This, the second installment of our exam preparation series, focuses on taking your exams effectively. We sat down with Mr. McClean to get the best tips for what to expect and what to do the day of your exams. Follow these recommendations to get the best scores possible while limiting your stress levels.
1. The Night before the Exam
If you have a morning exam, it is essential that you get a very good night’s sleep. Its not a good idea to try to learn a lot of new material and then go asleep right after. This will not be very effective. Concentrate instead on going over what the exam looks like, what to expect with the various sections it will have, what tips you were given from your teachers about time management, what material you are most comfortable with and what material you are nervous about. Take a little bit of time to review the one section you are most unsure of - say 30 mins - then about an hour before your normal bedtime, step away from your studying and do something fun and relaxing like watching a movie, talking to some friends, doing some recreational reading… etc. This will really help relax your mind and allow you to get a good night’s sleep.
2. The Morning of the Exam
Morning exams can be very tricky. Avoid the temptation to get up very early to do last minute revision. The best thing to do is to go into an exam relaxed and to feel confident in your preparation.Eat a good breakfast and drink plenty of water before the exam period. Another thing that may help is to not talk to other people before the exam - talking to others may actually stress you out more. Mentally prepare yourself for the structure of the exam before you go into the exam room. For example, if you know you have three essays to write, think about how much time you will spend on each. Go through this in your head before you see the actual paper. Your teacher will have told you how many questions you have to do and how much they are each worth. Many students end up losing marks due to stress related to exam taking techniques. Be prepared and you will feel more relaxed.
Everyone must be aware that it is impossible to go into an exam without stress. You will either be stressed because you put so much work into preparation and you fear that all of your efforts will not get just rewards. Or you are stressed because you fear that you maybe could have done more and therefore you may be letting yourself down and won’t get the grades that you deserve. This is normal. Realize that at this point you can only do your best. Keep a good perspective.
Sometimes you can lose perspective and freak yourself out. This can cause you to go blank. Things that lead to blanking are stress or cramming information that you didn’t really understand into your short term memory. This will then act like a block. Your brain can feel like it is scrambling. This is why giving yourself some space away from the books and notes before the exam is important. It will help to keep you calm.
3. During the Exam
As you begin your exam, allow at least 5 mins of your allotted time to settle yourself and to look at what is in store for you. Focus on the positive.
Read over the whole exam quickly and note all the sections that you feel confident on. Remember that you will not know everything; you will not get 100%, so don’t focus on the questions that trip you up. Everyone will have a few questions like that, so expect it and don’t let it stress you out further.
Long, three hour exams such as the A Levels, are very exhausting for students. It is essential to understand time management for these exams. You do not want to rush through them nor do you want to find yourself with a third of the exam still to do in the last half hour. For these exams, always make sure you are well hydrated. Bring water into the exam and have a piece of chocolate before you go in to give you a boost of energy and some comfort.
4. You can complete a lot in little time
Don’t think of these exams as three hour exams, instead break it into the sections and know what each section is worth. Know ahead of time where you can easily gain marks and work strategically according to that knowledge. In the more advanced exams, keep in mind that in 10 minutes you will be able to write between three quarters of a side and a side of A4 if you know what you’re doing. So even when they tell you there is only ten minutes left to the exam, you can actually write at least a third of an essay. So don’t allow the pressure of time to distract you.
5. Answer the easy questions first
One strategy that works well for some students, is to answer the questions you feel confident about first. Often, by the time you get around to the other, more challenging questions, you will have settled into the exam content even more and your brain may recall other information better. If you read a question that you are unsure of and don’t press yourself right away to retrieve the correct response, but instead move onto something that is easier for you, by the time you return to that challenging question, your brain often retrieves the information you need. Just because you are answering something else, doesn’t mean your brain isn’t working on determining the best answer to the difficult question on another level.
On the other hand, be sure you do answer all the questions, not just the easier ones. It is important to give yourself enough time to tackle all the questions. Sometimes students will try to focus all their attention on the questions they are most confident about to try to get the most points out of those, but you may be surprised at the extra points you will get by trying to answer the questions you were unsure of.
Reading back over your exam paper is always important, but often more important is to plan your essays beforehand. Know the points that you want to make before you start writing. Just because you write two pages doesn’t mean you have gotten all your points across. Therefore, do not focus on how much you have written, don’t get caught thinking that how much you wrote is the gauge of how well you did. Instead, focus on the points you are making and if the exam requires you brining in other perspectives or examples to get the top marks, do this early on in the essay. Reading over your exam or your essays is always a bonus, but if you won’t know when you are supposed to be finished, you are unlikely to find that extra time.
6. Between Exams
Mr. Mc Clean’s advice for between exams is to relax, eat something, and trust your preparation. Even if you have three hours before your next exam, don’t try to cram in more studying. A lot of exam success is due to your ability to manage stress. If you can get yourself to relax and calm your nerves before an exam, that will end up helping you the most. In addition, often students don’t realize how much they do know. Have confidence. This can take you far.