It was like being caught in a time loop – a striking déjà vu for nine days straight. Breakfast… study… lunch… study… tea… study… sleep… repeat.
I seemed to relive countless episodes of the same exact moment: looking across the table at Rowena and saying, “Better get back to it, then.”, before trudging back to my little room.
Studying isn’t exactly a new experience for me, hell I’ve just finished A Levels. But this time was different, simply because the volume of information was, by every definition, insurmountable. –>The school had made it clear that it just isn’t possible to know all the material. And yet when we attempted past questions and asked where we should be focusing our attention, the answer was: everywhere. You need to know about all of it, but you can’t know about all of it.
So where does that leave you? As students who have only made it to where we are by learning our textbooks cover-to-cover, deciding what information to sacrifice was nigh on impossible. And so we did what we’d always done – try to learn it all!
But the more I studied, and the more I tested myself, the more I realised I didn’t know. It felt like one step forward, one step back. Not losing ground, but not gaining it either. The anatomy that I’d enjoyed for so long soon turned into an enemy that needed defeating or something. But time moved forward over revision week, and I did what I could in the hours that a person can stay awake!
And soon it was Sunday night, during which I failed repeatedly to get any sleep. In the end, it took a 1am walk around the Pollock grounds to burn off the unrelenting anxiety about Monday morning’s exam. I’ve said this to Rowena, that I think there’s something a little damaging about sleeping in the same space that you study to those extremes in. I used to study in a separate room, which I know is a privilege, but rooms have their purposes and personalities. During A Levels, no matter whether it was 10pm or 2am, I could shut the door on my study and go to my bedroom to sleep, leaving the world of exams locked inside that room.
But the rooms we have here are the ‘lockers’ for almost everything we experience at university. Most of the time, I’m having an absolute blast. But the tendency is, in times like these, to reinforce the bad times. All the frustration, the despair, the almost-giving-up, the homesickness, anxiety, stress, confusion and anger all build up in that space. Is there any wonder that it’s difficult to sleep in there? In fact, there’s a drawing of a horse on my pinboard that I used to stare at when I’d just about had it. I don’t enjoy having it there any more, because it’s miserable to look at. The whole room is still tense to be in, even though it’s all over – what a funny thing the mind is!
Rowena and I had already sussed out the exam’s location, and Claire had made sure we would arrive early. It was to be held in the Playfair Library, in the Old College. The library was a stunning location to sit an exam, especially after having been made to wait outside in the cold for it to start. We were watched silently by rows of white busts, all men who had attended and taught at the university in centuries past. I wondered what they would have made of our almost all-female cohort if they could see out of their stone eyes.
This exam was a multiple-choice and interpretation paper, administrated by two disgruntled and unhelpful Scottish invigilators. The multiple-choice questions covered all sorts of topics, and I found myself swaying between two possible answers on more questions than I would have liked. But I stuck to my rule: go with your gut, and no changing your answers at the last minute!
The interpretation section made up the majority of the paper, and presented us with a mixture of short clinical case studies and data handling questions. Some of these were very, very tough. They required a thorough understanding so that you could apply knowledge to new situations. That is, knowledge that had been superficially shoehorned into my short-term memory the preceding night! Having said that, I did at least have some response to every section of every question.
Two and a quarter hours later, we were released to go back to our studies, a little shell-shocked and more than a little tired.
But it was up and at’em again on Tuesday for the short answer paper on Tuesday morning. The half hour preceding the exam was spent filling out and origami-folding the front covers of no less than nine answer booklets. Although I maintain that there must be a better system, the current one has us put the answer to each question in a separate answer booklet so that they can be distributed to the individual lecturers who set them. Great in theory, but managing nine A4 booklets under pressure on a postage-stamp desk is rather more stress-inducing in practice. In the end, I developed a ‘to do’ and ‘done’ pile system on the floor, which required some intra-examination gymnastics to coordinate.
