It’s no exaggeration when people say the 15 minute preparation time – yes, those nerve-wracking, mind-boggling, sweat-inducing precious minutes – could make or break your performance in an oral exam. Dismissing those 15 minutes as mere filler time would be a fatal misconception. Whether you’re the student sauntering into the exam hall believing you’ve memorised a perfectly crafted, eloquent speech with no additional preparation required, or the student whose nerves go haywire and impede you from thinking about anything apart from the impending doom of entering your oral exam – do not make the mistake of taking those irretrievable minutes for granted.
It’s important to remember that regardless of how prepared you may think you are, anxiety and exam-related nerves are an all too common phenomenon – and impediment – for students, and using the 15 minutes wisely to plan and prepare your oral is the perfect way to control those nerves.
Of course, the 15 minutes will only be fruitful if you know how to make the most of the time given to you. But don’t fret – we’ll break down a few tips and tricks for you to help you maximise your preparation time.
- Choose your picture wisely!
The preparation time is when you’ll be given a choice of two pictures with corresponding captions. The picture you choose will form the basis of your discussion. It is therefore crucial that you take some time out to decide which picture and topic you’re better prepared to talk about – the decision could be pivotal to your overall performance.
You might want to brainstorm and jot down some potential points for discussion before making a final decision. For example, you could annotate the picture to gauge which one you’re better capable at describing. To illustrate this, imagine you had a picture of individuals celebrating Chinese New Year, with the caption “春节是中国人最重要的节日,” which translates to “Chinese New Year is the most important festival for Chinese people,” and another of several food groups, with the caption “人们应该保持一个均衡的饮食,” which translates to “people should maintain a balanced diet.” Upon brainstorming, you might realise that you have a greater command of vocabulary to describe Chinese customs and traditions, whereas you don’t have as great a command of vocabulary pertaining to food. For example, you may not know how to say carbohydrates and proteins, or even some of the names of the food items in the picture. Therefore, it would be advisable to go for the picture on Chinese New Year.
Overall, there are a few questions you might want to consider when choosing between two pictures:
- Do you understand the caption and what the picture is depicting?
- Do you know which part of the syllabus the picture is connected to?
- Do you have enough content pertaining to the syllabus topic for a 3-4 minute discussion?
- Do you have examples, general knowledge, statistics or facts you could refer to when relating the picture to the present day?
If you find that you can answer more of these questions for one picture than the other, pick the one you’re more prepared to discuss!
- Make the most of your bullet points!
After you’re done writing your bullet points, you might want to cross out the rough notes you made while brainstorming. This is just to make sure you’re not violating exam regulations, as your examiner might specify that all your notes should be within the 10 bullet points you’re allowed.
While there’s a restriction on the number of bullet points you’re allowed, there’s no restriction on the amount you’re allowed to write within each bullet point! This is where knowing your weaknesses is especially beneficial. For example, if you know you’re likely to stutter initially due to your jittering nerves, write out your introductory sentences entirely so you can have a smooth start. This will likely give you the confidence boost you need to continue the rest of your oral smoothly.
Often, the most spontaneous component of the discussion is describing a picture you’ve probably never seen before. If this is the case for you, write out exactly how you want to describe the picture so that when you get to the oral, you know that what you’re saying is grammatically sound and cohesive, and you have something to fall back on in case you blank out because of your nerves.
However, remember to not be excessive! Be detailed when you know it’ll help you, but refrain from writing out your entire speech within the bullet points. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap of reading aloud, making your oral seem mechanic and overly rehearsed. You also run the risk of writing more than you can mention in 3-4 minutes, making your speech rushed. This could actually hurt your score, as the objective is to have an engaging discussion with your teacher.
- Organise your bullet points according to a rough structure!
Randomly jotting down ideas with no structure whatsoever is likely to be more stress-inducing than relieving you’re frantically searching for something to say, only to realise your ideas have no organisation or progression. Therefore, it’s important you organise your points in the order you want to mention them – don’t just randomly jot down worthwhile ideas in the hopes that they miraculously assemble themselves into eloquently spoken, cohesively constructed arguments.
