have mental health issues at Oxford, we have to take them seriously – if we keep dismissing them as “fifth week blues” or “Finals stress”, and thereby normalise their existence, we will never make any changes. Yes, Finals are a punishing time, but they should also be a tiny bit enjoyable – if you are really struggling, that is not something you should be expected to deal with.
The most important thing, as I said above, is to ask for help and to explain as much as possible – tutors are often open-minded and willing to change their views if you give them a chance. I found my tutors were much more helpful when I stopped saying I was “exhausted” and instead told the truth about my mental health. I understand that this could be really tricky if you have a heavily stigmatised mental health issue, so I’m not saying that you have to go into detail, but it’s much better to be honest as you feel you can be.
I visited the University Counselling Service over the course of the year, too. Even if you don’t have mental health issues, I would still recommend using the (free!) service: there are many different options to help you cope, from podcasts and group sessions to individual appointments. Seeing a counsellor doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with you, nor does it mean you have a mental health problem – it’s completely fine to seek support for the most stressful time of your degree, and you’re entitled to it.
At the same time, I went to see an osteopath every few weeks, because I hold my pen incorrectly which causes me pain within a minute of writing, especially in time-pressured situations. The osteopath also worked to reduce the upper body pain that comes as a natural side effect of sitting at a desk all day and night, significantly improving my quality of live. The appointments were expensive and so I’m fortunate to have been able to pay for them by cutting down on luxuries like haircuts and makeup, but I don’t think I would have been able to survive my finals without getting help for that. I’ve never paid for medical treatment like that before, but it was worth it.
I worked to get into a good sleep routine weeks before I sat my actual exams, even when I had difficulty falling asleep, and it really helped during exam time as I was more rested. Don’t wait until the week before to move your bedtime forward, and please let yourself get as much sleep as you need. That extra article, problem or few pages won’t go into your head if you’re tired, and the entire circus is so draining that you need to make sure your body is as fit as it can be before you begin. Don’t make yourself stay up even if you weren’t productive that day – you need to sleep, whether or not you feel you’ve “earned” it.
In the same vein, make sure you’re eating enough, and that you’re eating well. One of my friends struggled with money and was barely eating enough until she applied to her college hardship fund, which allowed her to eat in hall three times a day: this may be an option for you. Just like sleep, food shouldn’t be an afterthought amidst all the revision – you deserve it, whether or not you achieved your goals for the day. Work food breaks into your revision plan and allow yourself to enjoy it. Honestly, the amount of pleasure I derived from going to Tesco with my boyfriend and throwing all sorts of nice things into the trolley was worth the “wasted” revision time: it reminded me that there were things going on outside of exams, and that it wasn’t a sin to think about other things, like delicious food, during such a stressful time.
Another really important way in which I took care of myself was by continuing to exercise right up until my exams started. Granted, the gym visits were few and far between, but I continued to go to Zumba classes with one of my best friends every week, and didn’t cancel even when it felt like I’d never get all my work done. It was two hours out of my week and helped me to feel like my life hadn’t been completely taken over by revision, which in turn reminded me that I had an identity outside of work. It was also really hard to think about seventeenth-century Spanish poetry while exercising, which forcecd me to take a mental break.
Please don’t forget basic things like food, exercise and sleep, and don’t be ashamed to seek help for mental and physical worries – none of this makes you weak, I promise.
Don’t: Punish yourself to make yourself work
Do: Use positive motivation and be kind but firm
In a similar vein, try not to rely on negative thought patterns to motivate yourself: constant thoughts like “you’ll fail if you don’t stay another hour” or “you have to get more done today or it’ll have been a total waste of time” aren’t as helpful as they seem, and only serve to make you feel like you’re lazy and incapable. I’ll explain below how I revised, but I found setting achievable goals the best way to build my motivation, as well as selecting topics that I genuinely enjoyed. My tutors kept telling me to enjoy my revision, which I found bizarre at first, but it turned out to be a great piece of advice: revision time was a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with the books and writers I love so much, and to focus on the angles and issues I found most interesting. When I ran into things I found dull – even if I’d originally enjoyed them, like Faust – I gave it a bit of time: if it still wasn’t interesting, I ditched it for something I’d enjoy more. I loved the flexibility of my course which meant I could choose whatever I wanted to revise for the most part: remember this and don’t force yourself to spend ages on things that you hate!
It’s important to keep a good support network around you to remind you that you’re not lazy/bad at life/failing when you don’t manage to get as much done as you’d hoped, or didn’t get the grade you had hoped for in a practice essay – don’t keep negative feelings bottled up, because they’re probably not true! Remember, you don’t want to drag yourself through the process – it should be as enjoyable and manageable as a stressful exam period feasibly can be.
Don’t fall into the trap, however, of constantly putting work off under the guise of “self-care”: the more you procrastinate, the worse you’ll eventually feel about yourself. Set yourself goals and rewards for after you achieve them, not before!
