Tag: Exams

Back From The Brink Of Oblivion, Thanks To A Duck

(I think that title is half a reference to Darkest Dungeon – I’m honestly not able to keep track of my own references at this point)

I picked a bad time for a break. Like, a really bad one. Since I last moaned at you about not having anything to write about, I’ve gone through a flag football tournament, karate grading, session of trampoline dodgeball, trip to the Globe, the Hell that is trying to buy a complete suit from the M&S on Oxford Street when you’re a short-arse such as myself, and a healthy bit of crushing despair. But it’s this despair that I’m going to talk about today, before a more update-y post tomorrow.

This despair came from my first-year results: across my three exams, I got a 66, a 58 and a 56, totally one 2.1 and two 2.2s (for reference, all marks are out of 80, and British university grades are ranked from 1, to 2.1, to 2.2, to 3, to a fail). Obviously, this is a far cry from the first I once had genuine hopes of getting, and the endless streak of class-topping As and A*s I got at school, with the sort of relentless consistency that you’d only find otherwise on a record-breaking run of Through The Fire And The Flames, and I moped about it for rather a long time. All my ambitions – ambitions that apparently extend to getting a ‘first’ written on a certificate instead of a ‘second’ – were suddenly pointless, all my work in ruins, all my toils toiled in vain; and then I saw a duck.

And this duck saved me; in the depths of despair I journeyed to Regent’s Park to listen to early noughties punk rock to make me hate things other than myself, and I was listening to Bad Religion’s Hello Cruel World. This is a heavy, slow song with clear breaks between its thumping choruses, and the pauses between verses, breaks that are edgy, and definite. And at the end of the first chorus is one such break, a point of brooding and contempt hammered home by a bass drum followed by silence; yet as I wandered through the park, and reached this musical full stop, the duck arrived. And it quacked.

It quacked right in the gap between the end of the first chorus and second verse, filling the deeply mellow pause with a light-hearted squawking that honestly threw me right out of my stride, and made me sit on the nearest bench, laughing my arse off alone in a park with a bemused duck sitting opposite me. I laughed for ages, and by the time I was done, I had stopped worrying about my exams and plotting unnervingly-detailed plans for revenge involving reverse bear traps, the soundtrack of the 2013 epic The Last Of Us, and a tool that can only be described as the bastard offspring of a claw hammer and a rat-king.

Because failure is not an end, but a beginning; it’s not the result of crap preparations, it’s the start of more preparations for a greater challenge. I’ve looked into reasons why these results aren’t what I wanted (starting with being way too ambitious in the first bloody place) with my Dad and tutor, and I’ll do a full post-mortem over summer, so that I can smash this degree in the next two years, when my exams actually count for something.

So thank you, noble duck – who shall henceforth be known as Greg of Regent’s Park in honour of the singer whose song he wonderfully interrupted – for your work in stopping me from being a whiny bitch for any longer than a few hours; because if I’m gonna fail, I’ll at least get some fun blog posts out of it.

The End Of Exams, The End Of Insulin

(I’ve managed to go from feeling like a conquering hero to an infantile mess in like an hour)

Quick post today because I’m scrambling around St Pancras trying to find emergency insulin before going for a Nando’s that may not may not be cheeky with my friends. But exams are done, bringing with them that bitter sense of regret that you didn’t revise as hard as you should have and that you picked the hardest conceivable essay question while your friends all did an obviously easier one. I’ll write a full post-mortem in the coming days, but now I’m trying to stop myself from dying of hyperglycaemia. Hooray!

Know Your Limits

(sorry, another exam post. They’re kinda on my mind at the moment)

I spend my time revising these days; and as much as I’d like to plough through fourteen hours of work a day, every day for the sake of grades, I know that this is both impossible, and probably won’t help my results too much.

It’s impossible because we, like Alfa Romeos, are not machines. The best part of our brains is that they can adapt to new and different things, which has the annoying side-effect that we become distracted almost by nature, because when you have a mind capable of thinking of more than Old English vocab, it’s hard to put blinkers on it and make it think only of Old English vocab. And trying to stick to a stupidly ambitious schedule just results in failure, and a lingering sense of defeat and unpreparedness is the last thing you want in an exam.

