This year, I sat finals at Oxford. Since then, a couple of my friends have asked for advice, and I thought I ought to set any advice down before my memory fades. In what follows, I first set out my qualifications and the scope of my advice; then I give the actual advice; and then I link to some examples.
I graduated from PPE last year. Overall, I was ranked second in the year (75.4) as well as first in ethics and first in economics. In philosophy—the relevant discipline here—I got firsts in all written exams, as well as the year’s top score (81) in Ethics.
I did little work during my undergraduate career, except for the one month leading up to finals, when I did very much. My main advantages were (1) a friend group that discussed academic things socially, (2) good exam technique, and (3) good writing skills. This advice will work best for similar people.
A lot of my exams were mathematical (game theory etc.)—but advice for those is different and I don’t think I have anything particularly original to add to the obvious. In what follows, I address in-person, essay-based exams in philosophy. I also address these points to the Oxford exam structure: multiple essays written under reasonable time pressure. The advice is somewhat generalizable (e.g. to prelims, or to Cambridge), but not exceedingly so.
My final caveat: this is what worked for me. I’m sure other things would work for other people. Consider this not a to-do list but rather a reflection on a particular method, or on a particular one of my Oxford terms.
1. Pick your courses and papers with care. Generally, pick based on what people you look up to think is interesting, because…
2. Study socially. A tip that generally works is to find someone older or cleverer than you and (at a party, on a walk) casually get them to teach you stuff. Teacher-student dynamics in friendships are underrated.
3. Studying should be fun. If it isn’t, try to study something else—usually there’s some scope for choice, or some scope for switching courses.
4. People can generally only do intellectual work for ~4 hours a day. This can be extended, sometimes, by studying with friends or by taking up Arjun’s suggestions—but even then basically never to more than six.
5. I know there’s a trend in certain circles—circles I generally like very much—to say that you should slack and do other, more-rewarding things than bother with getting good marks. And I have sympathy for this view: when I got my result back, I was disappointed in myself. I thought, like—what’ve I done, why did I do this with my time, I could have been doing something really meaningful, researching something, just seeing my friends, whatever. It felt entirely vacuous—a sign of my poor judgement. But: I have more security than my 2.1-friends, and some options that none of us knew would matter but have very much mattered. I hated my first job, for example, and my marks let me easily get a great new one in, like, two weeks. So, yes, slack off for two and a half years, but come Trinity, drop the drama, lock yourself away, and get the marks.
6. Below I propose a set of academic strategies. Note here that sleep matters very much for this set of strategies (because sleep matters little for basic content recall, but very much for actually thinking through a question in the moment). And sleeping the one night before an exam isn’t enough. It has to be at least, like, the three nights before.
7. In general, spend less time thinking about the object-level and more about the meta-level. Be clear, for example, on the exact grading scheme. Time spent understanding exactly what you need to do or on making that task easier is (usually) better spent than time actually doing the thing.
8. Make sure you consider your physical condition in exams. You have to wear subfusc, but note that you can wear whatever you’d like underneath it. I had the whole skirt/blouse/etc. but also a t-shirt and leggings under (you can take the girl out of California but…). As soon as I sat down, I just stripped off the blouse and gown and took the thing in glorified pajamas—which is, as I said, totally allowed. Consider temperature, water, avoiding social drama, etc. All this is more important than doing one more reading.
1. In general, people spend way too much time in an exam writing the essay, and way too little thinking about the question. I spend at a minimum the first third of any exam thinking, and forbid myself from writing anything at all (including outlines—but I’m a little extra—I think outlines are probably fine).
2. Seriously: the most important reading for every essay is the essay question. Textual exegesis of the question is nearly always a good use of time. An example: if the question is structured something like ‘Is it possible that X is Y?’ then the question is open to an existential answer. That is, if even one X is a Y, then the answer is a yes. Many questions are open to this kind of existential answer.
3. Approach whatever the question is by trying to prove your answer—as if the thing were mathematics. In particular, for each thing you mention, make it clear why you’re mentioning it. That is, signpost more than you think you should.
4. For signposting, think of obvious phrases: ‘this is significant because…’; ‘I discuss this point because…’; ‘this relates to the question because…’; ‘this may at first seem irrelevant, but it in fact is relevant because…’. Or, other signpost-y things: ‘Prima facie, one might think X, but actually Y, because Z’; ‘The argument I just sketched is wrong because…’; ‘let me take some time to analyze the prompt’s word X…’. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about clear writing over the years. But what makes writing ‘clear’? Well, it depends on the genre. In an exam, the image that somehow stuck was dragging the examiner through the essay and the rubric, alternately by the wrist or by the ear.
5. Use good grammar. This matters more than people think: it makes you think more clearly, it makes you look put-together, and it shows a respect for academic norms. Also, marking ungrammatical essays is genuinely annoying.
6. Don’t fetishize the literature. Fetishize, like, your thoughts. I’ve come to think that one could theoretically write a first-class answer to most questions from first principles. (In textual papers, e.g. Aristotle, the primary literature does matter—think of that as the first principles. But the secondary doesn’t.)
