When so much depends on your exams, it’s easy to let them take over your life for a few weeks. For sure, exams are stressful and you have to put in all the hard work you can to get the results you deserve. But there are a number of things you can do to minimise exam stress and prevent your exam revision from turning into a nightmare. Here are my 12 tips on this.
Study well throughout the year
I admit, I’ve put this in as a cheeky one. Hopefully though you will have done all your assignments and gone to (almost) all your lecturers and seminars. But if you have a lot to catch up on and you’re reading this with your exams happening now, you will need a good revision plan. I’ve talked about this in #3 in my post here on how to do well in your exams. Make sure to check out the tips and let me know in the comments what you think or if you have any more questions.
Make a revision schedule
If you’re lucky, your exams will be all spaced out over a number of weeks meaning you’ll have a few days between each exam. But exam schedules aren’t always that generous and it can happen that you have all your exams in the same week, even more than one exam on one day.
In either case, I’d suggest you create a realistic schedule for your revision. Write down all your exams in your calendar. Then for each exam work your way backwards counting the number of days or weeks you will need to spend preparing for the exam. This will give you a good idea about when you need to start and how to organise your work load.
If you still have any essays or projects to hand in, treat them as if they were an exam – they are, just in a different format. The good thing about written work is that you can do it in advance, whereas if you revise for an exam too far in advance you might end up forgetting what you’ve learned. So whenever possible do your written work first, unless of course you have an exam coming up soon in which case you should prioritise that.
Create a revision plan
In your revision schedule don’t simply put the name of the exam but plan exactly what you’re going to be working on every day. Which are the topics you’re going to review on each given day, what are the questions you want to be able to understand and answer, and what materials will you read?
I can’t stress how important it is to allocate specific days and hours to specific tasks. This is a very effective way to stay focused and get things done. Every evening, write down three (big) tasks you want to complete the next day. Write down how many hours you want to spend on each and don’t move to the next task until you’ve completed the first one. Unless you’re stuck, in which case start on the next task down your list.
Organise your reading materials
When putting together the materials you’ll be revising for your exams, remember to stay focused and not to start reading too widely. Start by looking at your past essays and lecture / seminar notes and handouts. Use online journals, newspaper articles and chapters in books to fill in any gaps. Don’t try to read entire books – it’s not time-effective and you will need to read more widely for your exams.
Will you work better in a study group?
Some people study best on their own, others prefer studying with a group of friends or classmates. I have to admit I always revised on my own as after trying study groups a few times I found I wasn’t getting what I needed out of them. However, it can be really helpful to exchange ideas and knowledge with others though see what works best for you.
If you do join or set up a study group, agree with the other members how it will work and what all of you expect to get out of it. Is everyone going to be working on their own thing? Or will each of you prepare a topic and share your notes with the others? Will you discuss specific problems or questions and will you send these to each other in advance? It’s important to agree this in advance if you to prevent your revision session from turning into a social meetup over coffee and books.
Use mind maps to better understand and memorise
Personally, I’m more of a notes person than mind map person but I did use mind maps at some point during my revision for both my undergraduate and my Masters degrees – and they do work great. A mind map is basically a drawing you make to connect your ideas and knowledge. You start with the main topic in the centre – this is the general topic. From there you attach branches – these are the sub-topics. Every sub-topic will have specific questions or themes attached to it. The more levels you add to your mind map, the more specific it will become.
When creating your mind map, don’t simply connect lots of text with arrows. Write down only the keywords / -phrases, use shapes (bubbles, circles, rectangles) and 2 – 4 differently coloured pens. You can also cut out images and glue them to your mind map. Don’t spend hours doing it but the more visually interesting your mind map is, the more stimulating it will be and you’re likely to memorise information a lot better.
Create a ‘cheat sheet’. Wait, what?
Now before you think I’m encouraging you to be dishonest and break the rules, the cheat sheet I’m talking about is of course legitimate. Basically, pretend you’re creating the perfect cheat sheet to take with you into your exam. In it you would include the information and details you think you can’t memorise or you’ll forget during the exam. Except that you will NEVER take this cheat sheet with you into your exam. Instead, use this at the beginning and at the end of each revision day to learn the material that you think you’re not strong in.
Don’t simply read the information on your cheat sheet. After reading each point, stop, look up from your paper and try to explain the idea / question / concept to yourself. If you feel you can’t do it, go over your material again or have a chat with a couple of students from your course to see if they can help.
