The Oxford Exam Experience

Posted on June 18, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Graduate School in Oxford

Just in case anyone's interested in what it's like to take exams at Oxford, here's the details of my two-exam experience for the MPhil in Ecclesiastical History, which I took on Thursday June 14 at 2:30 and Friday June 15 at 9:30.

exam time in oxford

Between 15 and 30 minutes before the exam, everyone assembles outside the Exam Schools (above) and inside the grand lobby area. It was like a sea of penguins in there with all of us in our academic dress. It's a terrible tragedy that you are never allowed to take photos inside the Exam Schools, even when exams aren't going on. It's a beautiful building with marble floors, classical columns and a large gallery over the lobby.

Most people had pink carnations pinned to their robes, meaning that they were in the middle of their exams. (The tradition is white for the first one, red for the last one and pink for all the ones in between.) One girl's pink carnation was very dead-looking - she must have had a lot of exams! Apparently they were available in the Covered Market, but I was too lazy to bother on Thursday and didn't have time on Friday, so went carnationless.

When you first enter the lobby, the exams are displayed by title on a big-screen TV (the same one that announced my lectures that were held here), along with the room number for each. Several different exams are often assigned to the same room: on the first day I was with Jewish Studies and on the second day I was in a much bigger room with many subjects, including Philosophy and Engineering.

Having learned which room to go to, you then wait in the lobby for your exam to be called over the intercom. Before my first exam I hung out with one of the guys from my study group and the second one I stood outside with David for most of the time then plunged in with a large herd to head straight to my assigned room.

Many people brought in some sheets of paper for last-minute cramming during the wait, but these have to be thrown away before entering the exam. All you are allowed to bring in to the exam is a transparent pencil pocket with pens and your university card. You also have to bring your mortarboard since it is part of academic dress, but you can't put it on until graduation. It was a royal pain to carry that thing around.

In the exam room itself, I had an assigned desk with my name printed on a pink card that was taped to the top corner. I had to place my university card face up on the card and then during the exams people walk around and check that the names match and your face matches the picture on the card.

My exam paper was waiting for me on the desk along with two wide-ruled writing books. On the front of the writing books I filled in my candidate number, degree title and exam title. They never use your name for fairness purposes, although since I was the only one taking my second exam I think they'll know who it is! I could have as many writing books as I needed; they bring you an extra when you raise your hand.

There was also an interesting doohickey on the desk: a short green string with straight silver parts on either end. I was quite puzzled about what it was until I read that you are supposed to fasten all your writing books together and it dawned on me: you thread the doohickey through the punched hole in the upper left-hand corner in each of the books. Pretty clever actually.

The exam lasts exactly three hours and you can't leave the room in the first 30 minutes or the last 30 minutes. I've been told the first rule is a response to many instances in which people would take one look at the test, panic that they can't do it, and leave immediately without trying to answer any questions. The second rule is to avoid distracting people who are trying desperately to finish writing before the time runs out.

In the first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes each subject must have an examiner present, which means a professor in our field wearing all their robes and academic finery and reading a book to pass the time. The exam itself is conducted by the wonderfully-named "invigilator," who reads off the regulations in the beginning.

At exactly 9:30 (or 2:30), the invigilator says "You may now begin." And off we go! The sense of being timed definitely adds to the nerves, and at my first exam I had trouble concentrating at first. I ended up writing half a page and then crossing it out and starting over before I got into the flow of it. You have to turn in everything you write, including any scribbles, outlines, and rough draft, but it won't be graded.

After finishing the exam, you leave by different doors depending on whether it's your last exam. The first day I left out the side near High Street, which threw David a bit because I thought I would come out the front. But he noticed the stream of penguins filing out and quickly found me. It was very pretty back there and a side of the Exam Schools I didn't even know about.

exam time in oxford The second day I followed the signs (scrawled on big white boards in the hallways) that said "Finishers to Merton Street" with big arrows, which led me out the back of the building (right).

Taking Oxford exams were certainly a life experience and a great memory, but I'm very glad they are over!