7. Sound really confident. This is a writing thing—not a content one. Clarity, rhetorical questions, clear structure (set out in the introduction)—these are all ways of sounding confident. But, content needn’t be so confident: if you are unsure about something, that’s fine. Just say how unsure you are in a confident way.
8. Give yourself some time to edit at the end. Overall, I suggest writing for no more than 2/3 of the exam period. The other (at least) 1/3 should be either planning, thinking, or editing. (My ratio was actually closer to half/half, but I’m slightly extra.)
9. If you’re stuck, two tips. First, think about what your friends would say. One essay I wrote and did well on was literally one paragraph of what friend X would say, the next of what friend Y would say, the next of X’s potential response, the next of Y’s, etc. Second, go back to describing your feelings. A lot of times philosophy is about describing how something feels—what it is like to morally disagree, for example. So just think back to your real life. My essays were at times like gossipy journal entries—and they did well. (Although I note that my early adult life was unusually marred by moral upheaval—so this may not be as generalizable as I think it is.)
10. If you are going to cite the literature, don’t get it wrong. And don’t ever cite irrelevant things. Do, however, feel free to cite something that *seems* irrelevant but isn’t—and explain precisely why it is relevant. Examiners like that (see point 12 below for my source).
11. Use lots of examples (e.g. Alice is friends with Bob; Alice does x, and Bob feels Y…). First because they’re much easier (rely on thought rather than preparation). Second because examiners always talk about how great they are. I know that because…
12. I read Examiners’ Reports. Every year, the examiners release what they thought of how candidates responded to each question on the previous year’s paper. I read all of them for the five years before my exam. I cannot more highly recommend this. If you read them casually—as, kind of, light bath reading—you start to get an intuitive sense of the examiners likes and dislikes, and you get to the point where you at least know what goodness looks like.
13. Structure is good. Also, set out your structure fully in your introduction. ‘I argue that x. My argument has several parts. First, I argue that y. Then, I argue that z. Together, these things establish X. I then consider two counterarguments, M and N, and use P and Q respectively to show that X still is a successful answer to the question.’ Be more structured/specific than you think you should.
14. I’ve heard various things about conclusions. I use them for broadly two things, but I’m not sure about this strategy. First, I re-write my structure just to shove it in peoples’ faces one more time. Second, I try to emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of the essay, so that the examiners will appropriately notice how it matches the marking criteria. But I might be wrong about how I do conclusions.
15. On originality. In my first year at Oxford I tried to always be original, because of some reasoning like I didn’t want to make the examiners bored. In my second year, someone told me that originality only counts in the mark scheme if you’re already above 80, and otherwise it doesn’t count at all (I never checked this claim—and I only heard it the once—but I tentatively trust it). So I gave up trying to be original for a while. But this is what I think now: originality is probably good (getting above 80 is good, and I have a feeling mark schemes aren’t as clear-cut as we think they are anyway). But originality cannot be forced. It is, I think, the natural product of thinking and talking about things a lot. So do that, but don’t be original for its own sake—it’s probably not that important, and you can’t force it anyway.
16. There are many ways to, in theory, write a good essay. In practice, you personally cannot write a good essay in all of these ways. You will be better at some than others, and my way mightn’t be right for you. What is generalizable is just this. Confidence, thoughtfulness, and honesty come through in writing and cannot easily be faked. The following is absurdly cliché in the general case—but not often enough said about exams—so: be yourself, be honest (really honest, not defensive or dishonestly selective), and believe that what you’re saying is worth saying.
1. Try to have fun with finals—I really did enjoy mine (and that’s coming from someone who was, broadly, disappointed in Oxford).
2. Remember again to consider the meta level. Ask your tutors for advice, for example. More generally don’t feel like the path to a great score is straight through your reading list.
3. Exam scores are not a replacement for the rest of Oxford. I’m delighted that I got the mark I did. But if I could trade it in for a 3rd in exchange for the chance to undo my university mistakes, of course I would. (But then: I’m a virtue ethicist—if I were a proper EA (as I am not), I wouldn’t make that trade. I think I can, in fact, do more good this way.)
4. One last option: do well in Prelims (or year two exams if you’re in STEM) and then apply to US grad schools before taking finals. US grad programs don’t give conditional offers, so your scores basically don’t matter. This was actually my position, which was really nice, since it meant I had no real pressure. But then I got to decide last minute that, like, maybe I didn’t want to go to grad school, and my finals marks gave me a credible out.
1. The three Ethics essays averaged 81—not sure which got which specific marks. The one Jurisprudence one got mid-seventies.
2. There are many ways to write a good essay. These essays are my way, but you should in some sense be a version of yourself in your work (see supra at point 16). Maybe you like history of thought—one could write equally good essays (or far better ones) dealing with the same questions from that angle. Those essays would read totally differently—almost like a different genre. The important thing is to do well within your genre of essay—not to mimic some specific genre.