Beyond Intelligence: 3 Tips for Exam Success Through Organisation
Preparing for important exams such as GCSEs and A-Levels can be one of the most stressful times for any student, especially when it seems like some people are always a few steps ahead. Often the easiest way to justify this difference to ourselves is to cite intelligence as an unfair advantage. However, I have always believed that within a group of students, there is often little disparity in raw ‘intelligence’ but rather subtle variations in the way that successful students approach their learning and exam preparation.
This article will present 3 academic improvements, with a focus on organisation, which are often neglected but that all students who want to perform well should try to implement.
1) Content Organisation
When we know that exams are many months away, most students will enter a mindset of only focusing on the daily content rather than considering the course as a whole. I attribute a lot of my exam success to the simple practice of keeping track of where I am within the syllabus or specification as a whole. Context within studies is so important. Not only does this mean that you are unlikely to forget to study an important part of the course but it also encourages focus by displaying the title of main topics for easy progress tracking and a sense of achievement when each section is understood.
The first thing that I always do when starting a new course is to download the online PDF version of the specification which includes every facet of learning that is expected as well as the topic titles which allows students to organise their notes systematically and revision by the difficulty of certain topics.
To stay organised, students should use the highlighting feature of most PDF editors such as Adobe Acrobat or MacOS Preview to visually show the topics that have been completed. I prefer this to printing as it saves paper and there is the ability to change the highlight colour such as to indicate topics that are particularly difficult and should be revisited.
This system can be modified to work for any student such as highlighting titles when topics have been revised, writing notes to remember areas that you struggled with or just using different colours. The specification essentially becomes a ‘master’ document which gives context to all learning and will follow you until the exams are finished.
2) Planning Time Effectively to Allow for a Balanced Life
Something that many endeavouring students forget when studying for important exams such as those for university entrance is to keep a balanced life. We convince ourselves that every waking moment should be put towards improving our performance in those future exams. This can be seen as a good attitude by family and even encouraged by schools but from my experience it is not a sustainable way of life. This obsessive attitude is definitely something that I have struggled with and will in time lead to burnout which causes loss of motivation and weak exam performance.
To combat this all-consuming mentality, I have found that planning out a given day with non-negotiable activities is a good method. Frequent exercise is truly essential. For me, the ideal seems to be around 4 hours per week of exercise that truly pushes my body. During this planned time, try to not think about all the other things that are demanding your attention, turn on silent mode on your phone and try to listen to music rather than an audiobook or podcast.
This article just includes some pointers, the best way for exercise and social activities to become a part of your life is to implement them in your own individual way, thinking about what we can to study effectively in the long term is the first step.
I also try to remember Parkinson’s Law, which states that:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
When related to studying, I take this to mean that we can get the same amount of revision and learning completed in less time by simply allocating less time to complete that revision and learning in. The rest of the time should be put towards unrelated tasks like hobbies, exercise, social events and learning new skills. That way after the exams are finished, we will have more than a qualification. Just remember not to forget about the importance of time being put towards exam preparation. Consistent revision is still needed for strong performance and should certainly not be neglected.
3) Prioritise Future Tasks With To-Do Lists
One of the most well-known pieces of advice is to maintain a system of task management which often takes the form of a to-do list. However, I have often been surprised at just how many students fail to make use of this very simple yet indispensable method of organisation. Perhaps the most stressful element of preparing for an important exam is the sheer number of tasks that have to be complete. This can be overwhelming yet small changes to the humble to-do list can alleviate this problem that all students face.
Prioritisation of tasks gives clarity about relative importance to effectively allocate our time. Not all tasks are equal, should you organise your stationary before you go through a deck of flashcards? Probably not.
It has been said that our brains are more computation machines rather than memorisation machines. Therefore, if we offload all of the small tasks we have to do into a centralised system then it frees up our minds to focus on thinking rather than keeping track of tasks. Put everything that you want to get done during a given day or week into a to-do list with consideration for priorities and the associated stress will correspondingly reduce. Planning in advance means that you know where your time is spent, where you want it to be spent and reduces the possibility of being surprised after having forgotten an important deadline. Take the time to prioritise and plan and your future self will thank you.
- Give yourself context when studying — tunnel vision is not ideal and details should only be added when the fundamentals are understood.
- Keep a balanced life — focusing almost all your time on schoolwork is a recipe for burnout and under-performance.
- Have a robust system of task setting and to-do lists — this limits stress and the possibility of unforeseen surprises occurring.
Thank you for taking the time to read my advice about this subject. Feel free to get in contact for more details or to tell me advice of your own. I plan to release more articles as I improve my writing ability and consolidate my thoughts so keep an eye open for that.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.