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How to pass exams

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 30, 2013.

There's more to life than books you know—but not much more. So sang ace British rock band The Smiths back in the 1980s. If you're studying in school or college right now, you probably identify quite strongly with that sentiment. You might feel your whole life revolves around exams, and no sooner is one lot of study out of the way but you're immediately pitched into another! If you take up a profession such as medicine or accountancy, the bad news is that exams continue well into your twenties. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make the pain easier.

Photo: No-one much enjoys sitting exams. Make sure you're prepared and you'll stand a far better chance of success. Photo by Charles Oki courtesy of US Navy.

1. Ask the teacher

As far as you're concerned, teachers probably have a single function: to help you pass your exams and either get a job or move on to the next stage of your education. Teachers themselves see things a little differently—don't forget that they have to get hundreds of students through exams each year—but generally their aims are in tune with yours. Remember that your teacher is not your opponent or your nemesis: he or she is not out to frustrate you or irritate you. However it might seem at the time, teachers are always trying to help you. Take advantage of that help and you'll never regret it. Ask for help whenever you need it: that's what teachers are there for.

2. Beat the teacher

Having said that, as you'll have discovered for yourself, there are many good teachers and quite a few bad ones. Most of your teachers care passionately about how well you do (even if they don't let on) and one or two truly couldn't care less what happens to you (especially if you don't care very much yourself). The first top tip I have is not to rely on teachers to get you through your exams. Teachers will help you enormously, but ultimately it's your job and yours alone. The older and more senior you get, the more you'll find that teachers and lecturers put the responsibility of passing exams onto their students. What does that involve in practice? The first thing is to understand the curriculum or syllabus you're studying and exactly what you're expected to know about each subject. Ask your teacher to supply you with a copy of the curriculum you're working to or look it up for yourself on the Web. (Note that different examining bodies may use slightly different curricula, so be sure to find the correct one.) Armed with this information, you will at least know what you need to know, even if you don't know it. Got me?

Cellphones abandoned by students before an exam

Photo: Once you're in the exam, you're on your own—without even your phone to help you. Make sure you're prepared. Photo by Brien Aho courtesy of US Navy.

3. Understand the marking scheme

Before you go anywhere near an examination, it's vitally important to understand how the marks are allocated. You might find that 75 percent of the mark comes from the exam you sit at the end of the academic year, while the remainder is allocated by your teacher based on coursework or projects you do during the year itself. It's very important you understand the marking scheme, whatever it is, right at the start. If 90 percent of your mark comes from coursework and you do that poorly all year, you can't expect to save yourself at the last minute with a sudden good exam performance. Similarly, even if you've done brilliant coursework, if it counts for only 10 percent of your total mark, you still need a good performance in the exam. If you understand where your marks will come from, you can allocate your efforts accordingly.

4. Plan your revision

More than 20 years after I last sat an exam of any kind, I still get a recurring nightmare about not having started my revision in time! Chore though it is, you can never really spend too long revising. Teachers will tell you that it's generally easier to spend a small amount of time each day revising over a long period than to try to cram in all your revision the night before your exam. But different strategies work for different people. Some people find concentrated revision suits them best. Some prefer to revise one subject entirely before proceeding with another topic; others prefer to alternate revision between different subjects. As you become proficient at exams, you should find a pattern that works for you. One good tip is to make revision a habit: treat it like a job and make yourself revise between certain set times of the day whether you feel like it or not. No-one ever feels like revising, but if you get into a routine where you always begin and end at the same time, you'll find it a whole lot easier. Another good tip is to intersperse your revision with relaxing activities to stop your brain overloading. Go for walks, listen to music, hang out with friends, play sports—whatever you like— as long as you understand the distinction between break and distractions. Probably give reading books a miss until your revision is done, however.

5. Prioritize weak subjects

Aim to revise everything but devote more time to things you don't understand or know less well. It sounds obvious, but it's surprisingly hard to do. Why? Because we like doing easy things—so our tendency, when we revise, is to concentrate on the things we already know. If you're not sure what your weaker subjects are, ask your teacher or look at the marks you've received on coursework through the year. Prioritizing weak subjects also goes back to understanding the marking scheme. Let's suppose your examination involves you writing three essays. Most likely they will carry equal marks. Even if you know two subjects off by heart and get perfect marks, if you can't write a third essay you risk losing up to a third of the marks. So weak subjects will have a disproportionate effect on your total mark, dragging your overall grade down much more. That's why you should give weak subjects most focus.

6. Be honest with yourself

What are you good at and what are you bad at? Maybe you think you're good at everything, but you'll still have weak points you need to focus on. And if you think you're bad at everything, that's probably not true either. Ask your teachers to spend a little time with you helping you to understand where you need to focus your efforts. Most often they'll be happy to oblige.

7. Practice makes perfect

Closeup of quartz alarm clockface by Acctim

Now, as teachers often tell you, exams are theoretically a way of testing your knowledge and your understanding and the object of studying is to get a good education, not to pass exams. But exams count for a lot and a great deal of our education is geared specifically to helping us to pass them. Like it or not, you'll be sitting an awful lot of exams in your life. It makes sense to practice exams like you'd practice a sport or a musical instrument. Most likely your teachers will get you to try out real exam questions or past exam papers. If not, get hold of those questions and papers yourself and test yourself under real exam conditions. Can you really write a good essay on the causes of the first world war in three quarters of an hour? Try it and see. Practicing exam questions and papers under time pressure is one of the best ways to improve your exam performance. Don't forget that teachers are creatures of habit as much as anyone else; exam papers are often set by the same people from one year to the next so particular topics will crop up over and over again.

Photo: Set yourself "mock" questions under real time constraints.

8. Use memory aids

It can be quite hard to remember all the things you need to know in an exam, so use memory aids if you need to. No, I don't mean write the answers on your arm! When you had to remember the colors of the spectrum, you were probably taught to use a memory aid such as "richard of york gave battle in vain" [red orange yellow green blue indigo violet]. You can take this idea a stage further and memorize lists of things you need to remember or even entire plans for essays you might have to write. All you have to do is take the initial letter of each thing you want to remember and make up a sentence that helps you remember the letters. You can then remember in order half a dozen essays simply by memorizing six simple sentences! I memorized dozens of essay plans this way when I was a student. The only thing you have to be careful about is that you do actually...

9. Answer the question

It's possible to do your revision so well that you think you know your subject inside out, back to front, and every which way. That's brilliant! But just remember, in the heat of the exam, you still need to be certain you answer every question properly. If you memorize essays ready to write them back in an exam, be sure that the essay you write is the one the examiner wants to read—not the essay you just happen to have revised. So take time to read and understand the questions on the exam paper. The more senior you are, the more likely you are to find that essay questions on exam papers aren't completely straightforward. You may need to read between the lines before you realize "Oh yes, this is actually a question about x/y/z. They've mentioned such-and-such, but what they're really asking me about is so-and-so". Again, practicing past exam papers will help you to recognize what you're being asked and demonstrate your knowledge in the way the examiner is expecting.

10. Remember why you're studying

Yes, you want to pass your exams. But don't forget that you're also trying to learn and understand things and get a good education. Try not to let yourself become an exam-passing locomotive. Ultimately, even if you like pieces of paper with "A" printed on them, that's not the object of the exercise. If you love a subject and you really like learning about it, that may be much more rewarding in the end.

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2009. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2009) How to pass exams. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/howtopassexams.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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