You’ve worked hard revising over the past few weeks. Now the day has come: you have an exam. Will your efforts pay off? Will you remember everything? Should you stay up till late the night before doing some last minute cramming? And what if you can’t sleep at all? Beat your exam anxiety and achieve the success you deserve with these 19 Do’s and Don’ts on exam day.
Before the Exam
Don’t be the lost adventurer: Know where your exams are
Find out in which buildings and rooms your exams will take place and how to get there. This is really important, especially if you’ve never been to the exam venue before. I’ve seen quite a few situations where students would be desperately looking for the exam room on the wrong floor or even in the wrong building. There are better ways to spend the minutes before your exam.
Be a champ: Practice for the real thing with mock exams
For all my exams I’ve found it really helpful to pretend I’m sitting the exam a couple of days earlier. I’d give myself some questions, I’d set my timer and I’d start writing. I mentioned this in my last post on how to revise for your exams as it can be a very effective method to test your knowledge, and to memorise and recall information.
Be smart: Take a break from that subject for a couple of days
If you have enough time, it’s a good idea to revise your topic until you’re comfortable with it but to stop working on it 2 – 3 days before the exam. Then on the day before the exam look at your notes again and do a mock exam. This works really great as it allows you to come back to the topic with a fresh pair of eyes and to test your knowledge. You can then concentrate on the areas that you feel you still need to do some work on.
Think like a writer: Get yourself a good pen (or five)
If you have a paper-based, written exam don’t underestimate how important it is to have the right tools. Pens were a near obsession for me during my exams and I only liked one particular rollerball pen that had an extra thin tip and wrote very fluidly without losing any ink. If you do have a favourite pen, make sure to have at least 2 – 3 new ones in your pen case at the exam just in case.
Don’t be an owl: No staying up till late the night before
Of course you know this but if you don’t sleep well before your exam your performance is going to suffer. We often make the mistake of thinking that if we work really late the night before the exam, those extra hours are going to make all the difference. But in reality last-minute cramming may not really make a positive difference – whereas a good night’s sleep will, especially if you manage to sleep for 7 – 8 hours.
Don’t be an insomniac: If you can’t sleep, use this trick…
Sleep 7 – 8 hours? Hands up who’s had trouble getting any sleep at all before an exam. Trying to go to sleep and not being able to can feel like a nightmare just before an exam. If his happens to you, use this trick:
Lie in your bed in the dark, in the position that you find most comfortable. Now for each letter of the alphabet, name the first European country that comes to your mind. If that’s too easy for you, try to do the same for cities – both in the UK and the rest of Europe. Trust me, this will get so boring and tiring that you’re bound to fall asleep within a few minutes. I did it only last night, I was asleep by time I’d reached the letter N – it works every single time.
On the Day of the Exam
Be an optimist: Start your exam day with the right mindset
I know it’s easier said than done but it’s really important to have a positive attitude and keep calm on the day of your exam. There is no point in feeling anxious now. There’s nothing you can do to avoid exam failure except going into your exam with the attitude that you’re going to give it your best shot. Remember, this is your opportunity, don’t let negativity or doubt drag you down. I truly believe that if you’re determined to succeed, you will do your best to make it happen.
Remember what nutritionists say: Hydrate and have a high protein breakfast
As soon as you get up, drink two glasses of water and have a high protein breakfast within 30 minutes. I’ll spare you the arguments nutritionists use for why protein-rich food is good for the brain and body. The simple reason I’m suggesting a protein-packed breakfast on exam day is that it will keep you full for longer.
Try having eggs and beans (double protein), an egg and cheese sandwich, Greek (preferred) or normal yogurt with banana, cereals (though many cereals are high on carbs, low on protein) with milk, or a milk + Greek yogurt + fruit smoothie. Take a sandwich or energy bar with you into the exam in case you get hungry, as well as a bottle or water or a soft drink if you prefer.
Keep hydrated as it’s essential for performance and concentration but you don’t want too many trips to the toilet during your exam. If you’ve drunk enough water since you’ve woken up, stop drinking about ½ hour before going into the exam.
Be an early bird: Avoid the stress of arriving late for your exam
Plan to arrive at the exam venue at least 30 minutes before the exam starts, especially if you’re taking public transport or are driving. When I was at university, I had to take two buses to get to campus and at least one of them was always late, meaning I would often miss my connection. You don’t need any stress waiting for a bus or train, or having to find parking. To be on the safe side, leave your home at least 45 minutes than you would usually.
Be sociable: Chat with your classmates, joke, laugh…relax
When you arrive at the exam venue, there’ll be a buzz about the place as everyone from your course will be there also. Start chatting to a few people – about anything but the exam. If you talk about your revision or the exam there’s a risk someone might say something that might give you doubt or make you feel negative. You want to avoid any type of stress or feeling of nervousness now. Steer the conversion towards fun and silly things, make a joke – relax and help your friends relax, too.
Don’t be a cheat: How to legitimately use your notes
I’m sure there are some people that will say don’t look at your notes in the last minutes before entering the exam venue, but it’s a personal choice. I used to take a quick look at my mind maps in case they reminded me of a thing or two. Whatever you decide to do, you would of course NEVER take your notes with you into the exam hall – unless they’re in your bag tucked away in a corner at least a few metres away from you.
