On Being An Oxford Finalist

IMG_0558I have so much writing to do – thesis chapter 2, a conference paper and an OR review of the RSC As You Like It, which I saw on Tuesday – that I really should keep this brief. But in the mean time, a quick update on the state of the Sophie.

It all started with this blog: Oxford Daily Photo. Representative, eclectic, daily pictures of the place where I live. Particularly poignant right now, since today the last-term blues really hit me for the first time. City of aquatint, my city, how is it already third week? I love Oxford so much, how am I going to leave, probably this blog will turn into a tragic chronicle of unemployment as I circle the drain of morbid obesity and Rocky Bars, too unemployable and demoralised even to be on Trisha.. um. Moving along, nothing to see here.

Probably, though, I am going to be unemployed for the rest of my life, will fail to get a Distinction and thus fail to get DPhil funding, never return to Oxford, CERTAINLY never have any kind of career in theatre or journalism and slowly circle the drain (once more with feeling) of morbid obesity and Rocky Bars, despised by the purveyors of JSA, doomed to avoid all College Gaudys as my six-figure-salaried peers laugh at my plight and mention they passed my Embankment cardboard box the other day, and perhaps I’ll make it onto Trisha..

In other words, I am not yet what you’d call gainfully employed. I’m waiting on applications, mostly, as my mother noted, for unpaid internships in expensive cities. I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. Am hoping this next play will give me some direction about whether I want to go into the theatre or not. Recently advised by an actor-friend-etc, lovely Pete, not to do it, would always be poor, miserable, addicted to praise, he spent 15 months out of work once – but at the same time, his eyes sparkle when he talks about his life & work (including AIDS plays and Gay Sweatshop, I mean, come on, GAY SWEATSHOP oh), and always adds the caveat – ‘unless you really need to do it’. I don’t know if I need to act. I don’t know if I’m good enough to do it. I do know that I can’t afford drama school, that there are 10 men’s roles for every 1 for a woman (with the exception of plays like Dancing at Lughnasa), that (for all my merits), I’m not tall, busty, blonde or leggy enough to be yr conventional romantic heroine, and that even if I am good enough – and secretly, I do think I could be, with training – there’s no profession with less of a correlation between sustained success and talent. That’s not to say our leading ladies aren’t incredibly talented – well, I think so-called Dame so-called Helen Mirren is massively overrated, but Smith, Dench and the strangely Dameless HARRIET WALTER (my love knows no smallcaps) belong with the immortals. But then, on the other hand, you have cardboard starlets, inexplicably successful ‘personalities’, the awful Wossy, and, well Jonathan Slinger. Jonathan Slinger, Richard II extraordinaire, star of the RSC Histories, who is playing five episodes’ worth of a topless Biclops (Bisexual Cyclops, since you ask) in a satellite sci-fi parody where the leading man is Sean Maguire (afterelton has a lot to say about the Biclops – I find it rather sanctimonious and irrelevant, but, well, take a look). SEAN MAGUIRE. Slinger wears a fake face and you can only tell it’s him by the voice and the pudginess. Maybe he’s having a great time, I don’t know, but those clips really put the fear of God into me. Where ‘God’ equals a big false eye that blinks.

I am still in Oxford. It is finals season. Finalists are telling me they want to die. This is normal. I have as much sympathy as I can have for people still in receipt of government loans. Realised the other day that the salary threshold for starting to pay my debt will be less than my debt. No, finals are awful. As bad as anything ever needs to be. But they do end, and I don’t personally know anybody who died of them. What bracing and hypocritical advice I can muster, when the occasion demands it.

Anyway, in view of the much-vaunted Gender Gap between male and female finalists, I have compared a little list for Girls Doing Finals. Sorry, English Finals. At Oxford. In two-weeks time. In retrospect, this list probably has quite a specialist audience:

1. Do not have a period. I cannot stress this enough. Not only are the Exam School toilets a brisk five-minute jog from the exam hall, but yr sub-fusc does not accommodate storage of The Necessaries (item 1.5: don’t wear a skirt shorter than your short commoners’ gown, you just look trashy). I was trying to convey this the other day during a conversation, and ended up describing them as Feminine Items. My old age, etc. Poss am turning into our lovely Head of Sixth Form, who in second year assembly asked the girl concerned to reclaim a small purse containing Personal Items. Our hopes for sex toys and/or crack pipes were dashed when our Maths teacher (who really should have known better) gleefully told us it was Tampax.

