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"Ordinary. Wizarding. Level. Examinations. O.W.L.s. More commonly known as 'Owls'. Study hard and you will be rewarded. Fail to do so and the consequences may be... severe."
—Explanation of the exams[src]

An Ordinary Wizarding Level (often abbreviated O.W.L.) is a standardized subject-specific test taken during Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry students' fifth year, administrated by the Wizarding Examinations Authority. The score made by a student on a particular O.W.L. determines whether or not he or she will be allowed to continue taking that subject in subsequent school years, and whether they might be successful in obtaining a particular job.

As well as referring to the test that students take in their fifth year, the term "O.W.L" also refers to the type of class, i.e. the level of difficulty of the class the student is taking. In addition, "achieving an O.W.L" is used to refer to a class in which the student has passed their O.W.L exam (example: Harry Potter received an O.W.L. in Transfiguration by attaining a passing grade on the O.W.L exam for that class.)

Importance

"O.W.L.s are really important, affect the jobs you can apply for and everything."
—O.W.L.s’ effect on the future[src]

Due to the serious and important nature of the tests, preparation for both O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s is very hard work. Students will generally begin preparing for their O.W.L.s in their fourth year, in order to take them at the end of their fifth. The pressure was enough to make certain students, such as Hannah Abbott have a panic attack, and it was necessary to give them a Calming Draught to lower her anxiety.

These examinations in sort determine what type of career students will be able to obtain once their education is complete. Some careers require certain subjects to be taken at N.E.W.T. -level and with a passing grade or in some cases top grades. In order to be admitted into a class at N.E.W.T. a student must first achieve an 'Outstanding' or 'Exceeds Expectations' at O.W.L.-level in order to cope with the upcoming course work, which will be much more advanced. Minerva McGonagall would not let Neville Longbottom into her N.E.W.T. Transfiguration class, because he did not achieve a high enough grade, that would limit the type of career Neville would be able to hold in the future.

Successfully completing the O.W.L.s is a sign that the student is trustworthy enough to be a law-abiding citizen who can learn from their mistakes. Thus, any such students who are expelled will be permitted to keep their wands and continue to practise magic, though this would be a sign of disgrace forever tainting their permanent record, as Newton Scamander underwent.[1]

Cheating

Cheating is also both highly tempting for the students and highly guarded against by the exam givers. Anti-Cheating Spells are applied to all O.W.L. exam papers. Auto-Answer Quills, Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs, and Self-Correcting Ink are all banned from the examination hall as well. Despite this, at least one student attempts to cheat every year, though none have been successful since the year 1896.[2]

Study

"Ginny's O.W.L.s were approaching and she was therefore forced to study for hours into the night."
—A typical O.W.L. study routine[src]
Trio study

The trio studying for their O.W.L. exams

Students such as Ernie Macmillan studied eight or nine hours a day in order to insure good results. The day before exams fifth year students in Gryffindor spent the entire day reviewing. Harry Potter quizzed Hermione Granger by asking her question from the book Achievements in Charming. Hermione became so agitated that she accidentally hit Harry in the nose with the sharp corner of the book, after having snatched it back in order to check her answers.  

Ron Weasley spent his time reading two years' worth of Charms notes with his fingers in his ears, his lips moving soundlessly. Seamus Finnigan laid flat on his back on the floor, reciting the definition of a Substantive Charm while Dean Thomas checked it against The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 5. Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown practiced basic Locomotion Charms, by making their pencil-cases race each other around the edge of a table. 

The evening before the exam was uncomfortable. Every fifth year was trying to do last-minute revising, but nobody seemed to be getting very far. All the fifth year boys knew were lying awake, but none no one in the dormitory spoke. None of the fifth-years talked very much at breakfast next day, either. Parvati was practising incantations under her breath. Hermione was rereading Achievements in Charming so fast that her eyes appeared blurred. Neville Longbottom kept dropping his knife and fork and knocking over the marmalade. 