This is the first reason why you should probably ease up a little the night before a test, for the sake of your mark. The other is that, because the very concept of an ‘exam’ is designed by Satan himself, exams spend a few hours to test your knowledge of years’ worth of work. As a result, you can’t hope to display all of that knowledge in those hours – so don’t kill yourself over learning it all – and it’s those three hours that are the most important individual period of time in determining your grade. I see your performance in those three hours of equal, and perhaps even greater, importance to your final grade, because exams test how well you can do exams with a few bits of contextual knowledge thrown in, and are a fundamentally poor way of measuring long-term memory and actual comprehension.

As a result, I’ve been focussing more on the exam itself than the prior knowledge in the last few years, spending more time staying relaxed, well-fed and with plenty of sleep, than dismissing two meals a day for the sake of some extra notes. In year 11, I got eight A*s and three As, but two of the As were in my two strongest subjects; by year 13, I got an A* and As, with the A* being in my beset subject English. Obviously this is a small sample size, and there are a million other variables involved, but a greater emphasis on calmness in an exam than a mind full of useless shite would appear to be more effective at maximising the things I’m good at. And considering there’s no part of this degree that I actively dislike (Tristram Shandy‘s annoying, but not without charm), I’m going to use this method of preparation, and see how it goes.

But I’m aware of the need for balance; I can’t just play Frozen Cortex, be totally relaxed the night before and be in a position to write lots, but have nothing to write about. I’ve revised quotes, because they’re the bases of arguments, but not whole essays because that’s too much brainpower for ideas I should be smart enough to construct on the spot; I’ve learned Old English vocab because there’s no way of doing an Old English translation without it, but I’ve not learned all 115 lines of The Wanderer because we’ll only be tested on 25.

I know my limits for studying, both in terms of what I can do – learn 200 words of Old English – and what I can’t – learn an entire poem and period of literary history. I’m not underprepared, nor am I swamped in quotes and ideas to the point that they’re tangling into a single incoherent argument, rather than the separate, more nuanced ideas I should really be operating with. The only problem with the great experiment that is the end-of-year exam is that we have to wait a bit for our results; I’m genuinely quite interested to see if this balance of preparation works.

And there’s the other bitch that comes with examsperiments; the results can technically be a “failure”, and you’ll have to repeat your methodology.

The Day Before The Exam

(you better lose yourself in the critics / they wrote shit that you flicked / through without too much thought)

Tomorrow is my first university exam, and so will be inevitably accompanied by a flight of devils blasting GWAR, an announcement by the Tory government that they’re taxing the inhalation of oxygen by anyone without a double-barrelled middle name, and this pair of twats from my own distant past. At the moment, it’ll be considered a blessing if UCL graciously provide us with a clock with which to check the time as we write our essays.

These days, directly before exams, are my least favourite of the year. With an exam looming, it’s so easy to fall into a trap of self-doubt, that you don’t know literally all of the Bible by heart so you’re going to fail miserably, or frenzied cramming to make up for what you wrongly perceive to be a lax prior month of revision. In reality, now is perhaps the worst time to abandon a months-entrenched, carefully constructed plan because there’s no time to make up for it.

Today essentially epitomises the last month of revision: some excitement for being able to write about things you’re interested in, some fear for the consequences of said writing, some isolation that everyone seems to be much better-prepared than you, some comradeship that you’re all being screwed over together by the same exams, professors and timetables. And that’s all today is: another day that seems like so much more; a day that only has earth-shattering significance if you decide that it does, and let that decision affect your day.

So best wishes to people sitting exams specifically tomorrow, those who are in the thick of them already, and those who still have a few days before their personal apocalypse rains down upon them; because there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and getting royally frakked over by grade boundaries and mark schemes, so let’s all suffer together.

These Exams Will Be Fun

(‘f’ is for ‘failure, and repeating the year’…)

I’m looking forward to the exams I’ll sit in two weeks. I’m seeing them as fundamentally different to previous exams I’ve sat; A-levels were about proving that I was actually a competent reader of books and writer of essays, both for the sake of impressing a university and to get over my own fear that everything I’ve ever achieved in my life has been the result of chance as opposed to skill. As a result I was guarded with my points, careful not to make an obscure, off-the-wall suggestion because such things can be interpreted as the mark of a great writer, or one who’s talking out of their arse, and considering all I had was an A* at GCSE at that point, I’d probably fall into the latter category.

