How to Ace Exams

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It's crazy to think that I have officially finished all of my written examinations/tests for my Masters.  I've taken a lot of tests in my life and feel like I've mastered how to effectively revise and work up until the exam is done.  Check out an older post I did here on exam tips for university; all of which still apply.  Here is a suggested timeline to ace exams:

2-3 weeks before

Re-listen to lectures.  If you are able to re-listen and watch lectures, a facility many institutions in the UK provide, I highly recommend doing so.  If your University or College does not do this, ask if you can record the lecture on your phone or purchase a recorder. It's a great way to visually or audibly consolidate the information again.  It works to subtly re-fire your memory and neurones if you were present in the lecture when it occurred live.  Don't be afraid to take notes verbatim because I find that this helps, not only understand the information, but to apply it to various contexts.

Clean up your notes.  If you take notes in class, be sure to type them out or re-write them neatly.  This is a great way to consolidate the information and is an active form of revision. Having a clean set of notes is a form of subconscious motivation to study.  Have you ever seen those Pinterests of gorgeous notes which made you feel like working?  On the other hand, if you made notes verbatim, be sure to take out any unnecessary information or reword it in a more memorable manner.  Personally, if a lecturer tends to speak with a lot of eloquence and hi-fi language, I get confused about the concepts I am meant to learn.  Therefore, re-write your notes to fit your natural speaking style and it's more likely to stick. 

Format notes appropriately.  I will be doing specific posts on how to revise for different types of exams (i.e MCQ, essay, math, and short-answer/free response questions) but try to make your notes in the format of the exam.  If you have MCQs, you can get away with bullet points and block paragraphs when it comes to essays.

Understand all the material.  It is important to ensure you understand all the material ahead of time.  No point trying to learn notes you cannot comprehend as leaving it to last minute will only hinder your mark.  Clear any existing doubts at least 2-3 weeks before the exam, if possible, with your lecturer, friends, or other resources.  This will make memorising a lot easier.  

Invest in a whiteboard. Having a whiteboard has significantly improved my grades by marginal amounts.  Writing down the information as I learn it is vital.  It triggers active learning instead of passive which will really help you hit those higher grade boundaries.  Be sure to buy one well in advance to your exams so you are more likely to use it. 

Save notes on your phone.  If you have a smart phone, more often than not, you are able to save your notes as a pdf file into iBooks for example.  It is a great way to keep rereading material whilst on the tube or before falling asleep.  Sometimes it helps to read the same material in different ways: I have printed, hand-written, and online versions of the same set of notes.  Furthermore, there are apps available that read out your pdfs or documents so you can listen whilst on the go or record yourself on the 'Voice Note' application.  This is great if you are someone that is an audible learner.  I've used this for research papers that I haven't had time to read before class on my walk to university.  In addition, having my notes on my phone significantly helped when on tube rides when I didn't want to pull out my entire binder. 

1 week before

Break down the topics.  In order to effectively manage your time, it helps to break down each module into subtopics and see how much you need to revise.  If you have multiple exams coming up, I find it helpful to revise a bit of each module a day and dedicating the whole day to one module the day before the test.  This aids in preventing boredom in revising one subject monotonously and keeps the brain active throughout the process. 

Get an app.  Sometimes, we have to admit we have a problem.  I have a tendency to reach for my phone every 2 minutes.  Therefore, I got the Forest App which aims to use the pomodoro method of completing tasks.  You can adjust the timer from 10-120 minutes and a tree will grow.  If you exit the app, your tree dies but if you succeed then you can have a beautiful forest.  I thought it was a cute incentive and it worked wonders for me.  It keeps track of how much time you spent working in a day, week, month, and year.  After a certain number of hours of total work (which is 2500 tree coins - I've earned about 1300 in the last week from exams), you have opportunity to plant a real tree!  

Print your notes.  Read through your notes and correct them appropriately and then print them.  Having work on your laptop can cause unnecessary distractions.  Nothing can save you unless you use the 'Control' App for example.  Having notes on paper reduces the odds of flipping to facebook or checking twitter, especially if you also use the Forest app and your laptop is off.  

2-3 days before

Cover all the material.  At this point, you should've covered all of the material for the upcoming exam at least once.  Memorisation and recall may not be complete but you should be able to recognise any information if placed in front of you.  Try to recite the information out loud or write/type everything you know about a particular topic.  I personally like testing myself by making a mind-map of the subtopics.  

Complete practice material.  It is important to use up all the past papers and essays that you can source.  This is vital as mark schemes give you insight on what the examiner is looking for.  Furthermore, more often than not, at University level, it is easier to question-spot and have repeats of past papers or similar questions.  This is also a good time to address any possible time-management issues. 

List what you don't know.  Make a list of everything you don't know or keep forgetting and refer back to that information consistently.  Don't revise what you know as that is not beneficial.  

1 day before

Passive learning.  At this point, all the information should be familiar to you.  If you had to write an essay, short answer questions, or multiple choice questions, it shouldn't be too difficult.  There may be topics that you aren't familiar with or struggling to remember but continue to refer back to the material that you don't know.  The day before, just focus on the exam coming up the next day and no other modules unless they are on the same day.  Read through your notes from top to bottom and make sure to get a good night's sleep. 

Exam day

Wake up early. Your brain retains a lot of information in the morning.  Read through your 'What I don't know' list and any other notes you wish to study.  More often than not, it is unnecessary to go through your material on the morning of the test but sometimes it provides confidence and keeps the information fresh. This helped me for my Policy exam (which was today!) as one of the questions referred to a topic I hadn't paid much attention to the day before.  

Read the questions carefully.  Don't hesitate to spend the first few minutes (5 minutes max) reading through the question paper.  Subconsciously, your brain will be planning answers for them and this can save time later on.  Scoping out the paper helps you to recall information faster and can boost confidence if the paper isn't as daunting as one had thought.  It is a good chance to quickly answer any questions that you are very confident on to get them out of the way if you do not need to answer questions chronologically.  This is effective time management.  

Talk to yourself.  Do you ever have those moments where, you ask someone a question, but talking it out enabled you to find the answer yourself?  Sometimes you need to mouth out your thought process to find the solution.  Obviously, don't speak out loud because I am sure that is cheating, but use your hands and even draw out potential answers to yourself on scrap paper.  

Reward yourself!  After it is all done, go and enjoy life after having your nose in a book for so long.  No feeling is better than working hard and finishing a task.  

Remember, it's hard work to work hard so don't get discouraged and keep pushing!  You'll never regret trying your best and working hard.  


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