How to Pass Exams: Study Tips for Success

Sitting Exams Can Be a Stressful Experience

Sailors take their advancement exams.
Sailors take their advancement exams. | Source

"If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail."

Benjamin Franklin

Exams Are Part of Life

There are few people who can get through modern life without having to sit some kind of test or exam. Many exams involve writing or using a computer. Others may take the form of an oral test or a practical exercise to demonstrate skills learned.

Because the outcome of exams and tests are so important, it’s natural for a person to feel stressed in the run-up to the big day. The key to performing your best at this crucial time is to do everything you can to minimize this tension. The tips given in this article will help you perform the best you can in your exams.

Steps to Effective Revision Study

Important to note
Distraction-free environment
No TV or phone calls!
Prioritize your work
Tackle most difficult task first
First read-through of material
For general comprehension only
Second read-through
Make notes of key points
Use your senses to help memory
Listen to audio and DVD as well as reading text
Test yourself to rehearse for the exam
This can be done with a study-buddy
Take short breaks during study periods
Exercise or short naps can help refresh you
Continue to self-test periodically
Helps to reinforce learning

Plan Your Revision and Look at Previous Exam and Test Papers

Making a revision timetable should not be a bigger project than the revision itself. Don't be tempted to subdivide each hour into the minutiae of the subjects you need to study. Keep any study timetable as simple as possible.

Try and get some exam papers from previous years. These will give you an idea of the type of questions that are likely to appear in this year. Your school of college may be able to provide these. Alternatively, you can buy previous years’ papers direct from the examining boards.

Your teachers and lecturers may give some hints on the topics likely to be on the examination paper. However, their hints are based on guesswork and you should still make sure you cover the majority of the syllabus in your revision plans.

I recommend you read "Study Skills 365". This handy book has 365 hints and tips to help you study more effectively. By learning one new study tip each day you can increase your exam skills in small, easy chunks. The tips are concise and witty. One of my favorites is quoted below.

The Right Time Can Make the Difference

"Are you a morning person? A night owl? Do you hit your stride around midday? Experiment studying at different times during the day and find out what time works best for you. By finding your ideal study time, you may end up working less with more reward."

(Joshua Shifrin "Study Skills 365")

How to Revise in Three Easy Steps

1. The first time you revise your course texts and lecture notes you are reading to gain a broad understanding of the subject. At this stage it's more important that you grasp overall concepts than to make revision notes.

2. You will revisit the topic in a second reading. At this stage you should underline key phrases or jot down keywords as you go through your course notes. This active learning method will help you to understand and remember your subject in greater detail.

3. The notes you make doing this will also act as an aide memoir (something that jogs your memory on key points) which can be referred to a few days before the exam.

How to Study Effectively

Eat Proper Meals, Exercise and Drink Water

Throughout your revision period if you eat healthily and exercise regularly it will help to reduce your stress levels. It’s tempting to think it doesn’t matter if you exist on junk food because you’re too busy to prepare real meals. But a good night's sleep and a balanced diet can help improve your mental alertness and ability to study.

The day before you sit the exam you should make sure that you have eaten proper meals and have taken some exercise. This will help you to relax and achieve a good night’s sleep. Alcohol should be avoided the night before an exam as its effect is to dehydrate you. Drinking water during revision period and examinations is thought to improve a student’s academic performance.

The Day of the Exam

If you are studying at school, college or university, then your exam may be held in a room you've in before. However if you've been following a distance learning course then the location of the exam may be new to you.

Whatever your situation, it's important to familiarize yourself with the test location. Think about how you're getting there. There's nothing worse than getting stuck in a traffic jam on your way to an exam. It’s a good idea to do a practice run a few days before the exam to see how long the journey will take you. On the actual day of the exam make sure you allow some extra time for the journey “just in case”.

How do you feel about exams?

  • I love the challenge
  • I get terrified, but I make an effort to revise
  • I don't bother to revise and then I fail
  • I refuse to sit exams
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Inside the Exam Room: The Exam Itself

Your teacher or lecturer will tell you the rules of the exam room. This will include instructions about what can and cannot be taken into the examination.

It is common practice for cell phones (mobiles) to have to be left outside the exam hall. If you're unsure about whether or not you're allowed to take something important into the room with you, try and find out before the day of the exam itself. This will prevent you becoming more stressed than necessary. For example, if you need to have an asthma inhaler with you, the rules of the college may require you to inform the examination supervisor of this health measure.

For the exam itself, make sure you have several pens and pencils. If you are allowed to do so, have a bottle of water on your desk. There is usually a clock on the wall of the exam room and you can use this to pace yourself through the exam. The time allowed to complete an exam is designed to give the average student sufficient time to complete all questions. A very able student may finish in a shorter time and a poor student may struggle. In order to give you the best chance of gaining a pass mark or above, you will need to pace yourself through the exam.

Pace Yourself and Do Your Best

1. When instructed to do so, you will turn over the exam paper and look at the questions. Don't be tempted to scan quickly through as you may start to panic.

2. Calmly read through each question and make a mark against those that you think are particularly easy or particularly difficult. Allow yourself no more than five minutes for this.

3. The remaining period of the exam should then be divided equally between the number of questions you need to answer. For example, if it's a three-hour paper and you need to answer five questions then you have half an hour for each question, plus five minutes at the start for the read-through, and 25 minutes at the end for final checking.

You may answer the exam questions in any order you like. Make sure that you number the questions correctly so that the examiner knows which question you have answered. Choose one of the ones you think is relatively easy as your first question to answer. This will give you some confidence and help you relax. Next try one of the more difficult questions as you are still relatively fresh. The remaining questions can then be tackled in any order. Keep an eye on how time is passing and make sure you move onto the next question promptly even if you haven’t completely answered each question.

How to Deal With Exam Stress

Structuring Your Answers

Each answer should take the form of a mini essay. Start with an introductory paragraph to open up the topic. Next discuss the main meat of the argument which will include the pros and cons. You can then finish with a final summing up paragraph. Your answer must be written using correct grammar and complete sentences. Spelling is important too. Examiners will mark you down if you use text-speak rather than writing grammatically correct English.

Gaining Crucial Extra Marks

If you have paced yourself through the exam as planned, then you'll have made sure you have some time left after answering the required questions to reread and check over your answers. Often you will spot some obvious factual errors, or a couple of spelling mistakes. By having allowed sufficient time to correct these, you can gain the crucial extra marks to move you into a better grade.

Exams are test your knowledge and skills. However, exam technique also plays a crucial role in how well you perform in these tests. Stay focused and calm and you'll be able to effectively demonstrate the extent and depth of your knowledge.

Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible and suddenly you're doing the impossible.

Francis of Assisi

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