It was the first week of December in 2008. I had a take-home exam coming up the following week in a class called Gene Finding and Genome Sequencing. The class scared me – and it was not one of my favorites (and the fact that I loathed biology didn’t help). And crucially, I needed to get an ‘A’ grade in this exam (specifically in the exam, not necessarily in the class) if I was to graduate the following semester. You might be forgiven for thinking that I spent my evenings preparing feverishly for this exam which would be given on December 11th and would be due in a week, or performing my tasks that my duties as a research assistant entailed, or prepare for an exam in my other class. Nope. I spent the evening of 5th December at a rock concert in downtown College Park, watching my favorite band Eve 6 perform.
An introduction is supposed to give you background information and answer your questions, but I suspect that the introduction to this article would have created several new questions, let me hasten to explain them all, dear reader.
Why did I need an ‘A’ in the class?
I was pursuing a masters degree without a thesis. One of the requirements was that I get an ‘A’ grade in two comprehensive exams. A comprehensive exam is any mid-term or final in a class, where the professor declarers this exam as a ‘comprehensive exam’. If this sounds arbitrary, well, it is! The computer science department must have recognized this, for they have removed this requirement a few years later. I had gotten an ‘A’ in one of my exams – and I needed to get a ‘A’ in this exam in order to graduate.
This was my penultimate semester – Wasn’t it sufficient to get an ‘A’ in my last semester?
The graduate school wanted to make sure that students satisfy key requirements in advance, so that they can prepare for the graduation ceremony without needing to worry whether the student graduated or not.
A take-home exam sounds easy?
One would be forgiven for thinking so, especially exams usually are in-person, closed-book and timed (2 or 3 hours). However, there is a good reason that they let you take the exam home, allow you to use any resource you want, and give you as much as one week to take a crack at it. The exams are hard. Really hard. They test your mastery and understanding of the subject, your ability to apply the principles learned to some complex problems.
How did I get myself in this situation? Why didn’t I get my two ‘A’s in prior classes?
As an undergraduate, I loved algorithms and theoretical computer science, and did very well in my classes. Naturally, I took a lot of theoretical computer sciences classes as a graduate student – I took two classes with my Professor Clyde Kruskal, who teaches algorithms classes, who was also my graduate school advisor, and who is also one of my best friends. I unfortunately discovered that I had maxed out my algorithms abilities as an undergraduate – I got a ‘B’ in every single theoretical computer science class.
This Q/A format is fun. How about structuring the rest of the article in this format?
Let us give it a try!
My professor was my best friend. Couldn’t he give me an ‘A’ just like that?
Studying and living in the USA taught me great lessons in integrity. Clyde did everything possible to help me do well in classes – given my relationship with him, I could sit in his living room couch and he would go over the material with me. When I did not do well in the exam, he would treat me as he would any other student, and give me the grade that I deserved.
Why did I go to the rock concert?
I mostly have listened to tamil music all my life. I like very few English songs and artists. My roommate in college and best friend Frank introduced me to a rock band called Eve 6, I loved all their 3 albums. In my 9 years in the US, this is the only artist whose music I was crazy about. Frank called me and told me that Eve 6 was playing right in my alley on December 5th! I decided I had to attend this concert. And I did.
How was the concert?
This was the only concert I have ever attended, and I enjoyed every minute of it. When they played Promise, I went crazy. When they played Good Lives, I was delighted. When they played Inside Out, I was delirious. And this continued throughout the concert. The room was packed with music fans, who were all having a fantastic time. I was standing close to the stage, getting a good view at the band. The noise level was the highest I’ve ever encountered (I don’t like loud noises in general), and at the end of the concert, my ears were ringing for three days and I couldn’t hear anything anyone said (I was told this was normal after a concert).
How did my take-home exam go?
The euphoria of attending the concert stayed with me for quite some time. When I got the take-home exam, my mind experienced unusual clarity, and I was able to apply myself on all the problems exceedingly well. I got all questions right, and got an ‘A’ in the exam, and graduated on time the following semester!
Why is this article named The Slughorn Principle?
My article The Slughorn Principle – Part 1 explains this ‘principle’ in detail. To summarize, whenever life takes you through an unexpected corner to help you achieve what you want, I call this The Slughorn Principle. Here, instead of studying hard and stressing, going to the concert helped me achieve a good state instead of continuing to stress over the fact that I needed to do well to graduate. With the good state of mind, I was able to focus on the exam and ace it.
“I am a student. I have an exam next week. Can I replicate your experience and watch Netflix instead of studying?”
Nope. The fact that you have to ask this question means that the answer is a resounding ‘No’. There is no substitute for hard work. You have to display mastery of the material to do well in your exam.
The Slughorn Principle is an exception scenario and not the norm. 99 times out of 100, Harry would have to talk to Professor Slughorn to do the job of getting Slughorn’s memory. That he had to go to Hagrid’s was something Harry could never have fathomed on his own accord, he needed Felix Felicis to guide him.
Image Credit: Artem Maltsev from Unsplash