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Lessons from Exam Season

By Natalie Bright

As you can imagine, at Oxford, exams are part of everyday life. These exams typically come in three forms: collections (mock exams that you sit at the start of each term on the previous terms content), prelims (first year exams) and finally FHS (Final Honour School exams that decide your degree).

On the one hand, I dread exams. The thought that a whole year of education comes down to just a few hours is terrifying, usually keeping me up at night in the preceding weeks. Yet on the other hand, the notion that they mark the end of an academic chapter is enthralling, with my excitement for them to be over usually keeping me going - especially when coupled with dreams of the long summer ahead. By exam morning, as I tentatively put on my subfusc, my resounding feeling is pride. I am proud of how far I have come and smile at how childhood Natalie would feel knowing where I am today. It is important to remember that whatever the result, reaching this point is one of the biggest accomplishments. It is also important to remember that you can only try your best in the moment and not kick yourself afterwards for what you should or shouldn’t have said.

Along with your subfusc (traditional academic dress that includes a white shirt, black trousers/skirt, gown and black ribbon/bow tie), students taking an exam will wear a carnation on their lapel. If it is your first exam this is a white carnation, whilst if it is your final exam, it is red; with pink for all others in the middle. This distinctive outfit makes it obvious for observers and colleagues that today is exam day, with cheery and meaningful ‘good lucks’ following you all the way to Exam Schools. At least this is what I imagine…

In truth, again this year my exams were online. My exam morning consisted of a quick facetime from mum to ensure I had not slept though my alarm and putting on tracksuit bottoms rather than subfusc. Sat solemnly in the corner of my bedroom there were no interactions with others and certainly no ‘good lucks’ from passers-by. I watched the online clock count down until the paper opened and after a draining four hours I clicked submit just like I was sending an email. To be honest it really was rather anticlimactic. Later that day as I walked through the park, I couldn’t help looking at everyone around me and think ‘they don’t know I submitted my finals today’, but then again would they even care? Although I do mourn the Oxford exam experience I would have had without Covid, this detachment and lack of fanfare has truly given me perspective. It has reminded me not to fixate on exams and remember like I said at the start, they are just a part of everyday life.


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