Exams have never been that high on my list of things I love to do. But I know they need to happen from time to time.
A while back, I chose to do what I could to enjoy the exam experience as much as possible. Rather than panic, I figured, why not make the best of a bad thing? After all, the better the results, the happier the outcome.
You can do plenty to ease the way and make sure you don’t stress yourself out on the day:
- Get the boring admin out of the way as soon as you can – Work out the where, when, what, requirements, and so on. Don’t leave it to chance and don’t leave it for the last minute. You don’t want to stress yourself out five minutes before the exam’s meant to start because you don’t know where you’re meant to be.
- Get your gear in place the day before (or even sooner) – Organise your equipment, papers, reading, ID, etc. Again, you’ll hate last minute scrambles for stuff you can’t find.
- Remember spare pens/pencils – You don’t need an insane number of spares, but take more than your single ‘lucky’ pen. It won’t be that lucky if it runs out…
- Make your write right – In other words, choose good pens. In ‘The Smarter Student‘, I found a great tip that I’d never really considered before:
“Might you be wasting time by trying to write too neatly or using a type of pen that slows you down? Ballpoint and liquid gel pens are probably the fastest.”
They are right. Some pens are easier to use than others. Use one that flows smoothly and works well for you.
- Revise with good time – Pulling an all-nighter is bad enough for essay writing. Don’t do the same thing when it comes to exams!
- Get your technique sorted – Read more from me on effective technique on passing exams before, during and after the event.
- Speak the positive speak and give yourself personal lifts – Life is too short. Take a positive approach to your revision. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. If you put yourself down, you’re not going in with an attitude to understand. Always remember, you’re not stupid… You’re learning!
- Have variation as you revise – Don’t rely on any single revision method. Read notes, attempt practice questions, use different locations to learn different concepts, and so on. Find what works for you. What works in one instance will be different in another. Don’t stop exploring.
- Sleep, eat, relax, enjoy yourself…LIVE YOUR LIFE! – It’s easy to forget to do the simple, everyday things while you’re in revision mode. This is a mistake. Do what you usually do otherwise you’ll be less motivated to revise.
- Don’t talk with others just before exams – Hanging around with a bunch of nervous people isn’t helpful. Neither is speaking to students who are pretending they haven’t done any revision and are going to wing the exam. It’s all nonsense. You’re taking that exam for YOU. Not anybody else. Just you. Ignore the voices around you. They will only serve to put you off the task at hand.
- Find out what’s going to be covered in an exam – You don’t need to learn everything verbatim. Higher education is an opportunity to explore in ways that should interest you. Use this to your benefit. You won’t be told the questions in advance, but you will be given pointers toward the type of content.
Also, past exam papers are bound to be available unless you’re on a brand new course. These past papers are a great resource.
- Explain concepts to yourself until you understand them – As you revise, outline what you’re learning as if you’re explaining things to a young child or someone with no knowledge of the topic whatsoever.
I suggest you check out Scott Young’s video on learning faster with the Feynman Technique.
- Use the library – It’s not just for essays. There’s plenty you can read up on while you revise. If one book doesn’t speak to you, find other books to explain the same concepts for you.
- Use the Internet – If the texts are confusing, don’t forget to search for simple explanations and Wikipedia articles. Better still, search other places such as YouTube for video tutorials and fun explanations.
- Create links between concepts and ideas – The bigger picture is just as important as the finer detail. Treat concepts as a map or a jigsaw puzzle and have all the pieces lock together so you have a visual representation in your mind that can move from one place to another. That way, you’ll be able to fit everything in context, rather than just another thing to remember.
- Use mnemonics to remember stuff you have to memorise – Mnemonics provide a quick and easy way to pick up on hard to remember detail.
- Work alone – Interruptions are a time sink, they take your mind off your revision, and they stop you from doing exactly what you want.
- Work with others – Working alone is fine, but the occasional get together helps when you want to bat ideas back and forth. What you’re stuck with, a classmate may have a massive understanding of, which you can make use of. When the classmate is stuck on something you understand, you can help them too, and solidify your own knowledge as you’re going.
- Practice questions in your own time – Get a good idea of how best to answer questions by ignoring time constraints. Just get confident in the first instance.
- Practice questions to a time limit – Once you’re confident, then time yourself. Are you answering too quickly, or have you only finished half the answer when the time runs out?
- Read through the questions and instructions before you start answering anything – Your exam preparation continues even as you turn the paper over. Don’t get carried away when the clock starts ticking. You’ve waited this long. A few extra minutes of preparation is factored in, so stay calm and focus on understanding the questions.
- Breathe – Who’d think it’s easy to forget steady breathing, eh? It’s a whole lot easier to forget about your breathing when you’re under exam pressure. It only takes a couple of moments to focus on your breathing again, so it’s time well spent. Close your eyes and focus on taking a deep breath of air through your nose so it fills your lungs. Hold it for a moment and let the air go through your nose or mouth, whatever feels most relaxing for you.
Do this a couple of times. If you’re still feeling the stress, try this quick fix from ‘Coping with Stress at University‘:
“Place your elbows on your desk and put your face into your hands, cupping the palms over the eyes so the face is gently supported. Relax your shoulders and let go of any tension that you may be holding in your body. Even ten seconds like this is likely to make a difference.”
- Read. The. Questions. – Remember point 21 above? Seriously, this is important. I can’t emphasise this enough. Make sure you understand what’s required of you.