Surviving Exams

Exam writing is a skill you can learn—doing well can have as much to do with technique as with preparation. The following may seem like common sense, but common sense can be the first thing to go when looking down the barrel of exam week.

The hours before

Make sure you have a good night's sleep

This is the most important thing by far. If you are well rested, you will think more clearly, remember better, and be more able to solve problems and think creatively. Don't pull an all-nighter; you'll be fuzzy, stressed and irritable. Being alert is your greatest asset.

Arrive at the exam venue ahead of time

  • Establish the location of the exam venue well ahead of time. Make sure you know how to get there with minimum stress.
  • Visit the exam venue a few days before and familiarise yourself with the physical surroundings. Knowing where you need to be and arriving on time will allow you to remain calm and relaxed.

Bring all the materials you need

  • Pack your bag the night before.
  • For an open-book exam, bring your materials neatly organised; a jumble of notes isn't useful but effective organisation is i.e. notes in thematic, topic-based, chronological order, etc.
  • Bring several pens in case one runs out at the crucial moment.

Avoid panic talk!

You don’t want other people’s nervousness or stress to rub off on you before an exam; stand apart from the main scrum of students and keep calm.

Eat something

  • If you don't eat before an exam, halfway through the exam, you'll find yourself feeling tired and hungry, and losing concentration.
  • Eat some easily digestible, solid food like rice, bread, savoury biscuits or bananas. Keep coffee and chocolate to a minimum as these will only give a short boost. What you need is staying power.

Oh, and study

Of course, a major aspect of being prepared is studying for your exam.

In the exam

Don't panic

If you are too nervous, you'll be too agitated to concentrate. On the other hand, if you are too casual, you won't be alert. The target is somewhere in the middle; the right amount of stress keeps you on your toes, helping you think clearly and effectively.

Focus on relaxing yourself

  • Take a few long, slow deep breaths.
  • As you slowly exhale, relax your shoulders, hands, face and jaw.
  • Stay quiet for a few moments, then go back to what you were doing, only more slowly and smoothly.

This technique is useful either before or during the exam.

If your exam has a reading period, use it to your advantage

  • Get a feel for the exam as a whole. Read through the entire exam before you start. This gives you an idea of what you need to do, and the time constraints involved.
  • It is extremely important to understand the questions. Read carefully and slowly, and consider what you are being asked to do.
  • Few questions require you to write everything you've ever read about a certain topic, so look for the clue words in the question. These will give you a strong indication of how they want you to answer the question.

Identify clue words

  • If you are allowed to hold a pen during the reading period, underline the clue words in short answer and essay questions. Doing this will provide focus for answering when you return to the question later. If the exam does not have a reading period, still spend the first few minutes reading the questions.
  • Read the directions! There is nothing worse than getting to the end of the exam and suddenly realising that you were supposed to answer two questions in Part A when you had instead written just one masterpiece.

Plan how you will tackle the questions

During your initial read-through, locate the 'easy' and 'hard' questions. The golden rule is to start with the easy ones. Answering an easy question increases your confidence, helps get you thinking and triggers your memory. This might help you to remember information for those 'difficult' questions.

Allocate your time

As you read through the exam, look at how marks are allocated. The number of marks given to a particular question will give you an indication of how much time to spend on it. For example, in a 90-minute exam with 90 multiple-choice questions, you should average one question per minute. You may be able to answer some questions more quickly, buying extra time to devote to the trickier ones.

Use a similar system with essay answers. Look at:

  • the number of marks per question
  • how they are distributed
  • how many questions you have to answer.

Ration your time accordingly.

  • It can help to make a note of how much time you should give to each question, including revision time. Once you decide on your time outline, stick to it. Watch the clock, and once the allocated time has elapsed, stop and move onto the next question.
  • If you haven't finished, leave lots of space in the exam booklet. Sometimes, you will answer the questions more quickly than the time allocated. If you have any extra time at the end (or during the revision period) you can return and answer it more fully.
  • Don't leave the exam early. If you have extra time, use it to revise or to think more deeply about one of the harder questions. Make use of all the allocated time—it's worth it.

In the end . . .

Exam writing is an active process. You are there to think, assess, make judgements, and to concisely answer questions. Simple regurgitation will only get you so far.

Remember the golden rules

  • Get some sleep the night before.
  • Eat something health that won't cause a sugar crash.
  • Avoid 'panic talk' with other students before the exam.
  • Read the directions.
  • Make a time management plan and stick to it.
  • Watch the clock.
  • Start with the easy ones.
  • Build in revision time.
  • Don't leave the exam early.
  • Take control of your stress and make it work for you!
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