Make yourself comfortable: No tight clothes or wobbly chair
Another benefit of arriving at the exam venue early is that you’ll be among the first to get in. Look for your desk (for all my exams desks were numbered and allocated) and check it carefully. If your desk or chair are wobbly, you’ll want them changed. Or, if you spot anything that you think might distract you, make sure to tell the exam invigilator so they can sort it out before the exam starts.
Also, I should have mentioned this earlier: Make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothes and layer up with a cardigan or zip up sweater in case it’s too hot or cold in the exam room.
Don’t rush: Read the instructions and questions carefully
When you’re told to turn over the exam paper, take your time to read the instructions and questions carefully. Now is not the right moment to skim read – even the smallest word could be very important for what you’re being asked to do. Make sure you understand the instructions: How many questions do you have to answer, from which sections (if relevant), in how many hours? The same goes for the essay questions (if it’s an essay format). Look carefully whether you’re being asked to ‘discuss’, ‘compare and contrast’ or ‘agree or disagree’. These words really matter and you will have to adapt your answer accordingly.
Don’t be a politician: Answer the question
Just to carry on from my last point, I can’t stress how important it is to actually answer the question. By that I don’t mean simply writing something, but rather making sure that everything you write is directly relevant to the question.
Just to share with you one of my personal experiences: When I was an undergraduate, I used to revise for my exams preparing lots of notes and even essays on each topic. In a couple of exams I just repeated what I could remember from those essays and I got good – but not top – marks. In my other exams I actually adapted my answers so they perfect fit and addressed the exam question. My grades in these exams were about 7 – 10% higher, so the results actually went up from a 2.1 to a 1st class – a huge and important difference.
Be a strategist: Decide how much time to spend on each section
Another thing that’s really important to do is to write down for yourself how long you’re going to spend on each section or question. You may want to allocate roughly the same time to all of them, but it’s better to decide based on how much each section / question will count. You won’t be able to take your mobile phone with you, so just keep an eye the clock on the wall in the exam room instead.
I’ll share with you another story: In my first undergraduate exam I had to answer three questions in two hours. I spent 1:45 hours on the first two questions and only managed a short answer for the third one. I did this on purpose because I knew the first two topics much better. It was a gamble and not a good one. The grade for that exam was the lowest I got in any of my exams. I learned the lesson and for all my future exams I made sure I gave every question / section the time they deserved.
Don’t get stuck: If you don’t have a clue, move on
You will work much more effectively if you work on only one section / question at a time. Don’t jump between different tasks as your brain will need to adapt to the new information every time and this will slow you down. However, if you’re stuck on a task and you really don’t know what to do, move on to the next one. Often, the information comes back to us when we’re focused on something else. Just remember to go back to the earlier task once you’re done.
Don’t be a superhero: If you need a break, take one
Some people go into the exam room, sit down, start writing away and don’t get up until the exam is over. Others need to take a small break between tasks. Do whatever works best for you but what I would say is that, if you feel that you need a break, take it. It’s better to ‘lose’ 5 minutes to go to the toilet or sit there quietly with your eyes closed to get your concentration back, than to be distracted for the rest of your exam by the fact that you’re feeling uncomfortable.
Don’t be a doctor: Make sure the examiner can read your handwriting
Another advantage of practicing writing your exams before the real thing is that you’ll be able to see what your handwriting is like when you write under time pressure. Put yourself in the shoes of the examiner and consider whether they would be able to easily read your handwriting.
I don’t think the examiner can mark you down just because your handwriting is bad (unless the exam regulations say they can). But your mark could still suffer if what you’ve written is so difficult to read that the examiner misses important points or arguments you’ve made.
Don’t be a diva: When they say it’s over, stop writing
When the exam invigilator says “stop writing”, they mean “stop writing”. Don’t try to squeeze in another sentence as they won’t be happy if they catch you. Obviously if you’re writing a sentence and you’re just writing down the last word, you should be able to get that in. But don’t start a new sentence – you won’t be able to finish it and it’s really not going to make a difference now.
Don’t look back: Focus on what you need to do next
When the exam is over, breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy that it’s done now. If the exam hasn’t gone completely to plan, don’t waste time fretting and instead focus on your next exam or plans. Use what happened in this exam as a learning experience: What went well, what went wrong and why? What could you do better the next time round, what should you avoid? Remember, the only way is forward.
Many people say that exams don’t make sense for learning because you tend to forget what you’ve done within a short time. I admit that is often the case, but I can tell you from my professional experience that your exam skills can be very useful for your later career and beyond.
Sitting an exam above all teaches you a lot about yourself. How you deal with pressure, how determined you are, how hard you’re willing to work for success and whether you continue despite the sweat and tears or whether you throw your pen down and give up.
From the 19 tips I’ve shared with you in this post, if I had to pick one that I think is the most important, it would be #7: Having the right mindset. There’s plenty of evidence around us to show that failure and success are determined by our attitude. I truly believe that.
What about you – which of the above tips would you have picked? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or by joining me on Facebook.