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Like it or not, you are a negotiator

Negotiating Your Oral Exam

How Negotiation Skills Can Help You Obtain Higher Grades

by David Wouters

Knowing that we negotiate more often than we even realize it ourselves, why would this not include interacting with your professor during an oral exam? 


Professor J. Curhan – a renowned contributor to the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – once put it this way: “Negotiation is a source of empowerment. It’s how we achieve things in the world”.[1] If we consider someone being empowered as the process of becoming stronger and more confident, one may as a student think of the moment where we prove what we are worth; the exam. Although this is often perceived as a stressful moment where so many different factors can play their role, every student aims to perform at that moment to the utmost of their ability. In what respect does this differ from a negotiator feeling pressured to wrap up a deal as quickly as possible?

Well, it does not differ enough to not apply three golden negotiation rules to the process of an oral final exam. The three golden rules are: (i) do your homework, (ii) pay attention to your body language, and (iii) look for common ground rather than areas of conflict.


If you've forgotten to be prepared, you may as well be prepared to be forgotten” – DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

While this – in the case of preparing an oral exam – obviously implies a thorough study of the course, the mere studying is not always wholly sufficient to succeed. One should actively anticipate the moment of examination. This includes exploring possible questions, doing a background check to explore the professor’s personal interests and opinions, exploring how he would like you to answer certain questions, exploring how you can leave the best overall impression, etc. 


The preparatory phase is of vital importance to succeed and requires, apart from a thorough study, a considerable amount of empathy. Yes, preparing an oral exam does require empathy! One should prepare by anticipating the underlying motivation each possible question has. If you do make an endeavour to effectively investigate how a professor thinks, what he thinks about course-related subject that are currently at stake in society and what kind of personality he has, you will very rarely get unexpected questions.


The most important thing in negotiation is hearing what isn’t said” – BODY LANGUAGE

In an ordinary negotiation, your body language is just as important as the words that are coming out of your mouth. Although you are evaluated on the content of your answer at an oral exam, your body language can still have a significant impact on your grade. Therefore, three essential body-language tips are given. (i) Keep making eye contact. There are other body language factors that can detract from your negotiation skills, faltering eye contact is the most detrimental. The saying that eyes are the windows to the soul also applies to effective negotiation. Not maintaining eye contact gives off a perception of uneasiness, as well as a lack of confidence. This is especially true during an oral exam where you want to show confidence that you deserve the high grade you are aiming for. (ii) Keep an open posture. Keep yourself pleasant and appealing. Lean in, act engaged, and keep your stance open. It is important that the – sometimes stressful – environment of an exam does not get too intense. Therefore, remember to smile and to relax your body. (iii) Pay attention to your hands. When people are nervous or stressed, it often shows in their hands. Fidgeting or clasping your hands tightly together reveals that you are nervous. Try putting your hands just below your chest and put your fingers together when you want to confidently answer a question.


United in diversity” thus “build bridges instead of walls” – FOCUS ON SIMILARITIES.

Look for common ground rather than areas of conflict. Paying attention to course-related subjects where you and the professor are already in agreement, trims down feelings of opposition and may even conveys an attitude of cooperation.


Put simply, it is always helpful to learn to balance assertiveness with empathy. Let’s try to apply this to the moment of an oral exam. If you were purely assertive, you might say at the end of the exam: “I deserve to get more questions to better prove my knowledge”. But if you were empathetic, you might take this route instead: “I want to be sure my grade is commensurate with what I know about this course”. You might continue with “We agree on so many course-related subjects” or with “I wanted to tell you that I fully agreed with the personal convictions you shared during that lecture”. Those gap-narrowing phrases make it easier to elaborate on a certain subject you agreed on while showing your knowledge and eventually obtaining a higher grade.


One may critically ask him- or herself what the above means in practice. Since we are talking about an oral exam, we cannot deny the considerable amount of interactivity and mutual influence between you and a professor. Hence, one may bear those basic negotiation tips in mind while aiming for a higher grade at an oral exam.