Be Prepared!: How To Prepare For Exams

Lets face it, I’m not an academic by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve never gotten consistent grades in anything. The subjects I excelled in throughout High School were things you could argue I had a natural talent for (mainly music.) And despite now having an Honours degree, my University career was inconsistent at best, marred by personal and professional catastrophes which kept my mind off the prize.

No, I’m certainly not an academic. I find studying tedious. I’m an active kind of thinker. I need to be pottering away at something, tweaking and fixing and making, not memorizing. But as much as I hated studying, I’ve learned a few things over the last few years that are pretty useful, especially now in the run up to exam season (if you’re a Scottish High School kid, there’s a chance you’re prepping for Standard Grades/Highers/Advanced Highers and such. University folk are probably in the middle of their exam/assessment diet, so this is less useful to you.)

Pens and pencils at the ready? Lets begin…

Everything You’ve Been Told About Cramming Is A Lie

In my third year at UWS, we took a module called Music Research Practise, which was designed to put us in the correct frame of mind when preparing for our dissertations the year after. The course was dry as hell, discussing best practise situations in large-scale research projects. And despite being a thoroughly interesting, intelligent and decent bloke in real life, inside the classroom, our lecturer just couldn’t sell the topic to us.

In that entire 12 weeks, I had attended half of one class. I spent the other half of the class having breakfast in a Wetherspoons pub just off campus with some old bandmates.

The week before the exam, I panicked like I’d never panicked before. I was scraping by with my grades enough as it was. How was I going to pull this one out the hat?

By cramming, of course. But efficiently.

The main part of the exam was an essay question, in which we were to write a proposal for a research project in our field. Having spent most of that week planning the proposal, I had a working draft two days in advance of the exam. For the next two days, I started reverse engineering it; bullet-pointing each paragraph, creating a smaller, more concise version of the plan, until my plan going into the exam consisted of five bullet points: intro, explanation, literature review, proposal, conclusion. I then recited the entire essay repeatedly to my girlfriend, who corrected me when I strayed off topic.

I got an A for that module. After a week’s work.

The trick isn’t to cram as much work into a small amount of time as possible. It’s about finding which parts of the assessment will give you the most marks and focusing your attention on that. Once you have that down, you can find ways of efficiently utilising your time to prepare yourself for the exam. I knew that if I dropped a ton of marks in the multiple choice section of the assessment that I could still get a good grade with the essay question, so I focussed my attentions there. What sections in your exams can you focus on to produce the greatest amount of marks?

How Interval Training Taught Me About Time Management

In my teens, I was a keen wrestler, competing at local level in Scottish Backhold. In my weight training, I had developed a system of using intervals as opposed to reps to decide how long I did a certain exercise. These intervals would change throughout the week, meaning that my body couldn’t entirely adapt to the training, which produced better results at the end. Though my career ended abruptly at the age of 17 after incurring a knee injury while competing in the Milngavie Highland Games, interval training has always remained at the core of all my athletic pursuits, especially now that I’ve taken up running.

The average person can only really focus on a task for a few minutes before the mind begins to wander. It’s a fact, and it’s probably one of the core reasons why the British education system doesn’t work (I’m not an expert, this is just my opinion.) Trying to sit for hours working on the same subject is going to drive you crazy. And even then, half of that time will be wasted because you lose focus.

My response: less is more.

I developed a system while writing essays at UWS, a system I still use to this day in my own writing. I work on something without distraction for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, then repeat. In those 25 minutes, I am solely focused on the task at hand. No Facebook, no music, no distractions whatsoever. In the 5 minutes, I can do what I like. I make tea, or send texts to my friends, or watch something on YouTube. Personally, I tend to stop after one hour of a certain task, before I leave it to the side and start working on something else (this harks back to my interval training where I would switch up tasks regularly to improve muscle memory.) However, if I am focussing on one task for several hours at a time, I’ll take an extended break after four repetitions, allowing myself to make food, stretch my legs, and get the hell away from my laptop.

I’ve tried many methods of time management when it comes to writing and research and the like, but none have produced the same results as this particular technique. Feel free to tweak and change as you like, and let me know how it works for you in the comments.

There Is No Permanent Record

My last piece of advice is all about creating a positive mindset for entering into your exam diet. All the preparation in the world won’t save you if you go in assuming you’re going to fail. So if I can impart one final piece of advice, this would be it.

You might not do as well as you hope, but that’s OK.

No one will care about your Standard Grades when you have Highers. No one cares about your Highers if you have a degree. If you have an Honours, no one really cares if it’s a 2:1 or a 3rd. If you have a 1st, kudos. And if you have a Masters or a PHd? You get the drift.

(If you’re not sitting SQA assessments, then feel free to interchange these with whatever your relevant qualifications are.)

There are very few subjects that you can’t resit or appeal. If you need a certain qualification for a certain job then there are tons of ways to get them. Even then, half the time, the jobs you’ll end up taking will have nothing to do with your chosen field of study. They’re a sign to employers that you stuck in for a few years and worked hard to achieve something. They don’t have any bearing on your standing as a human being (unless you judge yourself based on your grades, which is cool too. Screw other people who tell you that good grades are somehow an indication of your quality as a human being. And I mean anyone.)

Other than certain vocational qualifications (medicine, law, etc.), all an employer will care about is that you stuck in and achieved something. And there are so many other ways of doing that, too. The best advice I got going into my degree was that I’d more likely be judged on my projects outside of Uni, like the gigs I ran or the blog I edited or whatever. Want to show you can stick to something for a long period of time and achieve results? Think outside the box.

So good luck, intrepid academic adventurers. I hope you get what you’re working for. And if not, I hope you get it some other way.

Got any hints or tips for studying? Leave them in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Be Prepared!: How To Prepare For Exams

  1. sounds about right. thinking is a muscle. think in themes. always aim to see the structure behind what you’re learning. avoid memorisation exercises. the key is to know what the most important aspects are. you’ll always learn if you’re aiming for something in particular and then see what adds or takes away from your goal.

    • Quite right! It all about putting energy into what areas will produce the best results. Just applying the old 80/20 rule could save students a ton of time and stress.

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