However, unless you can do something clever with contraceptive pills and mess the statistics, one in four of you are going to suffer the horror. I was that one, and I know other girls who also. Etc. Suggest wearing boots and stuffing tampon down them in manner of stiletto blade. I’d prefer not to be explicit about what I did, but let’s just say it involved a generously cut bra. Doubtless somewhere in the Exam Regulations there’s something entitling Women Readers (as the Bodleian loos still call us) to a Small Handbag Or Package measuring x” by y” for the storage of Personal Items, but since such an item would have to be closely vetted, if it’s a choice between inspection, disaster, bra-stuffing (there you go) or death, which would you rather?

A hysterectomy would probably be going too far.

2. Ignore everything anyone says to you which follows the format, Don’t Write On X, The Examiners Hate It. For me, this started when it came to Paper 7 (the Special Author paper Oxford Englishers – Anglicists? write in Michaelmas of third year). Writing on Wilde was apparently the kiss of death because Everyone Does It And The Markers Hate It. This is bollocks. I wrote on Wilde and got the best mark of my degree. Similarly, there’s the well-known myth that Examiners Hate Gothic. Obviously do avoid trotting out the same tired stuff about Frankenstein, branch out all you can (v easily done – lovely Blackwood’s Tales of Terror, Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary (1819), the crazy joy of Vathek) — but it’s no different from writing on Revenge Tragedy and managing to read something other than The Spanish Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi and one or two Middleton. The claim that you should never answer the ‘Write on children, magic, umbrellas, pot plants or David Tennant in the literature of the period’ question is also entirely false. If you write well, you’ll get good marks and generally people write well on what interests them, either because they enjoy the texts or loathe them. The one exception to this is the question on Renaissance Utopias. Don’t only write on More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis. The examiners really do hate that.

3. Don’t spend lots of time on exam practice questions, unless you have real issues with timing. Although somewhat useful for consolidating knowledge, they don’t help you memorise anything new, and with the hindsight of a year, I look back on Finals as a giant memory test. Timed essays can’t even approximate the experience of Finals; you always do better in the latter. They resemble each other only as much as a desultory dress rehearsal, and a first night.

4. Don’t have post mortems while walking out of Schools. It will only upset you, and quite possibly expose you to the vampirish leechdom of your fellow students’ psyches. We’re all familiar with the oh god I did so badly, voici x/No no, mine was worse, listen to y school of comfort, and as long as it’s kept that brief, it’s harmless. However, their will be a viper in the High Street bosom who genuinely wants to hear of your cock-ups and will joy in the fact. Resist them. Some colleges now explicitly caution against psychological warfare in their pre-Finals chats. They are right to do so. Also resist telling your friends exactly what you’re revising, in order & minute detail. You’ll find this even more if you go onto postgrad, but – unless it’s their specialist area of interest, or they want to get into yr sub-fusc, nobody cares what you study.

5. Food: nobody will actually stop you taking in mints. Eat a cooked breakfast before you go if, like me, you hate early mornings. The coursing fat will keep you alive until half twelve. Index cards: keep them with you until the last possible moment, you may well end up answering a question on whatever you read last. This is okay.

6. Everyone else seems more prepared than you. Always. Invariably. Ignore them. Also ignore people ostentatiously reading Piers Plowman outside schools. IT HAS BEEN KNOWN. Specifically ignore the urge to push them into traffic.

6.5 If you actually do think you’re under-prepared, looking at the statistics – even if said statistic is ‘did no work in second year’ – don’t freak out. Things can be rescued. Papers pulled back. I learnt all of Paper 5 from scratch, much of it in seven miserable days in Oriel Library. It’s doable. On a slightly puritannical note, I would recommend you don’t forget what the miserable terror of pulling said paper back was like. It’s a valuable life lesson on learning things the first time round.

7. Try not to start or finish any addictions, love affairs, all-consuming hobbies or anti-social obsessions (I failed: mine were Lewis, Torchwood and Larkin poems) in the months before Finals. In the run-up, you may well think, for the above or other reasons, that you’re going crazy. This, too, is fine; but, again, if you actually do think you’re on the road to a psychotic break, get thee to a sympathetic tutor, a Welfare Officer, a Nurse and/or the Counselling Service. Ring Nightline between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m (you can Skype them now, as well).

