1. Mindset is Everything
A positive mindset coupled with confidence in your own ability to learn a subject/skill will give you a massive head start from the outset.
This is rooted in something known as the ‘growth mindset’, which is a powerful approach to learning and has been found to have an unparalleled impact on student success.
The growth mindset is the idea that although you may not be good at something ‘yet’, it is only temporary. If you continue to apply effort and practise it then it is inevitable that you will get better and eventually become very knowledgeable and competent in it.
Adopting this mindset will give you a massive advantage over others; not only in the context of school and exams but in all areas of life. It will mean that you can learn and excel in new fields rapidly, allowing you to pursue whatever you desire and also stand out from the crowd.
I can say from personal experience that adopting this approach from an early age helped me drastically during my A-levels where there were undoubtedly students who had more natural ability in certain subjects than I did.
However, I still achieved higher grades than them because I had a deep-rooted confidence in my ability rather than giving voice to the worries and negativity. It’s as simple as making a choice to believe rather than not believe.
2. Plan Ahead
It is extremely important that you plan far ahead when it comes to exams or for that matter anything which has a strict deadline – as per Murphy’s Law, ‘anything which can go wrong, will go wrong’. This means that things will always take longer than you anticipate.
So, there is truth in the heavily over used cliché ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. Without planning a comprehensive schedule well in advance, it’s very easy to let things slip away from you through procrastination. This procrastination will lead to you becoming increasingly overwhelmed, regretful and negative as the quantity left to do gets larger and larger compared to the time remaining.
However, this can be oh so easily prevented through proper time management. Do this by drawing up a detailed schedule, breaking down the workload over an extended period of time, preferably 3-6 months, but at a minimum 1-3 months.
This will avoid you feeling excessive pressure, which leads to stress, which is extremely counterproductive, and an unproductive use of time. If you find it hard to plan a schedule and break things down into manageable portions, then recruit the help of a friend or family member.
3. Be Calm
Remaining calm is a crucial aspect of doing well in exams, or any high-pressure task. Being calm allows you to see things clearly, unaffected by emotions which can often blur our vision.
It is natural to feel the pressure and even have worries, but it’s how you respond to them that is critical. As mentioned in tip #2, it is extremely counterproductive to get stressed out and panic.
A good technique to use to help you to stay calm is to not focus or even think about the outcome, because in the end that is what we almost always stress out about.
Instead you should focus on doing the right things and giving them your all; it is then natural that the desired outcome will usually follow. Take it from me giving too much weight to the outcome and allowing that to control your actions is a self-sabotaging practice.
It can make you freeze and do nothing at all in fear that it still won’t be enough to achieve the exact outcome you want. Understand that the outcome that you think you want the most is probably the least important reason for why you should do it. Instead, think about the benefits you will get from the process and the way you can grow irrespective of the outcome.
Be driven by the process of self-improvement and growth not the result, this will in turn allow you to remain calm and do what needs to be done.
4. Sit Practise Papers – the More the Better
Perhaps the most valuable and most direct way of ensuring you do well in your exams is to do past examples of the exact thing you will be assessed with.
It always surprises me how little people actually do of this kind of focused revision. When explaining the importance of this to students I like to use the example of preparation in sport. Take football for instance; in preparation for matches it would be a very ineffective preparation for players to spend their whole training time practising by themselves, doing kick ups or some other kind of rarely used trick.
Instead, in preparation for matches, teams spend time training together, putting together the various aspects they’ve practised and learnt behind the scenes, trying their best to replicate real game scenarios in as realistic a context as possible.
This same logic applies to your exams and for that matter anything else where you will be put on the spot and tested, you need to practice being in that place where the pressure can make it so much harder to perform, get used to that feeling, so that when it comes down the real thing you’re ready.
By spending too much time making notes and reading textbooks you are effectively practising in a closed off and unrealistic format, meaning that you will always struggle to make the shift in approach to the real thing.
Most students tend to put exam papers off right until the end because they tend to put you out of your comfort zone, requiring you to think for yourself and adapt your knowledge of the subject to different contexts.
It is important to not allow this to control you and to realise that the thing you are putting off the most is the one likely to make the biggest difference. So, the best way to prepare is to practise the actual thing you will be tested on.
5. Use and Study the Mark Schemes
Mark schemes are an invaluable resource that tend to go heavily underused. The mark schemes are what the examiners use to mark your answers; they tell them how to differentiate between good answers and not such good answers.
Therefore, it almost seems obvious that a key hack is to remember and learn: what marks are given for (the assessment objectives); how many marks are given for each assessment objective; and the types of answers they are looking for to a wide range of questions – there are clear consistencies.
By identifying and remembering these consistencies in the mark schemes it will become much clearer how to gain the marks efficiently and concisely.
Without understanding the mark schemes and marking criteria you will be effectively stumbling around in the dark hoping you come across the right answer, meaning that you will most likely see very inconsistent results.
6. Plan Your Answers
A very good way of ensuring you have a soundly structured answer which flows well is to do a quick 2-5 minute plan beforehand. Doing this stops you forgetting key aspects; it also allows you to write continuously without having to stop to think up new points to say.
