When I walked into my English exam last Saturday, I felt pretty confident. I don’t take the no-sleep-for-three-weeks approach to exams, so I was well-rested. I’d spent a few days before focusing solely on that exam, as it was my last, and I’d worked hard (some would say too hard) all year. I knew the two texts I was focusing on well (I chose Richard III, because it’s awesome, and The Miller’s Tale, because there was a compulsory question on it and so I could study two texts in depth rather than three texts with less depth if I did it for one of the main essays as well), I had quotes, and I had everything I wanted to know in a neat linear summary which matched up with how my mind works. I was going into this exam knowing that I probably wasn’t about to produce a work of genius, that my grade for the course as a whole would probably remain where it was from coursework alone, or perhaps be dragged down a little; that’s how English exams have always worked for me.
The ten minutes’ reading-only time starts, and I open the paper. Translation passage: two choices, both of which I can do. Excellent. Will do the first one, don’t translate it in your head now, leave it until you’re allowed to write. First Chaucer question: again, two options. The first: I know I saw this as a past question, but I didn’t have any notes on that idea from lectures, so I wasn’t prepared for it. The second one then. Hrm. Not something I especially prepared for, but that’s why I didn’t focus my preparation on writing exam essays; I can fit what I did prepare into this without two much trouble. Maybe just jot down a plan – wait, no, reading-only time, put the pen down. Don’t look up, the invigilator’s probably preparing to shoot you. On to the essay section.
Well, the first Miller’s Tale question would be great if I’d revised the General Prologue too, but I didn’t. The second one’s slightly better, though neither are great. That one’s going to be tricky. Dream Richard III question, though; exact replica from a past exam, and one of the standard topics: Richard’s appeal to the audience despite obviously being evil. That’s the questions picked; you now have six minutes to work yourself into a panic over those Miller’s Tale ones before you can start writing.
You may begin writing. Quick, write down thesis statements for each one, quick plan, go! Wait, that one doesn’t entirely make sense. Leave it, think about it while you do the others. Now the translation section. This is good, I can do this. Wait, what does wight mean again? This was something that came up a bit, it’s something important, maybe something to do with knowledge? And thefore every gentil wight I preye. Don’t know, doesn’t matter, won’t be worth much, just get this bit out of the way. “Every gentleman” will do. Right, translation done. That and outlines/thesis statements in eight minutes. Maybe this English exam will actually work out?
One hour in
First Chaucer question was okay, a bit of a mess but I don’t think that one’s supposed to be in essay format anyway, the test we did earlier in the same format wasn’t. One hour to go, though, and all I have for the two essays are introductions and the vaguest possible plans in mind-map form; transfiguring those into essay outlines is difficult. I know I covered more than this in my Richard III revision, what has my stupid brain done with it? The Miller’s Tale one’s looking slightly better, but I seem incapable of turning my thoughts into words. Also, my hand feels like there’s a large needle sticking into it; possibly scribbling out ten pages of revision notes on the morning of the exam was a bad move. What the Hell am I going to do? I haven’t screwed up the timing in an essay exam like this since year eleven, I thought I’d cracked that bit at least. Okay, stop, breathe. I’m not completely doomed, I know I’m going to produce something by the end of this. I could walk out now and still pass the course, but I’m not having a C, I’m not in that much trouble yet.
Twenty minutes to go
On the upside, the Miller’s Tale essay is done. On the downside, I have twenty minutes to write what amounted to about 2,000 words of notes on Richard III. But, okay, the fact that I can’t remember most of that is now less of a problem. Pick out three points from this mess of a mind map. Good. Write those paragraphs. Okay, this is working. A digital clock would be nice; is the one on the screen showing thirty seconds to go, or a minute and a half? Okay, now it’s a minute. Guess this one’s not going to have a conclusion. Squeeze in one last reference to some outside reading, let them know: I prepared for this and I’m interested and I get this stuff, honest: I’m just not good at English exams.