How to take an Italian Oral Exam (an inexpert guide)


Right now in Italy we are in the midst of something deep, dark and terrible: exam season.

Okay, that might be a bit dramatic, but it feels true.  Exams cover university life like an uncomfortable blanket, scratching you constantly and not keeping you very warm.  You think these weeks off should be mildly agreeable.  After all, you don’t have classes to disrupt your planned marathon study sessions, but things never work out according to plan.  The days either slip by without getting much accomplished or you spend all your time studying for one subject only to realize that you’ve left another class completely untouched.  Perhaps you get lazy or perhaps you something distracts you.  Maybe it’s a trip, the loss of internet or the realization that you don’t quite care about the origins and development of the Sicilian dialect.

The Italian exam season is a unique breed.  It’s not the short week of finals in America and it’s not the roughly two weeks for mid-winter exams in England.  At l’università di Pavia we have nearly two months for January and February exams.  You heard me correctly, TWO MONTHS.  Your first exam could take place as early as 7 January and your last exam could be on 22 February.  That’s a long stretch of self-discipline to endure.  I, for one, am relieved that I only have to deal with this schedule for a single year.

It’s not just the schedule of Italian exams that makes them different, but also the manner in which they occur.  In England, you could be taking anywhere from two to ten exams over the course of the year.  They could be an hour long or more.  You could have only one exam a day over a long period of time, or all of them in the course of a couple days.  There are also the essays to write, which are all due before exams begin.  You probably aren’t going to have to talk extemporeaneously on any subject.  And thank goodness for that!

In Italy you will spend the bulk of your exams speaking.  An Italian course should prepare you talk and talk and talk some more.  For large courses there may be a written part, but there doesn’t have to be.  You don’t have to take the exam immediately following the course, you can wait up to a year before the lessons “expire.”  You can try the written exam up to twice in a single year and the oral exam three times.  There isn’t any guidance on what to study.  You should go enter the exam room ready to discuss any topic in the textbook or briefly mentioned during lessons.  Good luck if you forgot the one author who appears on your exam.

The exam room is different as well.  In England, it’s more of an exam hall and everything has an official atmosphere.  You have a seat assigned by your student number.  You look on a board before you go into the room to figure out your desk number.  As soon as you enter the room you put everything at the back, your bag, your coat, everything.  All you can have with you is water, pens and your student id.  Don’t bring pencils, you won’t need those here.

You’ll be provided with oh-so-official exam booklets that you’ll have to sign and number.  The exam officials will probably be people that you’ve never seen before in your life.  They won’t be your teachers and they probably won’t even be from your department.  You can sit your exam in the same room as people sitting a classics, engineering or law exam.  There’s no talking, you would never dream of doing that.

In Italy the ambiance isn’t as strict; only one exam is taken at a time and students study at their desks until the last possible moment.  No one calls out what time it is so you can pace yourself properly.  It’s a different world and a different mindset.

As I sat in my linguistics exam last week I realized that it wasn’t so much the subject that was difficult to take an exam in, but rather the culture.  I’m so connected to the culture of taking a university exam in England and a high school exam in America that I don’t know how to take this one.  What was I supposed to write on my paper?  Was marking up the exam sheet okay?  Was it okay to use pencil or did I have to use pen?  All of these things I would know had I been in England or America, but in Italy I knew nothing.

The exam didn’t so much test my knowledge of linguistics as my knowledge of Italian culture.  The verdict?  Things are improving, but I still have much to learn.

Note that occurred between writing and posting:  i passed my linguistics and literature exams!  considering the fact that during the former i realized i wasn’t sure what i was supposed to be writing about and during the latter i genuinely did not know the answers to two questions, i am quite pleased.

How did you deal with exams at school or university?  Long-preparation or cramming?


9 thoughts on “How to take an Italian Oral Exam (an inexpert guide)

  1. Kathryn

    Gosh, it sounds terrifying! I much prefer the organised approach in England. Congratulations on passing your linguistics and literature exams; it’s even more impressive considering the circumstances!

    1. Emilia Post author

      Thanks! England’s approach to exam is great, tt just cuts down on as many external circumstances as possible (or so it seems to me) 🙂

  2. The Food Yogi

    My undergrads philosophy was to cram. Now, in my graduate studies, my outlook on studying is a little bit each day goes a long way. I found that if I study a little each day and prepare myself throughout the semester, finals aren’t as daunting and there’s no need to cram and stress.

    1. Emilia Post author

      Studying a little bit everyday is most definitely the way to go and I’m inspired that you are able to keep it up! Anything to avoid cramming and stress is worthwhile, isn’t it? 😉

      1. The Food Yogi

        Absolutely! When I began my post-undergrad studies I was amazed at how much better I felt at the end of the semester knowing that I already had a good grade so I didn’t feel like I needed to rally and redeem myself in the end. I also find that recording my professors lectures with the voice recorder app on my iphone helps a lot too when studying.

    1. Emilia Post author

      Thanks! I was definitely one of those people who was shocked the first time they heard about Italy’s exam system 🙂

      1. Emilia Post author

        Most definitely! I have no idea how Italian students survive these exams (especially if they don’t take it immediately after finishing the course), but I’m suitably impressed.

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