Nothing opens doors like being a bright young Finalist on the edge, and everyone knows it’s a really stressful time. A bit of help to get you through the rough periods (Hilary of third year can be a shit time for lots of people) is readily available and makes all the difference. Er, by this I mean conversation rather than medication; some College doctors will hand out beta-blockers or anti-depressants like sweeties to Finalists who seem too stressed, and this approach is to be discouraged, especially if there’s not long to go before exams.

8. For god’s sake don’t worry about your weight. Eat. Yes, you’ve become more sedentary but god knows (with yr social life dwindling for the sake of Milton, Pope, Chaucer et al) food is one of the few remaining pleasures. Everyone puts on weight during Finals (doubtless some sylphlike young thing will comment to say well actually, she ran 5 km every day and stayed at seven stone two and to her I say, SOD OFF).

9. It will end, I promise. And if you’ve worked hard, and make good question choices, you’re going to do well. Make plans for after Finals, and look forward to the sweet sweet bliss that makes starting exams so early worthwhile: the day you finish is the day the Classicists start, and while you’re sunbathing/shopping/drunk as a skunk in a punt, your fellow Humanities students will be wearing white carnations and looking distinctly green. Note: the imminence of their own exams may make some students skittish about taking time off for your trashing. This, too, is bollocks. Cultivate lots of second-years, just in case, but remind those in your year that if they want anyone leaning over the railings and shrieking when they emerge onto Merton Street (among the most terrifying walks of your life, there’s always a blinding moment of sun and noise and fear before you spot your friends), they’d better get down to Honey’s of the High and purchase numerous plastic garlands. And preferably a really big balloon.

11 thoughts on “On Being An Oxford Finalist


    Now I want to die even more.

    Re: food, I am astonished you managed cooked breakfast. How were you not vomiting all over the place.

    Re: weight, some people do drop weight but I think it just depends on whether one finds food vaguely comforting v. total loss of appetite. There are a few people in my college visibly shrinking, but most of us feel HUGE and HEFTY.


    1. We discussed this and the point is to also do OTHER utopias as well!

      I must admit that on the walk down to Schools for the first one, I did think I was genuinely going vomit over the flagstones, but I knew from bitter past experience that if I was going to be conscious post-exam, I needed a lot of food beforehand.

      Huge and hefty is definitely the way to go, even if I am a featureless blob in the post-finals pics.


      1. Yes, I somehow failed to do other utopias…

        I do know a quotation from The Advancement of Learning, maybe they’ll believe I read all of it! Also 3 quotations from the essays. GO ME.


        1. Well, there, you asked for my advice on what to do for the last five days! Cram utopias. Or are they only a backup topic in any case?


        2. PS not to destroy you utterly, but next Saturday they’re doing a Vita Sackville-West play at St. Hugh’s.


  2. This is a lovely post. Emerging into the sunlight from Schools was one of the most purely joyous few minutes of my life – my friends had brought a giant rainbow flag, which was draped over the railings right opposite the exit so I could see them as soon as I came out onto Merton St. And then they bestowed upon me flowers, champagne, plastic garlands, a postcard by a street artist and a tiny plastic moose. Thanks for reminding me of it!


    1. Yay! I just remember the manic laughter that began filling Medieval (our last paper) for the final thirty minutes. Nobody cared. I think quite a few of us were shaking, we were so excited and relieved.


  3. …Of course, for the next three days I woke up from nightmares that I hadn’t actually sat my African Politics, finishing had all been a dream/had a ninth exam in Theology* (note for the uninformed: I studied politics and economics…) that morning for which I had done no preparation. Thankfully, in the AGE OF THE FUTURE we live in, I could stumble bleary-eyed and jittering to the computer and check the photos were still on Facebook.

    * This seems to be a theme. I did A-levels four years ago, and still have dreams that I had been entered for Latin and Geography exams and forgotten to go to any of the lessons.


    1. This is really normal, though – yr boy’s medieval tutor and mine still has nightmares, and she’s as married, sprogged and generally grown-up and rational as they get!


  4. I shall be printing this out and keeping it. What fun I have in store…I felt soooo sorry for the finalists at lunch time x


    1. (I have your fiver. I meant to give it to Jay but then didn’t. I will pidge it to you tomorrow)

      I know! Their poor little waxen faces, it seems it was a fairly horrific paper. I remembered a year ago having breakfast, with the two Joes eyeing me like finals were contagious. Which of course they are.

      I maintain any girl on her period should get an extra mark on each essay. You’re either in agony or comatose from whatever you’ve taken to relieve the agony, after all. xxx


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