How to Prepare for an Oral Exam

CBS Library's writing consultant Thomas Basbøll gives study advice in a series of 5 short articles.


Student grinding her teeth

Maybe you won’t be surprised, as Moliére’s would-be nobleman was, to learn that you’ve been speaking prose all your life. But will you believe me when I tell you that the best way to prepare for an oral exam is to write some good, clear prose about the subject? You’ll often have to do this anyway since the exam is usually based on a written submission. I want to persuade you that you’re training for a performance too.

Remember that being “knowledgeable” about something at university means being able to make up your mind about it, speak intelligently about it, and write it down in a paragraph. It’s not a matter of being opinionated, but of being articulate. Not just convinced, but conversant. If you have written paragraphs that deliberately support, elaborate or defend the beliefs you hold, you have a great basis for conversing with other knowledgeable people about them. These people are represented by your examiners.

If your paragraphs have clear and concise “key sentences” that state your beliefs, then a simple list of them will show you what sorts of things you’ll be talking about during the exam.


  • what are some good questions in relation to these claims? (And what are some bad questions that I need to steer the conversation away from?)
  • Is there some humour in what I’m saying? (Will I have an opportunity to be witty? Is there a risk of making a fool of myself?)
  • Are there some sensitive political issues I should be worried about? (Is there a risk of provoking or offending my examiners? If so, is it a necessary risk to take? If not, how do I avoid it?).

Now ask yourself what the most important claims are. Make sure you foreground these in your opening statements. Remember that they are merely the tip of the iceberg and that you’re giving your examiners a place to start the conversation. Prepare yourself for where their questions and comments might lead. They are trying to find out what you know. Assume that after you leave the room they want to give you a good grade and are looking for arguments to do so. Help them out by planning a number of possible conversations that reveal what you know, and then make some of them happen.

Interested in more?

Read more at my blog called Inframethodology

Other articles in the series

The page was last edited by: CBS Library // 11/20/2019