The survival tale of a Schols candidate

The challenges of sitting Schols exams and the madness that can ensue are discussed by MSISS student Devin Connolly, as he dissects his recent experience


Trinity College’s electing of Foundation Scholars is a long-established tradition, and the term “Schols”, derived from “scholarship”, has over the years come to mean much more than simply an imbursement or an award based on excellence. It is a set of exams, a period in time, a mindset and a journey simultaneously: an endeavour either painfully forgotten or forever relished. It is that nine hours of frantic scribbling in the eerie Exam Hall in early January.

It is that three-month period when studying consumes you and it becomes a struggle to divert your thoughts anywhere else. It is that mindset that you brought this upon yourself and so have nobody to blame but yourself, coupled with fleeting moments of clarity. You start to think you may actually be up for this challenge, but just moments later it dawns on you that you are in fact hopeless and should never have taken on this demanding trial to begin with.

The mindset

Fundamentally, it is a challenge, and everyone approaches challenges differently. You have the quietly confident, the openly arrogant, the visibly distraught, and those that have become so indifferent to the whole process that they regard it all with a shrug and a blank stare. Some like to complain, though when you realise that it is a personal choice to take on this challenge, those complaints seem almost childish. Then we decide that, rather than complain about the exams, we will complain about ourselves, or about anything else. “Why did I choose to do this to myself?” is a phrase heard all too often.

In choosing to embrace the challenge to begin with, you start to brand yourself as an expected achiever of academic excellence, a step above your peers, and you begin to wonder how you will be judged if, in the statistically more likely case, you are not awarded a scholarship. Personally, I disagree with this mentality. There is no shame in challenging and pushing yourself in order to see what you can achieve if you truly apply yourself. But then it dawns on you: if you fail to achieve that fabled distinction, the whole thing becomes a waste of time and you should probably have never chosen to embark on the journey in the first place.

It is a long, drawn-out and draining process, and one that tends to provoke some rather outlandish behaviour from the majority of candidates, myself included. By January, I knew the driver of the first bus (6am) personally and had a self-declared seat in both the 24-hour and the Hamilton, where I was almost moved to tears if my seat was taken; eventually, my friends began to ask when I was formally moving into the library. It became pointless to ask what my plans were during this break or after that lecture. My parents undoubtedly began to question my sanity as I was pushed from standard good and bad days to the more extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. For all intents and purposes, there were days where you could say I “lost the plot” but I suppose that’s all part of the process.


Looking back, my own advice, whatever it might be worth, is this: don’t be afraid to take breaks. One night out or half a day disconnected from the daily grind can work wonders, and time can be made up in the long run. Secondly, work together. Having someone to discuss things with and compare answers with is beneficial, but most importantly it allows you to pace yourself, and even a small bit of competition can improve your productivity immensely. Confidence, in my case, deserted me nearly as often as it graced me with its presence.

Some days you might be cheery and feel ready for anything, and the next you’ll want nothing but to quit and be finished with it all. Take a breath, take a short break, and get back to it. I always found getting back into it with something you find straightforward or more enjoyable speeds up the process. Luck is definitely a factor. There are many extremely talented and intelligent people who simply won’t get what they might deserve, not just with regard to Schols but to life in general. Do all that you can to prepare, but that includes preparing to not succeed.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s tough, and you just have to be tougher. You may endure your most painful Christmas to date, but once you decide to take the challenge on, also take it upon yourself to see it through. It is incredibly easy to recede into the mindset that everyone is against you, and there is nobody willing you to succeed except yourself. Questions are unfair, timetables are a disgrace, Trinity wants to hand out as few scholarships as possible, your bus or train misses you on purpose, your seemingly insignificant part-time job decide they are now the most important thing in your life or your landlord seems to understand you are stressed and decides to pile on the extra pressure. False, false, false, false and false.

The smallest issues seem exaggerated, that is true, but nobody is actively willing you to not succeed. In the case of this year’s exams, for example, I know of numerous issues ranging from typos in papers to miscommunication in the curriculum and timetabling issues. All of these were resolved adequately, with the students in mind. The struggle is understood, and the majority are on your side, which is always helpful to remember. It is a cliche, of course, but we do know how it feels.

Sitting the Schols exams could be a colossal waste of time, or it could an enlightening experience where you discover much about yourself,  how you work best and how well you cope with continued duress and mental fatigue. In all honesty, the only way to find out is to try, and even if it backfires horribly you can at least say you had the courage to test yourself.