18 tips to ensure a better oral exam

Did you know that on average, students experience more anxiety at oral exams than written exams?

In this blog post, you will receive 18 tips to help you excel at your oral exam. It will be difficult focusing on all 18 tips at your exam. Therefore, you should select 3-4 pieces of advice that you will focus on at your next oral exam 

By Psy.M. Anna Stelvig

If you are feeling very nervous about the exam, you should check out our app StudentMind. The app will provide you with 35 exercises surrounding exam anxiety, sleep difficulties, stress, perfectionism, writer’s block, lack of focus, etc.
If you are approaching an oral exam where you are to draw a question within the subject and present your knowledge within this topic, then here is your personal guide to a stellar performance.

Enjoy reading below, and break a leg!

1. First impressions
Make a memorable entrance. Greet your teacher and external examiner by shaking their hands upons entering. Look them in the eyes and smile. If there is an external examiner, remember to greet politely ensuring a good impression.

2. Do not hesitate when drawing the question
If it’s an exam where you have to draw a question, do not hesitate too much. Hesitating increases your own security, but does not give you an advantage. Hide your disappointment if you received an undesirable question. This will give them the impression that you aren’t insecure and nervous from the start.

3. Get off to a good start
It is important to get off to a good start. A good start will set the foundation for a successful exam. Therefore, take the floor and show that you are in control of the presentation.

4. Conveying your presentation
When beginning your oral exam, you can explain the intended outline of your presentation. In doing so, you ensure a solid start while providing the teacher and the external examiner with enough information to guide if you run into difficulties throughout the examination.

5. Sit with your back straight and feet firmly planted on the ground
When nervous, you typically curl together with only the edge of your toes touching the ground. Your body posture affects your emotions and increases your nervousness. Instead, straighten up, place both feet firmly on the ground and ensure that you are in contact with the chair. A clear and strong attitude radiates confidence and energy surplus.

6. Look the external examiner and your teacher in the eye
Maintain eye contact with both your teacher and the external examiner during the examination. We often only speak to one party, which results in you losing the other person’s attention and interest. Good eye contact signals self-confidence and academic surplus.

7. Do not read from your paper
Avoid reading from your paper if possible. It is far better forgetting things than reading aloud from a piece of paper. If you merely read aloud from your papers, the examiners have no chance in assessing your actual capabilities. If you forget something, rest assured they will ask you during the Q&A session. Finding one’s bearings in relation to the presentation outline and key points is completely acceptable, but do not keep your eyes on the paper. Instead, remember to look at your teacher and external examiner.

8. Talk with impact
If you deliver the key points with power in your voice, you seem convincing and academically competent. It does not matter if you speak a little fast. Research shows that people who speak a little faster than average are seen as more intelligent.

On the contrary, if you speak slowly and quietly at the exam, the recipient becomes unsure of whether you really know what you are talking about.

Thus, you may subconsciously be talking yourself down. However, simply speaking quickly and loudly does not guarantee you a good grade. The most important aspect is ensuring your content is relevant.

9. Draw or tell
If you find it easier getting your message across by drawing or illustrating something on the whiteboard or on a piece of paper, then do it.

10. The exam is a conversation
It is a great idea structuring your presentation. Yet it is equally important not to panic if the conversation takes a turn you did not anticipate. This will most likely happen, as you can never plan in advance the questions posed at an oral exam.
Remind yourself that an exam is like a conversation between two or more people. It does not follow any fixed structure or pattern, but develops in tact with what is happening. Much like a conversation with a friend, one cannot anticipate all the topics that will be covered. You listen to your friend, think about what is being said and then you answer or ask a question back. The same method is used at the oral exam.

11. Pauses
Remember, a natural part of normal conversations is pausing to think about what you wish to say. This also applies during an exam. If you need a break to think, say so. An option is also to “think out loud”, so they hear you reflecting on the question and maybe demonstrating good reasoning abilities.

12. Control the conversation
If possible, attempt to steer the conversation in your preferred direction. For example, if there are any particular topics or theories that you wish to touch on, turn the conversation in that direction. Be creative, draw parallels, look for connections – and suddenly you’re where you want to be.

13. Do not understand the question?
If you do not understand a question, politely ask them to rephrase it. Most often, their rephrasing includes additional keywords that can lead you in the right direction.
If you are still in doubt, try to answer anyway. Maybe it’s right, or maybe you can direct the conversation towards something you know more about.
Keep in mind that a few wrong answers do not ruin your overall performance!

14. Do not know the answer?
Many people think they should be able to answer everything, but we rarely can. It is therefore crucial that you prepare for this situation. If you are unable to answer, remember that your body language sends signals. If you look down at the table while replying, “I don’t know,” then you have sold yourself short. You have simultaneously shown that you do not know the answer and that you are nervous.
Instead, maintain eye contact with them, tell them you do not know the answer and proceed to talk about some of the areas you know. If you are a little cunning, you can attempt to buy some time by, for example, saying, “I would like to return to that question, but let me first touch upon…”

15. Focus on your capabilities
Concentrate on conveying all the knowledge you have, rather than thinking about what your limitations are within the subject. Should you make a mistake, relax. Correct the mistake, if possible, and continue to talk about a topic you are confident in and have practiced. Ultimately, your teacher and the external examiner will be judging you based on your capabilities.

16. Perfect does not exist!
Tell yourself that you will succeed. Allow yourself to believe that you have the competencies and skills required. At the same time you must accept that no exam is perfect, but it can still be a successful experience if you focus on the good aspects of it.

17. Are you missing something?
As the exam reaches its end and you realize that you still have key points you wish to cover, then tell your teacher. Explain which topics, theories, perspectives etc. you wanted to cover if you had more time. This will give them an impression of your further knowledge and capabilities.

18. Remember, the external examiner and your teacher are on your side!
Lastly, keep in mind that your teacher and the external examiner are your teammates and not your opponents. Their task and intention is to help you have a good experience at the exam and achieve a high grade. Their intention to have successful students is the same as your wish to be a successful student.

Best of luck to you!
– Anna

P.S. Did you know that you can find great advice for the oral exam and other challenges throughout your student life in my app StudentMind? Read more about the app here. If you are very nervous about exams, you can obtain more knowledge about exam anxiety through the app.