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How to prepare for a viva

The full name for what is usually just called a ‘viva’ is viva voce, which means ‘by or with the living voice’ and is the name for an oral examination on written work. Postgraduate students, who are assessed on the basis of a dissertation or thesis, usually get examined at least in part by viva; undergraduates seldom do unless there is a specific issue to be investigated, such as questionable authenticity of the work or plagiarism.

Functions of a viva

  • The viva can test that the work is your own, by finding out whether you know what is in the dissertation or thesis, and whether you know what the author of such a study ought to know if they really wrote it themselves.
  • The viva can help examiners decide on which side of a borderline you fall, including whether you pass or fail.
  • The viva can function as a means of evaluating your oral skills, including your ability to improvise and argue on the spot. This function often gives a viva a ‘ritual’ or ‘spectacle’ mode, particularly in academic cultures where it is a public event.
  • The viva is an event you can use to explore the possibility of publishing the thesis or part of it, particularly in discussion with an examiner who is from outside your own institution (an external, examiner).

How to prepare for a viva

  • Read what you have written. Pick out the key claims and be prepared to develop or promote them further. Pick out weak parts and be prepared to defend them or to concede defeat on them if necessary). You may also need to justify any attacks you have made on particular critics or theories, so you should identify the polemical aspects of your work in advance and decide what to say about them.
  • Predict those passages in the work that you will want to cite; put in bookmarks so you can find them easily.
  • Ask someone – your supervisor perhaps – to do a mock viva with you. Ask them to simulate fairly, but in general to be tough and present you with genuinely challenging counter-arguments.
  • Be able to summarise your dissertation or thesis in terms that can be understood by a non-specialist.
  • Be ready to explain in a few sentences why your work is interesting, and prepare for the question: ‘what was the most important discovery you made?’
  • Think of the implications of your work, including further questions, parallel cases or practical applications that you do not discuss but which are implied in your findings.
  • Finally, remember that many dissertations and theses are failed or referred back for further work because they contain too many typographical errors. Before the viva try to find errors and prepare replacement pages in order to speed up the process of re-submission and final acceptance.

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