How to pass exams
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: August 21, 2020.
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
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?
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
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,
How do you cope with distractions? How can you possibly get any work done when
all those WhatsApp messages and notifications from friends keep popping up
on your phone all the time?
If that's a problem for you, check out your favorite app store and try installing a locking app that disables
your phone entirely for a specified amount of time. Try locking yourself out of your phone
for as long as you can—an hour or two, if all that's you can manage, or a whole
morning or afternoon if you can manage more.
Photo: If your phone is too much of a distraction, try use a locking app. This one, running here on an Android
phone, locks you out of the whole phone or a selection of distracting apps for whatever time period you specify.
Your Internet router or web browser might also have options on it for blocking access or restricting it to certain times of
day. You could work with parents or friends to set up a blocking schedule. Maybe block access for weekday mornings
and afternoons, allowing an hour at lunch and free access in the evenings? Experiment. See what works best for you.
Don't set yourself impossible targets you can't meet.
What if you can't bear to be parted from your phone or computer at all? One tactic here is to reward yourself if you
manage to get through a set time period without breaking off from your work. Your reward could be financial, or it
could be going out somewhere or doing something else you like. Again, you could make a deal with
parents—will they sponsor you to do concentrated revision... maybe a dollar or a pound a day?—or just promise yourself you can do something nice if you stick the course and get a certain amount of work done without distractions.
Another tactic is to lock your phone and swap with a nearby friend for a few hours. Both lock your phones, swap over, get to work...
and then swap back again in a few hours time.
And, of couse, another option is to go to a library or other quiet place to revise, taking care to leave your phone behind!
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
Photo: Set yourself "mock" questions under real time constraints.
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.
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.
How to write a brilliant essay
Writing an essay doesn't have to be terrifying. Approach it in the right way and you'll not only score
top marks, you'll learn a great deal about your subject and you'll probably even enjoy it!
Here are some tips for writing essays in exams...
Teachers will tell you that one of the most common reasons for students writing poor essays
is because they don't properly read and digest the question before
they start work. This is particularly true in exams, when time
pressure makes us all too keen to put pen to paper. Whether you're
in an exam or not, take a little time to think about what you're
being asked. If you write 10 brilliant pages answering totally the
wrong question, you might as well not bother
Before you write a word of your essay, roughly plan the structure on a blank sheet of paper.
It might sound like an awful lot of hard work, but I can promise you a decent plan will
make the actual writing far easier and vastly improve the quality of
your essay. Outside an exam, where you have a total word count to meet, one
approach is to make a list of headings (and subheadings) and roughly figure
out how many words you need to do for each section (so more important
topics get more words). In an exam, you're under pressure and you won't have time to work
out a perfect plan with exact word counts, but you can still divide the
total time you have available (say it's an hour) into so many minutes per
topic. That will avoid spending too much time on some topics and too
little on others.
When it comes to writing essays, one of the worst things students do is write in a pseudo-academic style
that tries to copy the stilted, puffed-up style you sometimes read in academic papers. Don't do it.
Write simply and clearly and do your best to make yourself understood.
As a student, your work is being read and evaluated by very intelligent teachers
and professors who can see straight past puffed-up prose and instantly tell whether your ideas are any good.
Unless you're writing literary fiction, it's always best to keep your writing clear and simple. Avoid long, convoluted sentences.
Avoid complex parenthetical sentences (where you break off midway through using dashes, commas, or brackets and then return to what
you were saying later). Be logical, be clear, and remember that you're trying to communicate
your ideas rather than obscure them.
Find out more
On other websites
- The Exam Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. From long-distance planning to last-minute revision, Cottrell is another advocate of carefully organized exam preparation.
- Painless Study Techniques by Michael Greenberg. Barron's Educational Series, 2009. A useful book in which Greenberg (an English teacher) explores time planning, how to organize your ideas, and different ways of studying different subjects.
- Exam Skills by Kate Brookes. Hodder, 2005. A calm and methodical approach to taking exams, from figuring out a revision plan to keeping cool in the examination hall.
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