How to Prepare for Exams

Whether school age, or mature, for many students exams provoke often intense anxiety.  Preparation is key to not only managing the pressure of exams, but maximising the chance to do well. If you feel in control of the experience, then confidence is more likely; especially when mixed with the knowledge and skills relating to the subjects being studied.

The preparation truly begins long before exam dates and times.  Independent learners, who are able to study topics alongside learning to think for themselves and apply theories to a range of complex situations, are likely to be resourceful in exams.  This approach is likely to be useful when ‘curve ball’ questions show up on final papers.  The aim is to understand, rather than learn by rote; although there’s no getting away from the simple truth that there is no shortcut to basic knowledge.

Keeping up to date with a program of study takes discipline and uncompromising organisation, but it really is the key to avoiding late night panic-cramming.  Many a piece of coursework has been produced in the early hours, the night before submission deadlines, but tackling exams is different to producing continual assessment products.  It is important to set milestones and stick to them; and depending upon the level of study and subject, milestones can be set weeks and months before the final exams are due.

Looking after yourself is really important.  Not only will this minimise the likelihood of distracting coughs and sniffles or headaches on the day of exams, your well being is important at any time.  Exams and achievement should not be at the expense of health and long-term happiness; keep a perspective and be honest with yourself.  Not everyone will get an ‘A’ grade and that’s OK. 

Prioritise; are there subjects you have to do well in?  Is there a subject you find particularly challenging or even disappointing?  If this is the case, you may need to accept the fact that you do enough to scrape through on this topic, directing your energies to doing exceptionally well in other areas.  Academic staff are often able to offer honest advice on realistic expectations and strengths and weaknesses you have.  Communicate with them; their role is often pastoral as well as academic.

So, you have planned your revision, made a timetable of honest study hours and opportunities, spoken to your tutor.  What else can be done?  There are a few other tips to bear in mind.

Can you access past exam papers on-line or from your tutor?  If so, get hold of a few.  Look at the mark allocations and weighting, the way questions are posed (are there multiple choice sections, case studies, extended answers) and either alone or in a comfortable study group, have a go.  Often not only past question papers are publically available, but also marking guidelines; check your mock answers against these, swap papers amongst peers and imagine you are a marker, not a student.  What stands out as correct, innovative and accurate work?  What key words can be extracted and used to maximise impact?  All of this information will help you to build a broader understanding of the exam process.

Life does not stop just because you have an important exam coming up.  Stresses of work, family life and relationships can impact upon your plans; studying may simply become just another drain on your time and energy.  Remain focussed on your future though; remember your ambitions, or the doors success will open. Think about the distance travelled from those first days in school, college or university and how much you have already achieved. 

Don’t lose sight of this progress; exams are not the be all and end all of achievement, but you are where you are for a reason and have worked hard to get this far.  An exam, like any assessment, is formalising and evidencing what you know.  Simple.  An exam is a tool to assess your understanding and you can prepare thoroughly, if you dedicate a bit of effort to the process. Although the actual exam itself is often ‘unknown’, resourcefulness and tenacity can help to build-up your positive feelings and help to control anxiety. 

On the day, try to have had a good night’s sleep; or at least have had a quiet night.  If you can, have a light breakfast.  You may experience some nerves and a churning stomach is not helped if you don’t eat. 

Know well in advance when, where and what you need for the exam.  For example, do you need identification, matriculation codes, a ruler, a pen (or two)?

Know what you are going in to, the subject and the length of time allowed.  Be clear about rules on entering and leaving the exam room; in most instances there will be a ‘no disturbance’ rule which means you cannot enter after a certain time, and cannot leave before a certain amount of time has passed.

Once in there and at your desk or station, take a deep breath, read through the paper, take note of the time and show them what you’re made of!