Students also studied in between exams, practicing wand movements and whispering incantations under their breath. Students also went straight to their common rooms after meals and submerged themselves in revision for whatever exams they had the next day. Ginny Weasley was also forced to study for hours into the night and spend much time within the Hogwarts library

Exams

"I think it appropriate to remind you that next June you will be sitting a important examination, during which you will prove how much you have learned about the composition and use of magical potions."
Professor Snape regarding the potions exam[src]
OWL exam paper

A Theory of Charms O.W.L. exam paper

Most O.W.L.s are divided into written exams and practical exams. The O.W.L. is comparable to the Muggle "O level" given at the same stage of education (the "O" standing for Ordinary). In 1988, this examination was replaced by the G.C.S.E. in England and Wales and the Standard Certificate level in Scotland, though in recent years the Standard Certificate has been replaced by National 5s in Scotland, but wizards are under no obligation to change their examinations when Muggles do.

Strict measures, such as Anti-Cheating Quills and Anti-Cheating spells, are used to prevent academic dishonesty. Among the examiners were Griselda Marchbanks and Professor Tofty. When a practical examination starts students will be called in aperiodically, by either first or last name.

Schedule

O.W.L. exams are administered over a period of two successive weeks at the end of fifth year. Most exams are divided into two parts: students will sit the theory portion in the morning and the practical portion in the afternoon, with the exception of the Astronomy practical exam, which occurs at night.

First week

Subject Time Exam info
Charms Monday
"Well, it wasn't too bad, was it?... I'm not sure I did myself justice on Cheering Charms, I just ran out of time. Did you put in the counter-charm for hiccoughs?"
—Hermione Granger regaring the written portion[src]
Written: Levitation Charm, Cheering Charm, and Counter-charm for hiccoughs
"On the whole, Harry thought it went rather well. His Levitation Charm was certainly much better than Malfoy's had been, though he wished he had not mixed up the incantations for Colour Change and Growth Charms, so that the rat he was supposed to be turning orange swelled shockingly and was the size of a badger before Harry could rectify his mistake... He could tell Ron, though; Ron had caused a dinner plate to mutate into a large mushroom and had no idea how it had happened."
—Charms practical[src]
Practical: Take an egg cup and make it do some cartwheels, Levitation Charm, Colour Change, and Growth Charms.
Transfiguration Tuesday
"He forgot the definition of a Switching Spell during his written paper next morning but thought his practical could have been a lot worse."
—Harry Potter's Transformation written exam[src]
Written: One of the questions was the definition of a Switching Spell
"At least he managed to Vanish the whole of his iguana, whereas poor Hannah Abbott lost her head completely at the next table and somehow managed to multiply her ferret into a flock of flamingos, causing the examination to be halted for ten minute; while the birds were captured and carried out of the Hall."
—Transfiguration practical[src]
Practical: Vanishing spell (one of the most complicated spells taught at O.W.L[3])
Herbology Wednesday Written: Unknown
"They had their Herbology exam on Wednesday (other than a small bite from a Fanged Geranium, Harry felt he had done reasonably well)."
—Herbology practical[src]
Practical: Fanged Geranium and other plants
Defence Against the Dark Arts Thursday
"Here, for the first time, Harry felt sure he had passed. He had no problem with any of the written questions..."
—DADA written exam[src]
Written: Question ten — name five signs that identify the werewolf
"...took particular pleasure, during the practical examination, in performing all the counter-jinxes and defensive spells right in front of Umbridge, who was watching coolly from near the doors into the Entrance Hall."
—Harry Potter's DADA practical exam[src]
Practical:Counter-jinxes, Defensive Spells, Riddikulus, and Patronus Charm (for bonus points)
Ancient Runes Friday
"I mistranslated ehwaz... It means partnership, not defence; I mixed it up with eihwaz."
—Two translations from the Ancient Runes O.W.L.[src]
Written: Translation of runes like "ehwaz" and "eihwaz"
Practical: Unknown; given the highly theoretical nature of this discipline, its exam may consist solely of a written section.