Don’t: Force yourself to sit in the library for hours
Do: Find a routine and setting that works for you
I’ve never worked in libraries, but I was amazed when I heard people say that they sort of feel obliged to work there because it’s the done thing. I don’t work in libraries because I like having constant access to tea and snacks, listening to music and being able to chat to my boyfriend without worrying about disturbing anyone else, and there’s no way I could start work at 9 and finish at 7 with a few breaks in between – my attention span is way too low for that! I use the Pomodoro method with a free timer app on my phone, and I find it’s the best way for me to work. Deciding how many cycles I’ll spend on each section of work is a good way to keep me focused – if I just sat down for an afternoon at my desk, I’d be a bit aimless and wouldn’t get as much done! When I struggle to find any motivation, telling myself I can at least do 25 minutes before giving up is a sure-fire way of getting started.
Despite working at home, I still kept work and sleep separate: I mainly worked at a desk in the living room and avoided letting it spill over into the bedroom, although a few times when I was really struggling with motivation, I ended up reading in bed and that was fine. When I had been inside for hours if not days on end, but didn’t feel like going for a walk, I would move to a nearby cafe that was open until 11 and work there. If you’re part of the vast majority who work best during long days in the library, that’s brilliant! If you struggle with that but think that’s just what you’re meant to be doing, maybe experiment with different places and routines to find what fits you best.
Don’t: Get sucked into the competitive panicking
Do: Focus on yourself
I can’t remember who coined the phrase “competitive panicking”, but it’s the most apt description of what the pre-Finals atmosphere tends to be like. Even if you have the best intentions – and I did – it’s way too easy to get sucked into endless, circular conversations about who’s done the least work and who’s the least prepared. Far from reassuring me that other people were feeling just as stressed and underprepared as I was, it all actually left me feeling way worse about everything than before the conversation started. When your friend starts stressing about how little they’ve done, your instinct is to reply and reassure them that you haven’t done much either and that you’re also super worried about everything, even if, at that point, you were actually kinda feeling okay with your progress. But, of course, I couldn’t say that, and instead found holes to pick to make the other person feel better: I’m sure I’ve unintentionally caused the reverse, too. Exam and revision chat often felt a little bit like this scene:
In general, I was following the advice not to look at the big picture, but instead take revision one step at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed by anxiety at the huge amount still to be done. However, these conversations ruined this plan, and actually stressed me out way more than the actual situation: I was pretty calm during the holidays but that all changed once term started! Luckily, I was able to escape back to my little flat in East Oxford every day, but I know that my friends and coursemates living in college had a much harder time switching off the atmosphere of constant tension. (Incidentally, I would really recommend living out of college if you’re thinking about it – it was hands down the best thing I did in my final year.)
I’d recommend holding onto your non-Finals-sitting friends or, if that’s not possible, putting a ban on “work talk” during fun friend hangouts. Don’t compare yourself to other people because everyone works at a different pace and using different methods: do your own thing without tearing yourself or others down, and it’ll feel much better.
Don’t: Rely on a vague revision plan
Do: Create a flexible but comprehensive revision plan
Now we’ve got all the emotional health stuff out of the way, I’ll explain exactly how I planned my revision. I didn’t have any fancy spreadsheets or colour-coded stickers – I listed the papers I was going to revise, then listed all the topics in each paper that I wanted to cover. Then, I worked out exactly how much time I had between 21st March (when I handed in my Paper XII and started my Finals blog series) and the end of my degree, which was 10.5 weeks. I also made sure to make a note if there were anything going on in each week which would take up revision time, like collections or oral exams. Then – and this was the most useful part – I listed the topics I wanted to cover in each week. There was no real rhyme or reason to the order: in any given week I would cover both Holocaust literature and 17th-century burlesque poetry. It was incredibly helpful to make this list and rely on it, because after the first draft I realised I’d forgotten several topics and had to add them on. If you do this, don’t forget to factor in collections and revision tutes – I couldn’t do a Spanish VII collection I was set, because I didn’t revise most of the paper until the week before the exam…
Here’s the thing: I didn’t get everything done. Not by a mile. A lot of compromise happened during those weeks, where I crossed out topics due to lack of time, reduced the allocated time for a topic from a week to three days, and generally moved things around like those slider puzzles where you have to remove one piece and then move the others. I definitely did not feel I had enough time: I felt like I needed two more weeks, ideally. I’m glad I gave myself strict time limits – if I hadn’t finished a topic by the end of the allocated time, I would simply move on to the next thing and hope to come back to it at the end. No exceptions. This was the most helpful thing I could do, as it meant I still covered everything – if I hadn’t set myself strict time limits, I would have allowed each topic to stretch on for weeks, which obviously wasn’t possible! The reality is that you are never “done”, really, so you have to be strict and stay conscious of how much time you have left. The time limits definitely made me more focused and productive, and I felt such a sense of achievement when I had a particularly good week and ticked everything off! (Seriously though, look how much stuff is scribbled out or unticked because I ran out of time…)
Don’t: Skim the surface of a lot of material
Do: Focus on primary texts
So, I ran out of time to do everything, but that didn’t mean I was unprepared. I had so little time that I had to prioritise: the most important thing was that I had enough topics revised for each exam. I focused on primary texts: most of my revision wasn’t about reading articles or making essay plans, but just reading the books themselves. I found that, in a pinch, it was much better to ditch the secondary reading and go through the primary text in enough detail than skimming both and remembering neither. The most important thing is detailed knowledge of the texts you’ve studied, so don’t compromise on that! If you’re worried about not having enough background knowledge, I really recommend going to as many of your lectures as you can, as I found the lecture material far more helpful than independent critical reading. Even when I was massively pushed for time, I still went to all my lectures because they were incredibly useful.
