Masters Exams: Tips and Tricks

Ciara Murray

As the summer gets closer, so too does exam time. Well, for some of us anyway. In the UK, summer always equalled exams, but at least here you can also choose to take them in the drearier winter term, leaving summer free for more leisurely pursuits.

BUT, for me, the leisurely pursuits will have to wait. I’m hoping to get my MA exams done and dusted this June, and with several others also in the same boat, I thought it might be a good idea to share some potential tips and tricks for surviving…

First up, decide which professor you want to sit your exams with. If, like me, you have a major in Literature and a minor in Linguistics, this will mean you’ll have a 2 hour written exam for the major and a 30 minute oral exam for the minor. Bear this in mind when planning your study time – obviously a 2 hour written exam will require more preparatory material and reading time than a 30 minute oral, but you don’t want to neglect either one. Chances are you’re also finishing off your thesis: it’s probably advisable to have this proofed, edited and finalised – maybe even printed! – before you sit down and tackle your revision – that way you can have a clear head and focus on the exams.

When choosing a professor, think about what your strengths and particular interests are, and try and find someone at the faculty that you think will share those interests. It helps if you’ve attended some of their seminars – this will no doubt give you a clue as to the sort of material they like to think about. If you’ve enjoyed writing a research paper in a particular area, you might want to follow this up in your exam. Approach the professor and ask if they would have time to discuss doing the exam with you. Make sure you allow them enough time – asking them two weeks before the exam period starts is not a smart move…

It’s best to have a reasonable idea of what sort of topic you would like the exam to focus on, and even to have prepared or thought about a preliminary reading list. The Faculty provides a reading list with a broad range to get you started, but you might also like to add your own texts. Then you can arrange a meeting with your professor to discuss the list; they’ll probably have plenty of ideas to help you expand (or reduce!) your scope.

When choosing texts, I think it’s best to pick some that you have already read, or even know well, but also to take the opportunity to read new texts as well: this will prevent you from getting bored over the weeks that you will be spending reading; think “vision” rather than “re-vision”! New texts will spark new ideas and ensure that when you come to write your exam paper, it will come across as fresh and exciting – because the texts are fresh and exciting in your mind too (hopefully!). Also – don’t spend all your time working; both your mind and body need time off from study. Go for a walk. Drink tea. Watch a stupid movie. Then hit the books again – you will feel better for the break.

Finally, remember that the exams are there to give you an opportunity to show off what you know – approaching them positively will make all the difference. No one wants to mark a paper that reads as if every word has been pulled from the author like extracting teeth – and no examiner wants to sit and discuss literature with someone who looks as if they’d rather be anywhere else but in the exam room. Pick texts and topics that you can get excited about, and that will come across to your examiner. Have fun: you’re doing it for yourself, not for anyone else, after all.

Good luck to all those headed to their Masters exams this term; no doubt I’ll see you in the library some time soon…


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