Second week

Subject Time Exam info
Potions Monday
"Sure enough, he found the written paper difficult, though he thought he might have got full marks on the question about Polyjuice Potion; he could describe its effects accurately, having taken it illegally in his second year."
—Harry Potter's Potions written exam[src]
Written: Contains a question about Polyjuice Potion (it's noted that the written exam is quite difficult[3])
"The afternoon practical was not as dreadful as he had expected, it to be. With Snape absent from the proceedings, he found that he was much more relaxed than he usually was while making potions. Neville, who was sitting very near Harry, also looked happier than Harry had ever seen him during a Potions class."
—Potions practical[src]
Practical: The making of certain potions, although few details are provided.
Care of Magical Creatures Tuesday Written: Unknown
"The practical examination took place in the afternoon on the lawn on the edge of the Forbidden Forest... "
—1996 practical exam[src]
Practical: Identify a Knarl hidden among a dozen hedgehogs; Demonstrate correct handling of a Bowtruckle; Feed and clean out a Fire Crab without sustaining serious burns; Choose from a wide selection of food the diet they would give a sick Unicorn
Astronomy Wednesday
"The Astronomy theory paper on Wednesday morning went well enough."
—Harry Potter's written Astronomy exam[src]
Written: Identify all of Jupiter's moons (among other questions, presumably).
Practical: Look at the telescope and fill in the blank star‐chart with the precise positions of the stars and planets they were observing.
Books chapterart ootp 31
Divination Wednesday Written: Unknown
"He might as well have tried to see moving pictures on the desktop as in the stubbornly blank crystal ball; he lost his head completely during tea-leaf reading, saying it looked to him as though Professor Marchbanks would shortly be meeting a round, dark, soggy stranger, and rounded off the whole fiasco by mixing up the life and head lines on her palm and informing her that she ought to have died the previous Tuesday."
—Harry Potter's Divination practical[src]
Practical: Crystal ball reading, tea-leaf reading, palm-reading
Arithmancy Wednesday Written: Unknown
Practical: Unknown; given the highly theoretical nature of this discipline, its exam may consist solely of a written section.
History of Magic Thursday
"He was finding it very difficult to remember names and kept confusing dates. He simply skipped question four... thinking that he would go back to it if he had time at the end. He had a stab at question five... but had a nagging suspicion that he had missed several important points; he had a feeling vampires had come into the story somewhere."
—Harry Potter's History of Magic exam[src]
Written: Wand legislation; Goblin riots of the eighteenth century; Statute of Secrecy breach; Formation of the International Confederation of Wizards and explain why the Warlocks of Liechtenstein refused to join

Unknown

Muggle Studies – It is not specified when this exam is taken or what components it includes.

O.W.L. scores

If a student fails an O.W.L. and still wishes to retake it, they are presumably held back in that class. This was the case for Marcus Flint; Professor Severus Snape also remarked in 1996 that Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle need to pass their Defence Against the Dark Arts O.W.L.

Passing grades

Failing grades

O.W.L.s achieved

Subject Known Students Who Achieved O.W.L. Notes
Study of Ancient Runes Hermione Granger, Bill Weasley, Percy Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Bathsheda Babbling
Arithmancy Hermione Granger, Bill Weasley, Percy Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Septima Vector
Astronomy Hermione Granger, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr., Aurora Sinistra Harry and Ron's O.W.L.s may or may not have allowed them to continue to N.E.W.T.-level, though it is unknown as neither of them chose to apply for the subject in either case.
Care of Magical Creatures Hermione Granger, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Charlie Weasley, Angelina Johnson, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Silvanus Kettleburn, Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank

It was never mentioned that Charlie earned a pass, but it seems likely since he works directly with magical creatures.