Practice answering exam questions
The type of questions you will get in your exam and how to go about answering them will depend on your subject. For both my degrees the exam questions were basically essay questions: usually 3 questions in 3 hours. What I’ve always found really helpful is practicing to write essays with the timer on. It not only helps you see how much you can write under time pressure, but it’s also great for memorising and retaining information.
Set yourself an exam question and give yourself about 5 – 10 minutes less to answer it than you would in the real exam. If you’re writing essays, either write in complete sentences or in bullet points (in the actual exam you will need to write in complete sentences unless the instructions say otherwise). Have an introduction, main body and conclusion. Don’t forget to include references also – the author, publication and year should be fine (I never included page numbers as who can remember that in an exam?).
Treat exam revision as a full-time job
I used to think that studying (or working) 14 – 16 hours a day was something you couldn’t avoid if you wanted good results. Today I know that’s not the case, in fact you can be much more efficient and effective working only 8 – 10 hours per day. What happens when you work all day long is that your energy levels and concentration start wearing off at some point. Of course many of us just working but we tend to become more slow and the quality of the work isn’t usually at its best either . Soon you start feeling exhausted and your brain becomes foggy – not the best condition to be in just before your exams.
Work less hours but work more effectively. Many experts suggest working in 40 – 50 minute bursts and to then taking a short break, no more than 5 – 10 minutes. I’d say though that if you’re in a flow and two hours have passed, that’s fine, don’t interrupt yourself. But the moment you feel you’re starting to lose concentration, you’re getting hungry or you need the toilet, take this as a sign that it’s a good time to have a break. Get up and walk around for a few minutes and take a 5 – 10 minute from your papers or computer screen.
Don’t log onto social media until you’re done
Would you hang out on Facebook or YouTube during work hours if you had a job? Of course not or you’d get into trouble and embarrass yourself. It’s the same with your exam revision. When you treat your revision as a full-time job, you should set yourself fixed working hours, for example 8am – 6pm or 9am – 7pm. Make sure to turn off all social media notifications during this time. It really shouldn’t be hard to stick to this if you know you can be back online at the end of the day. All day I’ve been fighting the urge to check my Facebook notifications – I know I can do it once I’m done with this post, so it’s fine.
Be productive before being passive. What I mean by this is, use the first hours in your day to work really hard and get your tasks done. Your mind is still fresh and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to get into the flow when you focus on just one thing. If you start your day on social media you’re diverting your brain and energy towards a more passive activity. It’s also easy to get drawn into consuming more and more content and spending far more time doing nothing really very useful when you should be revising.
Don’t forget to have a life
I don’t know about you but I always feel ten times happier, more energetic and relaxed after seeing friends. If you work effectively during the day you can enjoy seeing your friends afterwards, perhaps to cook dinner together and talk about how everyone’s day has been. Exercise can have the same effect, though I personally prefer to get it done in the morning or evening so as not to interrupt my revision during the day.
Don’t be tempted to start revising again after dinner. Take the evening off and give yourself a break. If you’ve been efficient during the day you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Watch a movie or read something you enjoy. You’ll be more energetic and rested when you start revising again the next day.
Don’t focus on failure
It’s normal to feel anxious during your exam period. But often we’re not as much stressed because we want to get the top grade – but because we’re worried we’re going to fail the entire exam. That’s exactly the wrong mindset to have. When we focus on failure we often feel helpless. And we feel helpless our anxiety levels rise even more. And when we start feeling very anxious we tend not to perform to our best ability.
It’s easy to say “deal with your anxiety”, the hard part is “how?”. My tip is to shift your mindset. Don’t focus on failure, focus on the work you’re doing now. If you’re using your time well to revise effectively then you’re doing work that will get you results. Focus on what you know and you’re doing, not on the things you should have done or you won’t be able to get done now. Tell yourself over and over again that you’re doing the best you can do and that this work can only bring you positive results. Don’t let the fear of failure bring you failure – focus on success and you’re likely to get it.
It’s easy to say don’t let exams take over your life – I definitely let them every single time but with hindsight I know I could’ve done things differently and I would probably still have had good results.
The main lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be revising all day long. In fact setting yourself a specific number of hours in the day can have a very positive effect: you know you have to get your work done during this time and, above all, that you can still do the other things you like – but after work. Knowing there’s entertainment and a social life waiting for you can really stop you from getting distracted in the day.
In my next post I’ll give you some tips on what to do in the days before your exam and during the exam itself. Why not leave me your comments below or join our private Facebook Group to exchange more ideas – I’d love to hear what you think.