Being prepared for your exams is essential for success. It is, however, difficult to know how best to approach exam preparation and manage your time effectively. This post offers ten top tips based on experience and expert opinion, to help those still quite new to exams.
Some of these tips sound like ‘common sense’, and relate to the importance of looking after yourself. Others are more about how, what and when you study in the lead up to your exam. Both types of advice are important, and will help you to both study better, and perform better in the exam. So, without further ado, here are our top ten tips!
1. Start your revision early
There is no substitute for starting early with exam preparation and revision.
You need to give yourself enough time to review everything that you have studied, and make sure that you understand it (or to read round the subject or ask for help if you are struggling). Last minute cramming is much less productive and can actually add to your stress levels instead of ease them. While some students do seem to thrive on last-minute cramming, it’s widely accepted that (for most of us) this is not the best way to approach an exam.
Ideally, review each subject or topic as you go, and make sure that you understand it fully as this will make revision much easier. Ultimately, the best tip is to study hard and know your subject, and starting early is the best way to achieve this. To help sort out your time management set up a timetable for your study. Write down how many exams you have and the days on which you have to sit them. Then organise your study accordingly. You may want to give some exams more study time than others, so find a balance that you feel comfortable with.
2. Organise your study time
You will almost certainly find some subjects or topics easier than others. You will also find that you have more to revise for some areas than others.
It is worth taking the time to plan your revision and consider how much time you might need for each area.
It is also helpful to consider when and how long you plan to spend studying each day. How much time will you be able to manage each day? What other commitments do you have during your study period?
Plan your revision to ensure that you use your time to best advantage. When is the best time of day for you—morning, afternoon or evening? Can you do more reading at particular times? This will help you to plan broadly what you intend to do, although you should always make sure that you leave it flexible enough to adapt later if circumstances change.
Having said this try to continue with normal life. Somethings might have to take a back seat during the revision period, but it is really important to continue your hobbies and see friends and family. These help you break up studying and are good opportunities to boost your wellbeing and reduce your stress levels.
3. Organise your study space
Make sure you have enough space to spread your textbooks and notes out. Have you got enough light? Is your chair comfortable? Are your computer games and other distractions out of sight? Turn off your mobile phone, or place it on silent.
Try and get rid of all distractions, and make sure you feel as comfortable and able to focus as possible. For some people, this may mean almost complete silence during exam preparation, for others, background music might help. Some of us need everything completely tidy and organised in order to concentrate, while others thrive in a more cluttered environment. Some like to revise completely alone uninterrupted, others like to revise in more social spaces. Think about what works for you, and take the time to get it right.
4. Look after yourself during study and exam time
You will be able to work better if you eat a healthy diet, and get plenty of sleep.
This applies both during your exam period, and when you are revising. Surviving on junk food is not a good idea.
It is also a good idea to take regular exercise when studying. A brisk walk, or more vigorous exercise, will get your blood moving and ensure that you are better able to concentrate. Exercise and physical activity in fact can be really beneficial in boosting your capacity to revise and remember information more effectively, with better concentration, not to mention the health and wellbeing benefits that will help you manage your stress levels. So if you feel restless or lethargic stop revising, take a break or get your trainers on for a walk or ten minutes of physical activity.
5. Vary your revision techniques
Always doing the same thing, for example, reading over your notes on a subject, is likely to be quite dull. Spice up your revision period by trying different exercises and techniques. Alternatives to reading your notes over include:
- Doing practice papers and questions to test your understanding;
- Drawing mind maps or other summary diagrams to test what you can remember, and then checking them against your notes. Notice where you have left out detail, or there are gaps, and go back and review those areas; and
- Organising a discussion group with some friends, to consider a particular issue or area.
- Creating cue cards to help you recall specific information such as definitions
- Getting your parents or friends to quiz you on topics or questions from exam papers
- Use a range of tools on offer such as BBC Bitesize
6. Vary your locations
Changing the location where you do your exam preparation or where you study—for example, your room, the library at school or college, a quiet café, or someone else’s house—is also good.
Research has found that this can help to improve memory retention. It is not clear why, but the suggestion is that the brain makes connections between the background and what you are studying: more different connections makes things easier to remember. For example, I revised articulating bones at the kitchen table what can I remember from that time?
7. Take regular breaks
You cannot work solidly for 8 hours. In fact, it is very hard to work in a concentrated way for more than about an hour.
You may find that some days you can do more, but mostly, one to one and a half hours is likely to be your limit before you need a break.
Take 10 minutes periodically to go and get a drink and walk around a bit.
8. Know your exam
Make sure that you have looked at past papers.
This will ensure that you are prepared for the type of exam you will be sitting, whether multiple choice, short answer or essay. It helps you to prepare and know what to expect. With some subjects you can actually start to anticipate how each area will be assessed.
Know what you are expected to do: for example, how many questions from each section will you have to answer? Of course, you still have to read the instructions on the paper itself, and make sure that they are the same, but this will help you to feel comfortable with what will be expected.
Even more important, make sure that you have practised the right type of questions, and know what will be expected of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ answer.
Make sure you read the whole question and understand what each command word is asking you to do. For example, explain will need more points to be made than identify. Always look at the number of marks awarded for each question and ensure that you have made enough points to hit the marks.
9. Make sure you know the practical details about your exam
- Where will it be held?
- What time does it start, and when do you need to get there?
- If you have to travel some distance, what time will you need to leave?
- What do you need to take with you?
Also make sure that you know what to do if something goes wrong. You might, for example, be ill on the day, or get held up on the journey, and you need to know who to contact.
Take a bit of time at least a week beforehand to make sure that you know the answers to all these questions.
This will help you to stay reasonably relaxed, and ensure that you know what to do if something goes wrong, as well as minimising the chances of something going wrong.
Also think about where and what you will do just before entering the exam, make sure you are as calm and comfortable as possible for the exam itself. Make sure you have eaten, and have gone to the toilet prior to your exam.
We all have different ways of working, and that includes different approaches to exam preparation. Don’t worry if someone else has a different way of working that may work for them but it may not work for you. Also remember you are not alone and lots of people experience anxiety around exams, so if you are feeling overwhelmed make sure you talk to someone, sometimes just talking through your worries can help you overcome and prepare for them.
As you get more experienced in taking exams, you will find the ways that work best for you, and learn how best to prepare. In the meantime, these tips should give you a good starting point for study.