Advice from an exam survivor

How are you supposed to prepare for an exam when your lecturers, in their infinite wisdom a la Professor Snape, haven’t given you anything to go on and refuse to help? Hopefully these tips will give you an answer, and let you keep all your hair….by Sara Nyhuis

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You have an exam coming up. There are no practice questions because the exam hasn’t changed in over five years. All you know is that you have approximately five million multiple choice questions to answer, twenty diagrams to draw, and a ten page essay at the end. “But it’s okay because I remember all the course material and I’m super prepared,” said no one. Ever.

In my first year, my first exam was BIO1011. A daunting task of 144 multiple choice questions, and all the lecturers said was that there would be six questions per lecture. As it was my first uni exam, I felt a bit like Harry every time he faced Voldemort; a confusing mixture of completely doomed and too cocky for my own good. Then second year came along, and suddenly I had six exams and a desperate need for a time turner, my only saving grace being that my friends all felt as lost as I did.

Because exams are hard, and that’s why we have them. But here’s my advice, and what I’ve done for every exam that I’ve felt I’ve been given no direction in (and so far so good!).

Revision and preparation

Figure out the key topics. For multiple choice exams, your best bet is subheadings. Like in BIO1011, if you have six questions for each lecture and six subheadings, you can pretty safely bet that you’re going to have one question for each.

Know it inside out. Study until you can call yourself a know-it-all and be proud about it. It sounds like an impossible task, but once you’ve broken down your lectures into sections, you can tackle those sections one at a time, write yourself out some questions, and really get to know them.

Avoid cramming. We’ve all done the last minute cram until 3am, frantically trying to memorise every circulatory system in the animal kingdom (well, maybe not there specifically). We stuff everything into the short term memory file and forget it the second we walk out the door. But as long as you’ve done the exam, that’s fine, right?

Wrong. Most units follow on sequentially, with the first providing foundations for the second. If you get a decent night’s sleep before an exam, you will retain more long term information than a 3am V-fuelled stint. Exams aren’t designed for short term memorisation, but long term depth of knowledge that needs to be understood properly to be applied. Not only will the question actually look like English rather than Klingon, but you will feel more relaxed because you’re able to answer it confidently.

You might think mnemonics are corny, but they really work. Can’t remember the Order of Classification? That’s fine, just ask yourself what Barbie said to Ken and you’ll remember it. Unfortunately the answer to that is probably too inappropriate for this article, but you get the idea - there are plenty of memory tricks available on the web, and they do actually work for the long term.

In the exam

You’re in the exam, your hand cramps are getting debilitating and your pen just ran out... I’m pretty certain we’ve all felt like either curling into the foetal position or storming out in a blaze of glory at this point, never to return. So how do you stay focused?

Use your reading time. Seriously. It’s given to you for a reason. Take your time, actually use it, and prepare some answers in your head to get you started.

Stick with what you know. Answer the questions you know first. Get them out of the way so you can devote more time to the harder questions later, knowing that you’ve at least answered something. Multiple choice questions can be knocked out in two minutes flat if you answer the easy ones first.

Process of elimination. In multiple choice exams, the harder questions can often be tackled by working out what the answer isn’t before working out what it is.

Read the questions. It may sound ridiculous, but my biggest failing in exams has been to misread the question. Read it several times over, underline key words if you have to, and make sure you know what it wants from you.

Identify key terms. Underline them, highlight them, throw a party for them - do what you will, but make sure you know what they are. Most questions will use key terms, and they are an enormous hint. So do your markers’ bidding and use them.

After the exam


But seriously. Relax. And don’t immediately study for your next one, because that’s just brain cruelty. Go have some lunch and take a break, then share your exam techniques here to help other students do as well as you just did.

Good luck!

Sara Nyhuis is one of the students we asked to write an article for the Library blog that focuses on their exam strategies and tips. We publish articles providing information and professional advice from our learning skills advisers and librarians but we thought we'd hear from students, too. We want to know what works for them, particularly at this critical time when students need to make the grade.  

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