But this one, I was ready for. The time was very tight, and my diagrams took longer than I wanted them to, but there wasn’t one question that I couldn’t at least try. It covered anatomy, bone growth, DNA replication, neurology and embryology. I need half-marks overall, and I’ll be really unhappy if that paper doesn’t yield them, because it felt like it should. Fingers crossed.
While Rowena and Claire left for their oral exam on Wednesday, I had an empty schedule to use to prepare for mine. Come Thursday, they had their ‘day off’ and my oral exam came round. Having woken at 7:30 to get the bus at 08:00 to get there for 09:00, I arrived at my exam room for 9:45am.
I knew I’d have a panel of two examiners, and I knew that the questions they asked would pertain to their individual areas of interest. But I had no idea who they were until the moment I stepped through the door to the dissection room.
“Elise Purdy, station 3. Go.”
Intending to make a confident walk towards my station, I found my way blocked by a maze of specimen-laden tables, which I then had to navigate like a slalom skier, making awkward and prolonged eye contact with the examiners the whole way there.
When I finally arrived, my bum hit the seat just as my examiners’ lifted off, “We’re going to spend the first ten minutes on anatomy. We’ll start on a dry specimen.”
“Okay.” I bounced off my derrière and back onto my feet, scuttling after the man who’d spoken. As we approached each lump of flesh, I tried to recall all I knew about it, only to continue past it. Eventually, he stopped at a whole dog skeleton.
For the next few minutes, he quizzed me on the skeleton of the forelimb, having me describe and explain the anatomy, the ranges of motion and clinical relevance during injury. His attitude was positive and encouraging, and I found the answers springing to my mouth without delay which, although turning the oral into an aggressively rapid verbal ping-pong, meant that there was no embarrassing umming and erring.
Moving on from the skeleton, he took me to a dissected forelimb, and we talked about the musculature, innervation and results of nerve damage before heading back to the station.
Once seated, the woman who had been lingering around taking notes began asking the questions. Whilst the man was an external examiner from another vet school, she was one of my lecturers in genetics and embryology. She questioned me on a good range of topics, vastly made up of embryology, but also mixed in with protein synthesis and some cell signalling. I am absolutely certain that I fluffed a small section on protein translation, but the rest was smooth and uneventful.
The whole thing was over in 15 minutes.
The finale to the week saw Friday’s spot paper. I drew the short straw here, and was put in the last group of the day, scheduled to start at 13:00. Not only that, but my holding period was all scheduled before the exam, meaning that the group spent the hour preceding it waiting in the Clinical Skills lab, to prevent us from communicating with previous groups.
The idea was simple: 5 minutes at each of 15 stations, where there’d be a specimen and a set of questions about the specimen. You can stand up and walk around it, but no touching. On the bell, move forward one.
Some stations proved to be a straightforward case of naming muscles and structures. Others had me pushed to the wire for time, and doing laps around giant whole dogs to find the pins. I saw legs, guts, heads, abdomens, thoraxes, microscope images and even a bottom at one point. That hour and a quarter flew by.
And just like that, exams were over. Relieved would be a major understatement, the entire year group was already making plans to hit the town. In reality, I believe a large number actually just went to bed. I, for one, was dog tired.
As was Rowena, and instead of ‘hitting the town’, we booked ourselves a meal for two at the Salisbury Arms just across the road (or, as my Dad put it – within staggering distance). A pint and a giant beefburger later, I was totally ready for a quiet movie night. And so we ended our week with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and a rerun of Brother Bear, who could ask for more?
Despite the horror of the last fortnight, the timetable has no mercy. Animal Body 2 begins on Monday, alongside the continuations of our other courses. Animal Body 1 dealt with the anatomy, cell biology and histology of a normal, healthy animal. AB2 starts dealing with the nasties. Bacteriology, cell pathology, immunology, parasitology, virology and inflammation (…ology?) are what we have to look forward to.
In other words, botching previous practicals was messy. This time, it could be deadly – join me next week to find out!