The final is an oral exam.
This small difference between the American and Italian school systems creates buckets of apprehension for exchange students. For us, not only is it a test over our learning in the course, but a test of our language skills.
It is for this latter test that we cannot prepare for by reading innumerable books; that test is something we need to prepare for independent of class—with native Italian professors or relatives or friends or shopkeeps—whilst speaking throughout the semester.
The former test—that of comprehension—is what I will address here.
1. Read everything
Italian courses are entirely based off reading. The lessons expand or develop concepts that students should obtain through the readings, but in the end, the readings are actually more pertinent than the classes. This means entire books, entire essays, entire cantos will be required by each course—entire texts written in Italian.
The required texts are listed on the syllabus for each course, but exchange students should talk to the professor during orari di ricevimento (office hours). Oftentimes, readings are lightened. In one of my classes, the readings were reduced to almost half; in another, a whole book was cut out and replaced with one in English.
Read everything—every single line. Try to understand best you can; memorization is not necessary but comprehension is.
My best advice is to start early.
2. Sign up for the exam
At a certain point you can sign up for the exam. Try to sign up as early as you can for the day you want (there are test dates every month); the later you sign up, the more time you have to wait on exam day. Everyone has to show up at the same time, regardless of what number you are. This could mean hours of nerve-wracking waiting not knowing when it will be your turn. I recommend being earlier than later.
3. The Exam
While you are waiting for your name to be called—whether it is minutes or hours—try to calm down. Take a music break or read a non-academic book. You need to be calm and on your toes for the exam; it would be detrimental to begin as a bundle of nerves.
The exam can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour; sometimes other people are watching, most times not; sometimes you take it with an assistant instead of the professor. All these little factors depend on the professor.
The professor can ask about any theme from any of the range of texts; as it does not last too long, most topics are completely unmentioned. Say everything you can about the topic or question that you are given to show that you have an in-depth knowledge: the professor is simply trying to discover if you have read the material and if you understood it.
4. The Grade
At the end, the professor says a number between 18 and 30, 18 being a failing grade and 30 being an A. You can choose to accept or refuse the grade. The same exam is given once every month, so if you are not pleased with your grade, you can refuse and try again.
Then, you leave the room.
In bocca al lupo!