Oral Exams are Different
For many students, the experience of taking an oral exam is one that is very different to taking a written exam, although you may find that preparation for an oral exam is similar to a written exam.
Oral Exams are a standard feature of English as a Second Language Exams In addition, several other standardized tests such as the NNAAP have an oral component. The Canadian Citizenship test also has an oral component, which is tested with the CELPIP test. Other standardized tests with an oral component are the IELTS, TOEIC and TOEFL.
A Variety of Skills
An oral exam allows you to demonstrate to the assessor a variety of skills including:
- Speaking skills
- Presentation skills
- Communication skills
There are two typical types of oral exams, formal and informal. A formal oral exam will usually have a set of questions that have been prepared beforehand and these are often ‘competitive’ exams. An informal oral exam often has less structure and gives you a chance to elaborate on your answers.
What Influences your Score
Your assessor may construct a question based on an answer that you have just given to an earlier question and your assessor may be looking for you to demonstrate other skills in your answers, such as problem solving skills.
- Oral exams are usually open-ended questions, which means that they require evaluative answers, not just six or seven words.
- Sometimes an oral exam will look for how much knowledge you may have around your subject.
A study done by James E. Houston and Everett V. Smith hypothesized that students possessing good communication and organizational skills would score higher on their oral exams. This proved to be correct and tells us both the why and the how of oral exams. The key to success can be found in organization and communication, two crucial aspects of being a successful professional.
Smith and Everett’s study determined that a well organized mind would present their oral responses clearly, making them easier for the judges to comprehend. This, combined with a good presentation and a thoughtful choice of language would make the examinees appear favorably in judges’ eyes.
Organize your thoughts well and communicate them clearly; it seems simple. As usual, it is easier said than done. See our Ultimate Guide to Test Preparation
Seven factors, in addition to the pure competence of the examinee, have been noted as score influencers.
- A judge’s response to a candidate, if visibly negative, can have an affect on the examinee’s ability to continue.
- A judge’s personal feelings and biases will come into play as well. The candidate’s personality and the way in which they interact with the judges will also play a role.
- The manner in which the questions are presented will affect the examinee’s ability to answer appropriately.
- Articulateness of the examinee’s speech also plays a part.
- The style in which responses are presented is also important as it may be considered too formal or informal.
- And, of course, test anxiety. More on Text Anxiety here
Preparing for your oral exam
There are two main steps for preparing for an oral exam. They are revise and practice.
Like a written exam, you will not know what questions there are in an oral exam, so it is important that you revise fully beforehand. See our post on the Ultimate Guide to Test Preparation.
Make a list of what you will need to revise and make sure that you spend more time revising your weaker topics. Try to make a study plan that covers all topics in the revision time you have available.
Rather than just revising individual topics, try to think about how these topics relate to each other, for example, X works because Y has certain components that X needs for it to work properly.
There are many approaches to revising for any exam, including:
- Using index cards to write bullet points
- Writing key points on post-it’s and sticking them around the house – See our Post on Getting Organized.
- Recording notes and playing them back
- Using family and friends to help you revise
There is no right way of revising for everyone; you should consider what has worked for you in the past, with both oral and written exams.
- Never leave your revision until last minute.
- Think about possible questions for your subject.
- Take time to answer some practice questions.
- Get a friend to ask you some questions (this way you have no idea what they will ask you).
As well as revision, it is also important to practice for an oral exam. You can find it useful to practice in front of a mirror; this shows what habits you have when speaking to other people, such as playing with your hair, or fidgeting.
If you can, you should also take the opportunity to record yourself, as it is good for you to hear what you sound like.
- Practice speaking about your subject in front of other people.
- Practice speaking loud enough for everyone to hear.
- Practice speaking slower, you may find that you rush through an oral test because being nervous can make you talk faster.
- Practice speaking in full sentences.
If English is your second language then make sure that you speak English to as many people around you as possible. You should also take the opportunity to watch English TV, films and listen to the radio.
The Oral Exam
Always be there early, make sure you confirm the time, date and location of your exam beforehand.
- Switch your phone off.
- Be smart, some people choose to approach an oral exam like a job interview and just like an interview, first appearances are always important.
- It can help if you spend a few minutes before the exam relaxing. Try taking a deep breath in and as you breathe out, count one. Repeat this up to ten. This should help you to calm down.
- If you are using equipment such as a computer or projector in your oral exam, check that everything works beforehand.What to do In the Test Room Part I, In the Test Room Part II , How to Take a Test.
- Be confident and remember to smile.
- Try to maintain eye contact with your assessor.
- Always sit up properly.
- You may find it helps if you have a slight pause and take a deep breath before you start speaking.
- Listen to everything that your assessor says.
- If you do not fully understand the question, ask your assessor to repeat it.
- Avoid rambling; tell your assessor if you do not know the answer.
- If you find your nerves have taken control of you, then ask your assessor if you may take a short pause for a drink of water.
- Always say thank you to the assessor at the end of the exam.
After your oral exam
You should always take time to sit down with a pen and paper straight after your oral exam. Jot down how well you thought you did and how you could improve in your next oral exam. This is important, as it will help you to improve your technique for future oral exams.
When you receive your mark and feedback, if you are not sure of why you have the mark that you do, ask your assessor or teacher for more detailed feedback.