How to survive the Schols exams

Leanne Healy speaks to three current scholars about their experiences with the Foundation Scholarship examinations

The Foundation Scholarship examinations, colloquially known as “Schols”, have been held in Trinity College since it was first established in 1592. This long-standing tradition awards students who receive an average of first-class honors in the voluntary exams with free on-campus accommodation and waived fees, amongst other very enticing incentives. Trinity News spoke to three current scholars to get their insights into the examination process and any tips or tricks they acquired along the way. 

When asked what their main reason for doing Schols was, the students agreed that free on-campus accommodation was a motivating factor. Luke Hamilton, a mathematics scholar, explains that he is “from Sligo, so living rent-free in Dublin was motivation enough”. Another scholar describes how they were motivated by a “combination of factors; the primary one was to help [their] mom financially, which was supplemented by enjoying what [they] were studying and having term exams close to Schols, so it seemed efficient study-wise.” They also went on to explain how it was “really difficult to manage stress” the more they considered  the benefits for their family if they were successful. Instead, they “tried to focus on it as an opportunity to engage with [their] areas of study in a different way, which helped [them] in the long-term”. Alternatively, Ella McGill, a PPES scholar, feels that as she lives in Dublin, “it wouldn’t have been feasible for [her] to move out otherwise”. She also emphasises that there is a “huge sense of personal achievement attached to [Schols]” and she would be “really disappointed if [she] didn’t at least try”. 

When asked how they prepared for the exams, McGill stresses that students should “email the lecturer for that subject and ask what they are looking for in a first-class honors exam and see if they will send you any reading material. They are generally really helpful”. Hamilton points out that “the only real way to get better at maths is to do problems, so a group of us in the class got together and worked through every past paper we could get our hands on”. Another scholar explains how they “stayed on top of the module material, tried to cover the reading list, identify further sources that [they] were interested in, and emphasised [their] own reactions or thoughts on the material”. They described how they “always tried to find an angle or lens or dimension that [they] enjoyed applying, to engage with the material in a way that felt distinctly like [their] own”. They stressed how “it was really important in areas with dense academic work to focus on developing [their] own point of view and argument, because that ultimately was what [they] were going to be presenting on the day”.

The students started to study at different times, with McGill “working steadily from September”, and for Hamilton “the proper work started in November and continued through Christmas right up to the day of the exam”. Another successful student explains how they “started studying in September when modules began, but really started grinding in late November in the build-up to exams”.

“The papers can be unnecessarily difficult…though most of the time people rise to the occasion.”

Many students understandably fear the overwhelming additional  pressure that comes with sitting the Schols exams. However, Hamilton notes that “the whole rigmarole is voluntary”, with McGill agreeing that “you choose to put that pressure on yourself”. Hamilton explains how “the papers can be unnecessarily difficult…though most of the time people rise to the occasion, I’ve seen friends have their hopes dashed by brutally hard papers”. However, taking a more optimistic approach, McGill states that whilst it is a “huge amount of pressure, I don’t believe it’s unnecessary because I think you can do it. They are doable. It’s worth giving it your best shot”. One student gives their perspective on the extra burden that the Foundation Scholarship exams can cause: “in general exams are stressful, but awarding such a lucrative scholarship through examination in its current state produces a huge amount of stress for some people… the reality for some people is that they may need Schols to complete third level education, pursue a postgraduate education or to alleviate extreme financial burdens for their families. In that sense, it can produce extreme stress for students”. 

The students had conflicting feelings about their experiences while studying both for the Foundation Scholarship exams and their Senior Freshman Christmas exams. McGill describes this time as “a pain because the [Christmas] exams were two weeks before Schols” and remembers “wishing that [she] didn’t have to do them.” However “staying on top of [her] work from September really helped and meant [she] didn’t have to put a huge amount of work into those exams”. Another student explains that “the exam formats were different from Christmas exams for the majority of papers” and “Schols demanded broader reading and in-depth analysis way beyond what was expected for the normal exams”. The same student added that “having two sets of exams essentially back to back” resulted in “constantly teetering on the edge of burn-out”. Hamilton highlights that “there was thankfully a large overlap” in the material he needed to learn for his Christmas exams and his scholarship exams. He confesses that he “didn’t think about the Christmas exams too much and would have been fine failing them”. He goes on to point out that “most scholars I’ve talked to about this feel the same way. The winner-takes-all mentality is sort of a destructive mentality but it helps you feel less guilty of neglecting your actual degree”.

The current Junior Sophister students  interviewed  took the scholarship examinations in the height of lockdown, sitting them as online exams in January 2021. When asked if they had to make any sacrifices in order to study for the exams, Hamilton explains how “fortunately, or rather unfortunately, lockdown made those sacrifices for us all”, and McGill believes that her year was “very lucky for Schols because it was a deep lockdown so there wasn’t really anything else going on or anything else to do”. Another scholar explains that “being at home 24/7 with excess free time made it difficult to ever feel like I was doing enough, and I felt that hanging over me pretty much constantly”. Hamilton describes how “all the uncertainty makes it hard to justify sacrifices, when you feel like it could be for nothing. If lockdown hadn’t made the decision for me, I don’t think I could have sacrificed every evening for something so risky”.

Applying for the Foundation Scholarship can be a risky choice voluntarily signing up for extra exams, added stress, and pressure on top of an already demanding college timetable. However, speaking to the current scholars, it seems that this risk is definitely worth the reward.  Whether you want to prove to yourself you can do it, or want to live on campus for free, Schols seems like a worthy chance to take.