It is never noted that Luna Lovegood achieved an O.W.L. in this subject, but seeing as she became a Magizoologist it's very likely.
It is also very possible that Luna's husband Rolf Scamander achieved an O.W.L. in this subject as well, considering he was also a Magizoologist.
Charms

Seamus Finnigan, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Harry Potter, Dean Thomas, Ron Weasley, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Fred Weasley, George Weasley, Alicia Spinnet, Cedric Diggory, Barty Crouch, Jr., Filius Flitwick, Nymphadora Tonks, Alastor Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lee Jordan, Isobel Ross[4]

Augusta Longbottom failed her Charms O.W.L.
Isobel Ross, the mother of Minerva McGonagall, most likely achieved an O.W.L. in this subject, as she excelled in Charms and graduated top of her class in the subject.[5]
Defence Against the Dark Arts Hannah Abbott, Susan Bones, Terry Boot, Lavender Brown, Michael Corner, Seamus Finnigan, Anthony Goldstein, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Ernie Macmillan, Draco Malfoy, Padma Patil, Parvati Patil, Harry Potter, Dean Thomas, Ron Weasley, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Fred Weasley, George Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Quirinus Quirrell, Remus Lupin, Alastor Moody, Nymphadora Tonks, Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Pansy Parkinson Most of these were members of Dumbledore's Army, which contributed to their high scores.
This is the only course Harry Potter received an 'Outstanding' in and Hermione Granger didn't.
It is possible that Lyall Lupin achieved a O.W.L. in this subject, as he was world-renowned authority on Non-being Non-Human Spirituous Apparitions.
Divination Parvati Patil, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Sybill Trelawney Lavender Brown may also have achieved an O.W.L. in this subject, given that she and Parvati are usually mentioned as being the most enthusiastic, interested and diligent in this class.
Harry Potter failed this exam, given that it was his worst subject. Ron Weasley also failed this exam.
Herbology Hannah Abbott, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, George Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Pomona Sprout, Herbert Beery

Notably the only subject that George Weasley took that Fred Weasley did not. Evidently Fred failed Herbology.

Neville Longbottom achieved an 'Outstanding' O.W.L.; Herbology is noted to be his best subject.
History of Magic Hermione Granger, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Cuthbert Binns As this is known to be an extremely boring subject, given Professor Binns' droning lecture style, most students find it impossible to pay any attention and thus almost impossible to get a good O.W.L. score on.
Harry Potter received a 'Dreadful' on this O.W.L., as he passed out halfway through the exam.
Muggle Studies Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Arthur Weasley, Quirinus Quirrell, Charity Burbage Although it is never confirmed that Arthur earned a pass in this subject, it is likely due to his fascination of Muggles and his work in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office.
Potions Terry Boot, Michael Corner, Hermione Granger, Ernie Macmillan, Draco Malfoy, Theodore Nott, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Blaise Zabini, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Severus Snape, Horace Slughorn, Alastor Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Nymphadora Tonks, Padma Patil

Professor Snape's favouritism of Slytherin students may be part of the reason Slytherin students tend to do well in this subject.

This may be a difficult subject to achieve an high O.W.L. score in. Only twelve students were able to make it to N.E.W.T.-level in 1996; four Ravenclaws, four Slytherins, three Gryffindors, and one Hufflepuff.
In the film version of Half-Blood Prince, many more students are seen studying N.E.W.T. level Potions. Interestingly, both Romilda Vane and Katie Bell are seen in this class, despite the fact that Romilda is a fourth year and Katie is a seventh year.
Lily Evans most likely achieved an high O.W.L. score in this subject, given that she had an instinctual understanding of potion-making.
Transfiguration Lavender Brown, Seamus Finnigan, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Parvati Patil, Harry Potter, Dean Thomas, Ron Weasley, Fred Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Katie Bell, Cedric Diggory, Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, Barty Crouch, Jr, Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Nymphadora Tonks, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Alastor Moody

Neville's 'Acceptable' O.W.L. did not qualify him for the N.E.W.T.-level.

Notably the only subject that Fred Weasley took that George did not. Evidently George failed Transfiguration.
It is likely that the Marauders progressed to N.E.W.T.-level in this subject considering; Sirius Black and Remus Lupin were able to perform Untransfiguration on Peter Pettigrew, James Potter's wand was excellent for Transfiguration, and Pettigrew was able to perform conjuration, which is taught at N.E.W.T.-level.
It is possible that Augusta Longbottom received a high O.W.L. score in this subject, considering that she wanted her grandson Neville to take it at N.E.W.T.-level.