Another useful tip is to include connectives in your bullet points. When you know you’re developing an idea, or moving on to another, include discourse markers such as ”首先，“ “其次，” “此外，“ ”除此之外” “另外” and so on. This helps delineate new arguments and show how some points are developed from previous points, giving your oral structure and fluidity.
A rough structure you may want to consider adhering to is as follows:
- Start with the basics – politely greet the teacher and briefly introduce what you’re going to be discussing in today’s oral.
- Describe the picture. A good starting point is to outline the caption of the photo, and then explain the 5Ws that you see in the picture- who, what, when, where, why. Of course, not all this information may be available to you just by looking at the picture alone, and that’s fine. Just describe what is given to you.
- Next, you’ll want to delineate which syllabus topic your picture best corresponds to. This helps show the examiner that you understand the photo and corresponding caption, as well as how it links to what you’ve been learning. It also helps give your discussion a focus.
- Afterwards, include bullet points on how the picture links back to Chinese culture. A good segue may be to explain whether you disagree or agree with the photo caption, and let that lead into the rest of your arguments. For example, you might want to talk about why Chinese New Year is the most important festival by explaining the values of unity and prosperity its customs and traditions embody. If you pick the photo on health, you might want to discuss the main food items that constitutes the Chinese diet.
- Another thing you’ll want to outline is the present day situation. For example, if you discuss Chinese New Year, you might want to talk about the severe traffic that ensues every year in China preceding Chinese New Year as people travel home to be with their families. If you pick the picture on food, you could talk about how fast food is rapidly proliferating throughout China and potentially jeopardising the traditions of Chinese cuisine. Whatever examples, facts or statistics you have, feel free to include them here!
- Finally, to conclude your speech, provide your overall opinion on the topic at hand. You could draw parallels between the customs of Chinese culture and your own culture. If you’ve been raised in a Chinese-speaking region like Hong Kong or Singapore, you could explain how celebrating Chinese festivals has been an eye-opening experience for you and has helped you better assimilate into and appreciate Chinese culture. If you pick the picture on health, you could explain your favourite Chinese dishes and why learning how to cook them has helped you better appreciate Chinese philosophies. Overall, the intention is to relate your own emotions and opinions back to what you’re discussing to show engagement, reflection and critical thinking!
- Synthesis → feel free to provide a synthesis of everything you’ve mentioned if you have time remaining, or feel that it will provide your oral with a more satisfactory, comprehensive and rounded conclusion.
- Include key vocabulary and sentence structures!
It’s possible that during the intense adrenaline rush you’ll experience in the 3-4 minutes of your oral discussion, the highly sophisticated vocabulary and complex sentence structures you were so adamant upon incorporating just so happen to slip your mind. Therefore, make sure to include them in your bullet points as a reminder to include them. This is crucial for complex sentence structures – especially if you have a penchant for losing command of your grammar when placed in stressful circumstances. Having the sentence written in front of you to read will prevent you from stumbling, and will help boost the fluency and eloquence of your speech!
- Plan ahead
If you have a rough idea of the questions your teacher is likely to ask, you can prepare potential answers, or jot down a few notes on what you could say. However, make sure not to write out whole answers as the discussion is intended to be impromptu, and rehearsed answer might raise some red flags. Rough guidelines are less likely to induce suspicion.
- Leave time for review
It’s important to leave a few minutes at the end to go over all the points you’ve jotted down so you can identify any disruptions in the structure and whether or not your arguments flow. You could also practise your introduction (though make sure to whisper since you’ll be in an exam hall) so that you’re prepared for the first few minutes and have some practise referring to the points you’ve jotted down to guide you through your oral.
- Practise, practise, practise!
Though it may seem self-explanatory, the best way to maximise the pre-exam 15 minutes is to practise with mock exams. Getting into the habit of describing impromptu pictures and structuring your points into bullet points will help you identify what structure and what type of note taking works best for you, and will improve your time management. Therefore, definitely take the time out to practise exam technique in addition to your actual oral!
While everyone has their own unique methods of maximising the pre-exam 15 minute practise time, the provided tips are always worth giving a try to figure out what works for you. If you follow at least some of the advice provided, you’ll definitely see progress in your efficiency and improvements in dealing with the nerves that come with every exam!
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