People keep saying, how is your nth week going, and I keep saying week after week “actually it’s going really really well”. I am pretty well absorbed into my work. Bad habits of procrastination still stop me from achieving quite as much as I think I’m capable of, though, but the effect is far more minor than it has been. The Pomodoro Technique is I think the main factor in this.[1] But also it’s the fact that I’m not really doing maths. There aren’t any useful lectures to go to, and the maths I am doing is easy and so it’s gratifying, and so my life each day is attending a small number of classes and just heading to the library and reading and writing philosophy, which is really great. My workload is a little less than last term too, just enough that things are more comfortable. I didn’t really realise just how much maths was making me unhappy.

There are only four weeks left of term though—halfway point it in four hours time—and then finals revision will begin. Just last night a present fourth year who has already been through it said, “you will be really depressed and sad. I was, and I didn’t realise that everyone is the same and it’s normal, I thought something was wrong with me.” I will have about four weeks of vacation (I’m going home for one week) and then four weeks of term time and then finals will begin; a week of philosophy exams, and then I think a week’s break in between, then a week of maths.

My plan for these weeks? Seven hours a day for the first four weeks, probably more than that for the last four. Mornings to be spent on philosophy, afternoons on maths. Not sure whether to work in evenings or not; need to give precise scheduling some serious thought.

Exams never really test what you’re doing your qualification in but that’s because it seems inevitable that training for the test will not be the same as training in the subject. Fine. It is the case that the Oxford finals game is particularly strange. Time to write about that a bit.

Maths is pretty straightforward; I’ve written about it before. There is a lot of stuff to learn, and a lot of exam practice questions to do. We’ve had practice revising for this and we know what to do and we can get on with it. I will be going through notes quite fast, then doing all the practice questions, which will require going through notes more carefully, then going through notes again, then practice questions again.

Philosophy is notoriously bad. Our subject has the worst finals gap in Oxford. If you are female, there is an 85% chance that you will get a 2:1; all the other grades are crammed into that 15%. Iirc as a male you have something like a 15% chance of getting a first. Tutors are openly disdainful of how well these exams are marked; how random they are. Balliol tutors are very proud of their ability to train us in exam technique for these papers and what to do. In a revision class the tutor went round and checked everyone’s handwriting to be sure that no styles were too feminine; the exams are marked anonymously, so the thought is that this must be a factor.[2] Soon the names of the examiners marking the papers will be released. For big papers like ethics which loads of people do, there is of course a team of markers, but they will be under someone’s leadership and guidance all the same. Based on the names the Balliol tutors will tell us which theories it’s a death knell to write about, what sort of grammar errors these individuals care about most etc.

In maths the difference between a third (40%), 2:2 (50%), 2:1 (60%) and a first (70%) is pretty obvious, it’s just how much stuff you get right. However in philosophy and indeed in most humanities there is a massive leap between a first and a 2:1. As noted above almost everyone gets a 2:1, because so long as you have re-read your notes and you write reasonably clearly, you’ll get one, basically. But then since with a very, very few exceptions the ceiling is something like 73,[3] it’s a big struggle to push up beyond 67 or so.

The way to do it is to do well on all the following things, basically, plus probably a few more. Firstly you have to be writing extremely clearly, with a strong sense of authorial voice. This is the number one requirement. Secondly you want some deep, sufficiently sophisticated things to say. Of course the number one obstacle to the first requirement is the second, and this is perhaps where some genuine philosophical skill (as opposed to knowledge) is on display and the exams are actually testing that. The barrier to memorising stuff to write down is found in the third requirement: you have to answer the question set. Since it would be stupid to require people to be genuinely original in exam conditions, originality is limited to shaping of your material for the purposes of answering the question set.

There are other things you need to be doing but these are the main three and they are what you train for. The way to train for all three is to write exam essays over and over again. The best way, we are told, is to figure out your personal word limit for how much you write in fifty minutes or so (to allow for thinking time) and then write really good essays to that limit without timing yourself. Then helps with one in general but the idea is that you’ve written out sophisticated idea x well so many times that it’s pretty automatic to do so in the exam. As for answering the question, there are two ways to do this: studying the material so that you have an idea of what you think, and then again doing lots of practice and seeing how these sorts of things can generally be done.

So that’s the challenge that lies ahead for the next few months. It is going to be pretty unpleasant. But working hard in this way is rewarding in itself if you keep your head and don’t get stuck in ruts and panics over particular issues, or so I hope.

Bop tonight, probably the last one I will attend until after exams (certainly the last one I will DJ at until next year). It’s the valentine’s day bop so we have a papier-mache penis pinata that will be thrown into the room at midnight. Inside it contains a mix of love hearts (that is, the sweets) and condoms—given that this is Balliol the latter is very optimistic, I can’t imagine very many will get used.

[1] Learnt recently that one of my tutors uses it!

[2] In fact I am told that there is evidence to suggest it is differences in writing style between genders—men try to get away with more, and succeed because the scripts are read too swiftly.

[3] I once heard that the examiners say they can only distinguish between three or four kinds of first so they don’t go higher than this.