20 Tips to Ace your Exams

Do you have a strategy in the examroom? Is there a good way to get focused and maximise our return on investment (i.e. marks for time spent)? This blog article shares some tips to help you be a more efficient test-taker.

  1. Attend all your classes, preparing materials before class, completing all home-work assignments, and actively participating in class discussions, activities, etc. Relate the theory to real-world contexts, and use what you learn in your own practice as soon as possible. Seeing how material is relevant to you and the wider world locks the content into your memory very effectively. If you do this well, you will retain much of the semester’s work, and you will experience much less stress as exams draw close. (You will not have to rely on cramming either!)
  2. Build strong relationships with your peers so that you can lean on them to give you a different angle on things you didn’t understand in class, or classes you miss. Also, when you help your peers in this way, your own understanding of the topic grows.
  3. Stay in the company of others who have the right attitude and focus. People who excel tend to spend their time with friends who also excel. They set high goals, plan how to achieve excellence, and consistently invest time and effort into preparation so that excellent performance is guaranteed.
  4. Do an assessment of your learning style(s) and use this knowledge to improve your study technique. If you do this, you will find that: (a) you will be able to convert material into a form you prefer so that you understand it easily, and (b) you will recall what you learn in more detail, and for longer periods.
  5. Prepare well for your exam. Preparation should include: (a) working sample questions and past papers, (b) use of your lecturer’s office hours to get feedback on whether your trial answers are correct and sufficient, or whether more is needed (with guidance to help you close the gap), (c) studying and practice across all areas in the course syllabus (spotting or random selection of topics is a no-no!). A good way to prepare for exams includes creating your own sample exam questions and answers. You and your friends could prepare a set of questions each, and have a competition to turn learning into a game.
  6. When the exam timetable is released, very visibly post up your exam dates, times, and venues. Programme the details into your phone, and set a reminder alarm if you can. Tell others your exam schedule. These actions will ensure you don’t oversleep, forget, or mix-up the exam time or date.
  7. Some days before the exam, prepare a checklist of all the items you need to take with you to the exam. These could include a calculator (programmable or non-programmable?) or other equipment (geometry set, etc.), sweater, your student ID card, etc.
  8. On the day of the exam, wake early and do not stress yourself too much. Eat on time to keep yourself focused and maintain a good energy level. Allow time for traffic if you have to commute some distance to the exam.
  9. Get to the exam room early (not just in time). Check that you are in the correct room, and seated in the correct row to write YOUR exam. You will be more likely to be able to choose a comfortable seat, as few seats will be taken when  you arrive early. Also, check that you have the correct exam paper, and that your paper has all the pages and questions.
  10. Do not be shy about raising your hand and asking the invigilator any questions you might have. If your desk is shaky, ask for it to be stabilized.
  11. Read the instructions, taking note of the duration of the exam, how many questions you must do, and whether you have question choices.
  12. Take 5 minutes and read all of the questions. If you have to choose which question(s) to do, make an estimate of the marks you think you can earn on each question. Your estimate should be based on your level of preparation in the subject area covered by the question.
  13. Choose your question order to maximise your mark-earning potential, i.e. start with the question on which you can earn the most marks (i.e. the one that is easiest to you) and leave your lowest-mark-potential question for last. Be sure to write your question order on the bottom of the front cover of the exam booklet. This ensures that all parts of your answers are seen, and marked, no matter where different bits may be placed.
  14. Plan how to use your time. If you have 2 hours to complete three questions, all worth the same number of marks, it may be a good idea to set time limits of 1/2 hour per question. This allocation leaves you with just about 1/2 hour left in your two hour exam time to check back your work, improve on answers, or fill in question parts you omitted before.
  15. Answer what you are asked, and answer fully. If your exam question is posed in a long sentence or paragraph, it will often ask you to do several things within your answer. Circle each individual deliverable that is requested in the question, and structure your answer to address each deliverable fully, one by one, if possible. This will ensure that: (a) you will not forget to do a part of a question, and (b) you will be able to effectively spot unintended omissions when you check back your work.
  16. Answer in the format requested. Look at the verbs used in the question. Words like “list”, “name”, and “identify” usually seek short, to-the-point responses, while “explain”, “rationalize”, and “justify” seek considerably more detail and discussion of your thoughts and reasoning. Structure your response appropriately. Focus, too, on fulfilling other requirements built into the question. These might include illustrating your answer with a diagram or matrix, using a specific method, or showing that you understand how the theory applies by using an example to paint a picture.
  17. Do not waste time answering what you are not asked. Sometimes, if you do not know what is asked, you may be tempted to show the examiner all the other things you do know. Resist this urge, as extraneous content is unlikely to earn you extra credit, though it will irritate the examiner who has to wade through your padded response to get to what was asked. Plus, the time you waste writing an unsought response is time you will not be able to dedicate to strengthening answers on the exam topics you do know about.
  18. Stay calm and focused. Getting flustered makes you more ineffective. Sometimes, you can get so frustrated, you might be tempted to put a line through whatever you have written and turn in a blank script. Do not delete whatever little you have written, as this could earn you enough marks to pass. Instead, take a few deep breaths. Ask an examiner to accompany you to get a drink of wafter. Speak with the examiner about your anxiety. It is better to take a few minutes to calm down and write the exam in a slightly shorter timeframe than to remain nervous and unfocused for the whole exam, and write responses that do not reflect your knowledge.
  19. If you do decide to leave the exam room due to illness or anxiety, get clear directions from the examiner about completing paperwork, getting a medical, and reporting to your lecturer or department. A medical examination that is lodged or certified by the university doctor may enable you to rewrite the exam at the next offering, without having a failing grade on your transcript.
  20. Don’t cheat. This means that you should have no notes stored in a calculator, no unapproved pieces of paper, no scribbling a on your skin… Don’t give in to the temptation even to see if the person on your left has a diagram that resembles yours. Cheating can earn you a failing grade in your course. It could get you thrown out of your programme of study. It could leave such a nasty black mark on your reputation that your work life could be affected in the future. Beyond the academic impact, the personal impact of cheating will be just awful. Nobody wants to be the subject of rumours, covert glares, pointing fingers, and sniggers. Nobody wants to be branded lazy or unethical, so keep your tactics pristine.
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