Although you may think it is a waste of time in what is already a very time-pressured situation, it will actually save you time and gain you marks, as you work more efficiently without going off on tangents. Thus, to make your answers as streamlined and direct as possible it is essential to plan.
7. Teach People What You’ve Learned
The best way to check if you fully understand what you’re learning and to practise explaining it clearly as you would be expected to in the exam is to teach it.
If you can explain Perfect Competition to an English Student, depreciation to a musician, or even differentiation to an artist, in a way that they understand it, then it’s likely you can do the same in response to an exam question on it.
Doing this type of thing with your friends and family will not only help you to rehearse and revise various concepts but also allow you to gain a deeper understanding of them in a way that you would otherwise not have had.
8. Write it Down, Don’t Just Read!
Writing things down rather than just reading over them is key to remembering and understanding them. It is very easy to spend all your time just reading over class notes, handouts, or textbooks but this is not really going to sink in to your memory the way you need it to.
It will also do little or nothing to train you to adapt your knowledge to different contexts and exam questions. Writing things down not only makes them more memorable but also allows you to adjust them in your own words and practise applying them to different contexts – both of which are essential skills to develop to do well in the exam.
With the new educational syllabuses and exams, it is no longer enough to just learn and remember the key points; now the exams require you to be able to apply your own knowledge of the subject area to solve different problems or questions. Thus, writing things down whether it be in the format of just notes or answering questions is the right way to go about it.
9. Take Breaks at Convenient Intervals
This is sometimes referred to as the Pomodoro technique, a good way of breaking down a hefty work load into physically and mentally manageable stints. The Pomodoro technique prescribes that you should work with FULL attention for only 20/25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break to keep your mind fresh.
You should use this technique for less procrastinating and more efficient, focused studying. When thinking about a large amount to get done it can become overwhelming leading to you taking the easy way out, which is doing nothing at all and procrastinating.
Thus, the best way to prevent this from happening to you is to use the Pomodoro technique which will help you break down the long term destination into a series of short term reachable checkpoints.
After all, as the saying goes ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with 1 step’, something the Japanese have been using for decades to their avail.
10. Monitor Your Time in the Exam
It may sound obvious, but you NEED to finish the exam. In most exams the most heavily weighted questions, in terms of marks, are at the end of the paper. So, by running out of time you are missing out on properly answering the most valuable questions.
Most exams are split into different parts (e.g. section A, section B, etc.), so before the exam you should have a clear time frame established for each section and make sure you stick to it whether you finish the section fully or not.
A good strategy to use in the exam is to do a time check after answering each question to see whether you are running on time or falling behind, which will tell you whether you need to speed up slightly – the earlier you catch it the less you’ll need to speed up!
Managing your time effectively in the exam is a critical aspect to answering each question to your full potential and in turn scoring a high mark in the exam.
11. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep plays a vital role in learning and consolidating information. Sleep is essential for our brains to function properly, enabling it to convert things we’ve learned from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. This means that for things to sink in, you need to get enough sleep (7-9 hours is the amount recommended for people between 16-25 years old).
There is a great number of studies backing up the link between sleep and learning. Research indicates that sleep does more than allow the brain to rest, it actually allows the brain to create neurological linkages for the new information learned, allowing us to consolidate and remember the information.
Science tells us that it is Slow-wave, or non-REM (NREM) sleep, which is associated with the consolidation of declarative (explicit) memories; these are the facts which need to be consciously remembered for your exams.
A study was conducted where subjects learned word pairs, and the results showed that sleep not only prevents the decay of memory, but also actively fixates declarative memories.
Two of the groups in the experiment learned word pairs, then either slept or stayed awake, and were tested again. The other two groups did the same thing, except they also learned interference pairs right before being retested to try to disrupt the previously learned word pairs.
The results showed that sleep was of some help in retaining the word pair associations, while against the interference pair, sleep helped significantly.
One way that sleep strengthens memories is by weeding out the less successful connections between neurons in the brain, in order to allow it to strengthen other connections whilst we are awake. Learning is the process of strengthening connections, therefore this process could be a major explanation for the benefits that sleep has on memory.
Perhaps the most important ingredient in achieving success in any area of life is consistency. It is often mentioned by highly renowned people that consistency is the biggest difference between failure and success.
You need to get into the habit of doing the right things day in and day out. By the right things I mean the things which are going to elevate your life and allow you to grow as a person.
It’s not enough to do one massive full on stint and then do nothing for a period. Instead you should focus on creating a habit of consistently pushing yourself to get set tasks done.
Studies have shown that based on how the human brain learns and remembers information it is far more effective to do short repeated sessions with intervals in between than it is to do prolonged sessions with little or no repetition. This is illustrated by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve below.
When I say consistency though, I do not just mean doing something over and over again; consistency also refers to being consistent within yourself and sticking to your word and commitment.
The first place to consider is the patterns of your actions. See if your behaviours and the words that you promise are consistent with one another. If they are not, you know the place you need to start working on. Only once you recognise this can you begin to enhance your disposition. Consistency is key.