Don’t: Assume exam and revision technique is one-size-fits-all
Do: Experiment with different methods, listen to your tutor
Some people need 15 minutes to plan and 45 minutes to write. Some people need 5 minutes to plan and 55 minutes to write. I thought I was the former, but my essays were too short, so I had to try the latter, and it worked much better. Try out different methods of revising and writing and see what works best for you: while some of my friends handed in stacks of practice essays every week and found that was the best thing for them, I only did a few to get myself back into practice and focused on reading instead.
Here are some other methods I used, although they may not work for you!
One way I made revision enjoyable – and don’t feel you have to try this at home as it’s quite a high-risk strategy – was covering brand-new material that I’d never had tutorials on and never written essays on right before the exams. By this point, I trusted my own ability enough to know that I probably wouldn’t write anything massively incorrect if I wrote on new material in my exams without any tutor input, and it made the whole process of revising and sitting Finals much more fun, as I wasn’t going over the same topics again and again. I believe keeping things fresh and interesting was a major contributing factor to some of my best literature marks this year.
It sounds obvious, but make sure you can write about a topic from several different angles: if you’re only able to answer one question out of ten from past exam papers, that’s not the best sign! Making essay plans (you don’t need to write a full essay) really helped me: sometimes I wouldn’t even write them down, but would just scroll through Oxam and quickly explain to my boyfriend how I would answer each question, which improved my ability to come up with an idea on the spot.
I learnt to keep a good balance between speed-reading and note-taking, which obviously slows you down. When I read a book for revision, I found it most helpful and efficient to make notes by category – themes, form, structure – rather than making continuous notes in chronological order, if that makes sense. I bought a notebook with various sections – it wasn’t anything fancy, merely a recycled paper book from Paperchase – and dedicated each section to a different paper. I used a different notebook for random lists and revision schedules, and kept my lecture notes in separate folders. Again, I know other people prefer to organise their things in different ways, but that separation worked for me. I also ended up thanking my past self for making notes on primary texts in that recycled notebook from the very beginning of the year, as it really jogged my memory and saved me so much time!
In terms of actually writing essays, I could never even begin writing until I had a clear argument in mind, which helped me keep my essays focused and to the point. It sounds really obvious, but please answer the question. Never try and bend the question to fit a pre-existing idea you have, because it’s always really obvious and won’t work. The same goes for reusing a tutorial essay in the exam – it can work if you’re genuinely answering the question, but if you’re essentially shoehorning your old argument into a rather different essay question, it won’t end well.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have my German tutor, so I’ll give you her advice for free: aim for breadth of reference, depth of analysis. I won’t lie; I grew to hate this piece of advice so much and never want to hear it again, but it’s really helpful. It essentially means you need to demonstrate an awareness of the critical/literary/cultural/sociohistorical context (the introduction and the conclusion are good places for this) while still really going in for the hardcore detailed analysis in the main essay. It’s something the examiners comment on a lot, pointing out that the period papers are called “Texts, Contexts and Issues“, but people frequently ignore that part of it.
Something else the examiners comment on is the reliance on content without writing about form. Content AND form was another phrase I grew used to hearing from my tutor, but it took me a while to understand it. Basically, content includes things like plot, characters, themes, even more complex stuff like symbolism and metaphor. Form is the tricky one, ranging from structure and genre to narrative perspective, stylistic techniques and language. Content is what the writer does, and form is how they do it. You need to write about both, otherwise it risks sounding like you think the characters are real and not constructions of the writer, which also appears in the exam reports with alarming frequency.
The key thing is not to be discouraged: when I came back from my year abroad my writing was a bit of a mess, and I also wrote a bunch of practice essays nearer to Finals which I thought were great, but my tutor didn’t agree. I had a lot of frustrating stumbling blocks where I thought I’d never get to the standard I wanted to achieve, but I persevered and it was fine. Even though it felt like it wasn’t going to be fine quite a lot of the time. Just sleep enough, eat enough, listen to your tutor, and it’ll be fine.
Okay, that’s the end…I think! Please let me know if you have any more questions, and do remember that this is all based on personal experience, and that everyone will prefer different things. Good luck!