Preparing for an Oral Exam

Practice, Practice, Practice

Students are tested using oral methods, naming parts of a cell out loud as the teacher points them out
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Oral exams⁠—tests during which teachers ask students to answer exam questions aloud⁠—can be undoubtedly stressful, but there are a number of ways to prepare for nontraditional testing or reporting methods like this. Though oral exams are most common for language learners, they are increasingly prevalent across other subjects because they allow teachers to cater syllabuses to students with a variety of learning styles.

Key Takeaways

  • Stay positive during your exam preparations.
  • Oral exams can be stressful, but they are valuable practice for potential future interviews.
  • Know your subject better than you think you need, and practice using movement intentionally to emphasize your main points.
  • Don’t forget to eat well, sleep enough, and drink plenty of water leading up to your exam. Exercise can also help release nervous energy.
  • Take your time answering questions during your exam, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it! 

Stay Positive

Instead of psyching yourself out about what could possibly go wrong, remind yourself how much you have learned and what you have the chance to share with your teacher. An optimistic outlook can banish nerves and bring excitement to any exam. Even if you prefer traditional pen-and-paper tests, oral exams can help you succeed beyond the classroom. They provide you with valuable interview-like experience to prepare you to smash your future educational and career goals. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you prepare for your next oral exam. 

Know Your Subject

Successfully completing an oral exam starts with knowing the material you will be discussing. The best part about these kinds of tests is that you already have all the answers. Teachers won’t ask you anything you haven’t been taught, so you will only need to discuss the material that has been presented to you in lectures, text, and video. With that being said, there are a few things that will ease some of the pressure of reciting this learned material.                      

Dig Deeper

The best way to start preparing for an oral exam is to take a personal interest in the material. Knowing more about your topic than what is mandatory will help you predict questions that your teacher might ask. It will also give you more to talk about.

Learn the background story of historical figures, authors, scientists, and explorers, even if you don’t think you need to. Many of the world’s greatest mathematical and scientific discoveries were only made because of something that happened in the discoverer’s personal life. Did you know that Darwin was going to turn down his trip to the Galapagos because his father disapproved? The person we have to thank for "On the Origin of Species" is Darwin’s uncle (and father-in-law) who firmly believed Darwin’s discoveries would provide evidence to support Biblical claims.

Not only does digging deeper give you a better understanding of your topic, but you also have more content to talk about. If you if fully understand the ins and out of your subject, you won’t ever run out of things to say. 

Predict Questions

Now that you know your subject, you can begin to contemplate what your teacher might ask you. The best place to start is with the material you already have. Use previous quizzes and exams, essay prompts, and even the questions at the end of chapters to help you formulate answers.

It will also be helpful for you to understand the general theme and purpose of your exam. Knowing the purpose of your exam–the topic on which you are being tested–makes crafting answers easier because you have a goal in mind. For example, if your geography teacher asks you how the climate and geographical feature affected the U.S. troops in Vietnam, you know that your answer should be built off of mountains, rivers, and weather patterns more than the success or failure of the troops because the exam is about geography. Similarly, your French teacher may ask you about a film you recently saw, but the content of the film doesn’t matter as much as your ability to conjugate verbs and use the past tense.

When predicting questions, remember that one question can best be asked a hundred different ways. Words like "outline," "describe," and "detail" are different ways of saying “tell me about…” Be prepared for these trigger words by asking yourself the same question a few different ways.

“Chunk” Your Content

When crafting your answers, try to “chunk” or group bits of information together rather than trying to remember everything as a whole. Think about the way a book is written–not as one massive piece of text, but a story divided into digestible bits with a common thread that ties them all together.

Turn your exam into a story so when your teacher asks you about the economic climate of Thailand after colonization, you can follow your thread through your story without being overwhelmed, and you can easily recall and answer confidently that Thailand was never technically colonized.

Use Intentional Movements

It is perfectly normal to move around when you are nervous–to fidget with your clothes, to not sit still, to pace back and forth–because movement is a way to release some of that nervous energy, but it can detract from what you are saying because your exam administrator is more focused on your actions. In order to combat distraction while still releasing nervous energy, practice intentional movements.

Watch Yourself

The best and easiest way to practice is to first know how you move. Sit or stand in front of a mirror or use a camera or a cell phone to you can record and re-watch yourself answering questions.

Don’t think too much about how you should or shouldn’t move; this is just a self-assessment. Once you understand how you tend to release nervous energy, you can take the appropriate steps to make your movements more intentional and useful for your exam.

Watch Others

The greatest presenters and speakers in the world aren’t those who sit or stand completely still, but rather those who use movement and nonverbal communication to emphasize what they are saying. For example, speakers will often take three or four long strides toward the audience to emphasize the importance of what they are saying. They use hand gestures and facial expressions that add to the significance of understanding of a topic.

Before your oral exam, take some time to watch other speakers and presenters. This can be as simple as watching TED Talks on YouTube. Note how speakers sit, stand, or walk, how they gesture, and how they answer questions.

Develop Intentional Movement

Practice answering questions using movements and nonverbal communication that you have observed. Lay newspaper on the floor or under your seat to make you more conscious of your movements.

If you can’t seem to steady your hands, hold on to a paperclip during your exam. Remember, moving to release nervous energy is perfectly normal, and the most important focus for your oral exam is the content, not your gestures.

Physical and Mental Wellness

You might have spent days, weeks, or even months preparing for your exam, but if you drink too much coffee or don’t get enough sleep, all that preparation could be in vain. Remember that taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, is reflected in your capabilities and how you perform. Take care of your mind and body, and in turn, they will take care of you. 


In the days leading up to your exam, drink enough water (aim for eight large glasses every day), get enough sleep (adults need no less than seven hours of sleep per night), and eat whole, healthy foods. On the morning of the exam, eat a light, energizing breakfast, and limit your caffeine intake. You don’t need any extra jitters! 


Remember that nervous energy we talked about earlier? It is caused by cortisol, the stress hormone. Increasing your heart rate eliminates cortisol. If you can, try to get to the gym in the days leading up to your exam. 


There is something to be said about the cliché, "dress well, test well." Pick out your clothes the night before so you don’t have to fumble through your closet in the morning. Wear something comfortable and breathable that you won’t need to tug at during your exam. 

Take Your Time

Teachers firing questions at you can feel overwhelming, but remember that there is no need to rush into your answers. Take a moment after each question to digest what information has just been requested from you and organize your thoughts accordingly.

If your teacher asks you to describe Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, take a moment to recall what you know about Columbus. You know how the voyage was funded, you know the names of the ships, you know how long the journey took because you prepared for the exam. Now that your thoughts are in order, begin to tell your teacher the story of the legendary voyage across the sea. 

Ask For Help

Your teachers and professors want you to succeed. They are there to help you reach your goals and prepare you for future career endeavors. Visit them before or after school, during breaks, at lunch, or during office hours. Meet with them if you are confused or stuck or you simply want to talk through an idea.

Teachers are also normally the ones administering the oral exams, meaning they have created the criteria you need to meet to be successful. They are your most valuable resources and your strongest allies.

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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "Preparing for an Oral Exam." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Fleming, Grace. (2020, August 26). Preparing for an Oral Exam. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "Preparing for an Oral Exam." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).

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