But now I know that I’m not an atrocious writer; I’m not great, but I’ve got the grades to show I can do exam essays, and the marks both this year and in previous years to remind myself that I’m not too bad at writing real essays either. And now that I’m free from this need to prove myself to be competent, I’m way more relaxed about these exams: I’m not saying that my A-level in English will land me in the ‘great writer’ category whenever I make an odd point in an essay, but I’m more comfortable making those points, knowing that I have a proven record of not being shite at English. I’ve passed the point where a single poor essay will define me was a reader and writer, so it’s pretty liberating to turn the entirety of my Beowulf revision into a discussion of the lineage of the Shield-Danes.

And if I do fail miserably, I’ll have failed that exam, not failed as a writer; and I’ll have failed that exam making some weird-ass points in the process.

It’s Mechanical From Here On Out

(mechanical, repetitive and involving straight white males in the only roles of significance – it’s just like the Transformers movies!)

By ‘mechanical’, I’m referring to doing things that are intense repetitive, rather than ‘creative’ work which can be done from the comfort of a beanbag under the influence of some slightly illegal narcotics. The problem with doing something creative, therefore, is that is requires both creative work, to come up with the idea in the first place, and mechanical work, to hone it into a succinct essay or concise poem. I think creative activities suffer from this dichotomy to a greater extent than things like maths or science, which are difficult and may require creative input at some stage, but are mostly about the application of a few set formulae to different scenarios, and working through those scenarios again and again. And I did say ‘suffer’ there, because the point in my revision has been reached where it’s all mechanical from here on out.

For English, my basic revision outline has always been to come up with a load of extreme, borderline unjustifiable ideas on texts, then cut them down to a few interesting yet plausible ones that are appropriately broad enough for the exam, then rote-learn them so I’m never grasping at straws in the exam itself, and throwing an untested idea at a question that’s going to be assessed with real significance. And now, the ideas have been buzzed around (over 60 pages of them, no less), and about nine quotes per text selected to form the basis of the better ideas from this tome; I just have to learn these quotes, and the ideas that go with them.

Not to blow my own metaphor here, but I think I’m rather good at rote-learning masses of crap; or at least I was, this approach alone got me an A at AS French. So I’m not dreading the next two weeks of solid memorisation because I’ll fail, but simply because it’s tedious. I know that a lot of my ideas will fall flat, but it’s genuinely quite fun spending a week alone with some books, trying to draw obscure meanings out of them, like completing a Rorschach Test and trying to be an annoying prat about it and selecting none of the responses it offers you.

But that part is over. I have fifteen days, from tomorrow, to get these things into my tiny yet eager brain, and whether the ideas were bullshit to begin with, or I’m really not smart enough for a degree, I’m gonna frakking learn those bits of Old English, and Biblical quotes in which God is a prick.

The Fumes! They Burn!

(I’ve now used two exclamation marks in a single title, so I’m obviously a clickbait-writing views-whore)

I mentioned my fantastically improvised tattoo arm of revision the other day, and it’s grown; I won’t show you a picture because I’m a writer, not a photographer (at least according to my writing blog’s Facebook page), but it’s now covered up to the elbow. There is a particularly large and vibrant reminder on there too, which consists of the reminder written in green, with a green ring around it, coloured in with an orange highlighter. And, much to my horror, applying that much highlighter to a single area leads to borderline suffocating highlighter fumes being given off for the next million years. Or fifteen minutes.

I use this note-taking arm because of how practical it is, but this has thrown a spanner in that argument, and turned the tables of these contrived metaphors completely; now the arm is a source of that most troubling thing in the Western World, a minor annoyance one can’t ignore, nor succinctly bitch about within the confines of a tweet.

And faced with the inability to accurately lament my sorrows to the world, in a desperate and fundamentally narcissistic way to make people feel sorry for me to fatten my own faltering ego, I’ve had to stew in my fume-heavy room all day, toiling away at the horror that is revision for an exam being taken at one of the top five universities in the world (apparently).

But don’t worry, I can always moan to you guys in a fundamentally narcissistic way whenever anything like this happens; and because this isn’t Twitter, there’s no 140-character limit on my bullshit. Hooray!