Oral exams: These tips will help you master even the toughest questions

written by: Christina Pichler, 21.01.2021

Exams are always a challenge. When they are conducted orally, the tension is often even greater. What if I completely blackout due to nervousness? Maybe the examiners won’t like me? What do I do if I don’t understand the question correctly or if I can’t think of the right answer straight away?

Yes, oral exams are different from written performance assessments, but they are also a very important experience. We at STUWO have put together five tips to help you prepare for your next oral exam.

Here are general tips for preparing for your next exam!

1. Preparation is key

Of course, you will not be able to get around studying and, especially with oral exams, you will do yourself a great favor when you start on time. Because the better prepared you are, the more secure you will feel and the easier the exam situation will be for you. This will set an important base for your self-confidence and you will radiate it when you enter the room. If you know from the start that you have major knowledge gaps and are unsure, this is usually very difficult to hide. After all, the first impression, in addition to your knowledge of course, also has a huge impact on how you are perceived. Taking an exam badly prepared just creates unnecessary stress. Start studying soon enough to avoid panicking in the last few days.

2. Overcome any obstacles

Studying and especially starting early enough is usually easier said than done. A lot of the time there are some obstacles to overcome, which could set you back in your learning progress, although this is really important for the oral exam.

  • Got a lot to do? Set priorities! Everybody is familiar with that situation: an exam is coming up and suddenly your apartment needs to be cleaned etc. If you’re having a tough time getting started, make a list of tasks and prioritize what to fill your day with. Of course, learning should be a top priority.
  • Make a plan. This gives you more structure and you can make sure that you don’t end up under too much time pressure. The Pomodoro Technique will help you with your time management!
  • Overcome your lack of motivation. Studying can be exhausting and is especially challenging when oral exams are difficult for you. Working with others can be a little motivational kick. When you meet to study, provide yourself with brain food and food that lifts the mood. This does not only benefit your stomach, but also your learning progress.
  • Stop procrastinating and stop putting off important things like studying until it gets stressful. Oral exams in particular can be a big challenge. After all, uncomfortable things get easier once you start doing them more often. Find out more about how to avoid procrastination here.

3. Study with others and take a “trial exam”

If you study with others, then this is the perfect prerequisite to simulate the oral exam. Think about possible questions and how you would answer them. In a group you will usually find good solutions that capture different perspectives and are therefore more versatile than answers you will find on your own. You can also split the questions in the group and discuss the answers together. This way you learn from one another, which also strengthens your self-confidence for the upcoming exam. Knowing that other students have the same level of knowledge as you will strengthen your own confidence. After all, your whole study group will be perfectly prepared.

Even if a trial oral exam only partially reflects the atmosphere of a “real” exam, it can help you to deal with the real situation more easily. Because you can practice and learn to find the right answer in seconds when someone is sitting in front of you. And knowing that you can master situations like this creates a lot of self-confidence. It’s really just a matter of habit.

If you are one of those people who find it difficult to present and speak in front of people, the group experience can help you in many ways. Seeing how your co-workers are dealing with this situation and getting inspired by them is also an advantage.

4. How to deal with nervousness and stress during your oral exam

Preparation is of course an important point. But what to do if you simply have great difficulty standing and speaking in front of other people? Some people are extroverted by nature and enjoy being the center of attention as soon as they step into a room. For others, speaking in public is not that easy. Your voice fails and becomes very shaky. You feel like a pile of misery and would like to vanish into the ground. You blackout and nothing seems to help you anymore. If this is you: the following tips can help you overcome your fear:

  • Try to smile when you think about the exam and just before you take it. Cheating is allowed, at least when laughing. Because even a fake smile can have a positive effect on your emotions. If the corners of your mouth move upwards, the amygdala in the brain, which is responsible for your emotions, is stimulated and will make you feel positive emotions instead of stress.
  • Nervousness is a normal reaction because almost everyone is nervous when they speak in front of others. Some have simply learned to deal with the nervousness a little bit better. It’s basically nothing bad, just a sign that you care about the situation. Try to work on your own nervousness.
  • Observe yourself. Imagine a scale from 1 to 10 – this is your nervousness scale. If at 10 the maximum nervousness is reached, that won’t allow you to get a word out, where are you shortly before the exam? At what point do your hands get wet? When do you feel like your nervousness has taken over? Observing yourself neutrally can help bring in more calm.
  • Breathing techniques and meditation can also be good supporters if you are prone to blackouts and acute nervousness. Taking long, deep and full breaths in the abdomen and chest make a huge difference. Because you supply your brain with much more oxygen by taking deep breaths instead of nervous, short chest breathing. Here are some tips to get started with meditation!
  • Many others have made it before, so why shouldn’t you be one of them? You have realistic chances that you will be just as successful if you prepare well. Trust in your skills.
  • Imagine the worst case scenario. Even though it is extremely unrealistic, the fear of the worst case scenario feels very real. Thinking about what’s the worst that could happen and what that means for you will put a lot of things into perspective.
  • If nothing works, just talk about it during the exam. Just say that you are very nervous right now and try to take a deep breath. This is not a sign of weakness, it makes you personable, authentic and most of all: it makes you human. This brief pause for thought may only last a few seconds, but it will really help to organise your thoughts.

5. This is how you impress and help shape the interview

Even if you feel helplessly exposed to the questions: an oral exam is also a form of conversation and therefore not a one-sided matter. You can influence your exam a lot more than you might think. To do so, keep the following things in mind:

  • First impressions are important. Courtesy and appropriate clothing are of course a given. If you enter the room in a positive mood and spread sympathy, it definitely plays into your cards.
  • Auditors are only human too, they know that the situation is challenging. They have an interest in you passing. Because everything else means work. Usually nobody blames you when you get excited. So get in a positive mood for the situation and be convinced that they will be kind to you.
  • Make good use of your time when you get a question on a topic that you are very familiar with. Steer the conversation a little and show what you know about this topic. But don’t overdo it since it might come off a bit arrogant
  • Get to the point, give precise and appropriate answers to the question asked. If you have to be cut off all the time, it is not only annoying, it doesn’t make a particularly good impression either.
  • You did not understand the question? Then ask again politely. If you kindly ask if the question could be repeated or if it could be clarified a bit, there is absolutely no shame in that.
  • Think out loud if you can’t remember the answer. Even if you don’t know the exact answer, you can maybe get a few bonus points for the derivation or scratch another topic that you know more about.
  • Blackout? Then say it like that. Just ask to answer the question later. You may be able to contribute the answer yourself, if it comes back to you and if the situation allows it.

Try different things and believe in your skills – we are sure you will find something that will help you with your particular situation.

We at STUWO wish you the best of luck for your next exam!


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