All of the O.W.L.'s listed above (except for Neville's Transfiguration O.W.L., and possibly Harry's and Ron's Astronomy O.W.L.s) qualified for an advancement to N.E.W.T.-level classes.

Behind the scenes

  • O.W.L.s are comparable to the formerly used Ordinary Levels (known as "O-Levels") that these exams appear to be named after, being taken around the same age and studied for two years before examination.
  • In their Charms exam, students are called in order by last name, alphabetically. However, Harry Potter and Hannah Abbott are called at the same time for their Transfiguration exam, which may mean Transfiguration O.W.Ls are called in order of first name.
  • The only known characters to receive all twelve O.W.L.s are Percy Weasley, Bill Weasley, and Barty Crouch Jr. However, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it is revealed that attempting this would cause a timetable clash during that year; Minerva McGonagall had to write several letters to the Ministry in order to obtain a Time-Turner for Hermione Granger so that she would be able to attend all her classes when she attempted to take all twelve subjects in her third year (although she ultimately dropped two when she was not able to cope with so many subjects). It is unclear how Percy, Bill, and Barty Crouch Jr were able to make a similar accomplishment as Hermione's was the only Time-Turner to ever enter Hogwarts according to J.K. Rowling.[6] It should be noted that Barty Crouch Jr obtaining twelve O.W.L.s was mentioned by his father during a bout of insane rambling due to the damage to his mind from fighting the Imperius Curse and could have been a delusional mistake on the part of Barty Crouch Snr. On the other hand, all three had parents connected in some way with the Ministry, so this is fairly plausible.
  • Harry Potter and his year all begin studying for their O.W.L.S as early as the beginning of fourth year. It is unknown whether this is the case with other years at Hogwarts or if it was a precaution so students didn't forget their work whilst the Triwizard Tournament was being held.
  • In third year in Danish it is known as A.L.N. (Almindeligt Troldmands Niveau) which is a directly translation of Ordinary Wizarding Level, but not directly translation of OWL. In fifth year in Danish, however it is known as U.G.L. (Udmærkelse for Genialitet og Lærevillighed) which needs an E to be a correct translation of O.W.L., this is not a direct translation of Ordinary Wizarding Level.
  • In early editions of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hermione Granger is said to receive eleven O.W.L.s, scoring ten O's and one E. However, after the events of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione shrunk her class load from twelve subjects to ten, dropping both Divination and Muggle Studies. This was corrected in the Scholastic edition, where Ron instead states the she received nine O's and one E, giving her a total of ten O.W.L.s.
  • It is interesting to note that the passing grades of O.W.L. exams are vowels (A, E, and O), while the failing grades are consonants (P, D, and T).

Appearances

See also

Notes and references


Wizarding Education
BeauxbatonsCrestClearBg
Hogwartscrest
Ilvermorny Crest 4
DurmstrangCrest
The Eleven Schools
Beauxbatons · Castelobruxo · Durmstrang · Hogwarts · Ilvermorny · Koldovstoretz · Mahoutokoro · Uagadou
Specialised schools
Academy of Broom Flying · Charm School · Euro-Glyph School of Extraordinary Languages · Merge School of Under-Water Spellage · Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts
Examinations
First year exams · Second year exams · Third year exams · Fourth year exams · Ordinary Wizarding Level · Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test
Core classes
Astronomy · Charms · Defence Against the Dark Arts · Herbology · History of Magic · Potions · Transfiguration
Elective classes
Alchemy · Arithmancy · Care of Magical Creatures · Divination · Muggle Studies · Study of Ancient Runes
Extra-curricular classes
Apparition · Advanced Arithmancy Studies · Ancient Studies · Art · Flying · Frog Choir · Ghoul Studies · Hogwarts orchestra · Magical Theory · Muggle Art · Muggle Music · Music · Xylomancy