Exams

Worrying may be a waste of time but so is studying

Petri Dishes

It’s the night before exams, and you have failed to study. In some cultures, this shameful act and its implications for your family would lead you to move to Sweden tomorrow to pursue an acting career. But I am here to reassure you and give you courage to carry you forward.

Every year, The Crimson dutifully re-runs columns by supposed graders and supposed exam-takers, offering ways to “beat the system” or “work, successfully, within the constraints of the system.” But as someone who has never graded an exam in my life, except once when my aunt, who is an eighth-grade history teacher, allowed me to read some raps her students had written that were inspired by Benjamin Franklin, I can tell you that what they have to say is ridiculous. I’ve taken lots of exams, and I know how this works.

My father, who has also taken exams—including colonoscopies, apparently more pleasant than the Ec 10 final—once shared with me some advice he had received about exams. “Don’t read the material,” he said. “You don’t have time. Just make flashcards of the thinkers. Say that the ones who came before influenced the ones who came after, and that the ones who came after were influenced by the ones who came before.”

This always made sense to me.

But if that seems like too much effort, fear not. In history, there are a lot of precedents for people who did poorly on their exams.

If, for instance, you have had the dubious fortune of wandering through Harvard Yard at the same time as a tour led by Crimson Key, you will probably be familiar with the story of Gertrude Stein and William James and the final exam. Gertrude Stein received the final exam book and wrote: “I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” To this, William James responded, “I know exactly how you feel. A.” I once tried this, and the grader wrote back, “Neither do I, but unfortunately, this was the Math 23 exam. F.” If this has not been exactly encouraging, I have a wide array of alternative suggestions.

On math exams, it is wise to include plaintive stick figures along with your proofs and diagrams. If they fail to enhance your answers, they at least inspire pity in your grader. If your course involves any form of geometry, give your shapes personality. Who can fail someone whose geometric forms have big, sad eyes, especially if they are labeled things like “Mr. Triangle” and “Uncle Rhombus”? If nothing else, their dispute with Doctor Integral will keep him turning those pages!

In literature courses, try writing poetry on the backs of your pages that implies that your family life has taken a turn for the worse. Especially try haiku. “If it weren’t for my/Sister’s prescription abuse/ I would do better.” I have no advice for science cores, because I firmly believe that if you just draw a diagram of literally anything, with cross-hatching, labeling parts of it “A,” “C,” and “F,” and write the words “friction” and “valence electrons” somewhere around it, you cannot fail. Also, if you want to review by watching movies, keep in mind that the plot of “Hamlet” is fundamentally the same as “The Lion King.”

When it comes to history, think about the big picture. If someone wrote all his answers to your exam in Cuneiform, would you fail him? If possible, describe World War I as “the slimmer, more homoerotic World War II.” This also works for most WGS courses.

When it comes to art history, incorporate vague, baffling allusions to the artist’s life. “You can just feel how many ears Van Gogh has here in Arles,” you can observe. “But Gauguin! Ah, lurking, contumelious Gauguin!”

If you are unsure of what you are saying, use a lot of exclamation points! But not more than one per sentence! This conveys enthusiasm, something instructors like to reward.

If you are taking an economics exam, cross out the assumptions in all the questions and write things like, “In the light of Goldman, this feels like barking up the wrong tree.”

If it’s a computer science final, try using lots of ones and zeroes. But maybe just slightly more ones.

If you are taking a class on moral reasoning or religion, try to incorporate the phrase “What would Jesus do?” up to eight times, just to make it clear you weren’t joking around the first time or two. If you sense that it isn’t working, smudge your page mysteriously, raise your hand, and tell the beleaguered Cambridge resident administering your test that “a miracle has occurred, and He is Here.” Explain that you can’t turn the exam in “for religious reasons,” and rush out of the exam room, chanting in tongues.

All in all, the only thing I would advise against is cheating. Usually the people on either side of you have even less of an idea of what they are doing than you do.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears regularly.

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