Exam hacks: 16 things you don’t want to do come exam time

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“What advice would you give to other students who are about to sit their first lot of exams?”

Earlier this year, I asked this question to over 500 year 11 and 12 students. These students had just completed their first lot of exams. They were still raw from the experience.

Most students responded with statements that started with the word, “Don’t”.

Don’t cram.
Don’t freak out.
Don’t procrastinate.

Negative framing aside, this was clever. Let me explain why …

Thinking about what you don’t want to be doing can give you a better idea of what you need to be doing.

For example, if you say, “I don’t want to pull an all-nighter before an exam”, you can then take it a step further by asking, “What do I need to do to avoid pulling all-nighters?”

To which, you may respond:

“If I’m not going to be pulling all-nighters then I need to start preparing a few weeks before my exams … even if it’s just two syllabus points a day.”

You get the idea.

So what should you avoid doing as you prepare for your exams?

Here are some of the things the students I surveyed recommended:

1. Don’t freak out

Do whatever you can to stay calm. Breathe deeply, go for a walk, blow bubbles, crank up your music and dance around the house, etc. Get rid of that nervous energy.

If your stress levels spiral out of control, your brain will stop functioning.

Student’s advice:

“Don’t stress. Just systematically address each syllabus point that you think will be covered until you know everything well.”

2. Don’t skimp on sleep

Prioritise sleep over study. As one student said, “It’s better to get more sleep than study more”. Well said.

Student’s advice:

“Get a lot of sleep before the exam, it helps much more than studying or watching videos until 1 in the morning (trust me).”

3. Don’t cram

You never remember the things you cram the period before a test. So why do you think you can remember the things you cram the night before an exam?

Start preparing early. Give your brain time to absorb the ideas.

Student’s advice:

“Start a week before you think you should start because when you first start studying you won’t get fully stuck into it. It’s not until a week in that you start to actually understand the topics you’re studying.”

4. Don’t spend all your time studying one topic

Spread your study out across all your subjects.

There’s no magic. There’s no secret. You just need to do the work.

5. Don’t spend all your time making elaborate study notes

Many students spend the week before their exams making detailed study notes that look like mini works of art. This leaves them with little time to practice applying their knowledge.

Students’ advice:

“Make sure that during the term your summary notes are up to date so you can only just read through them, add detail and then do practice exams!”


6. Don’t bypass practice exams

Past exam papers are your secret weapon. Here’s what one student recommends:

“Do the past exams because they are basically what the exam will be like.”

Not only that, past exam papers help you pinpoint your weak areas and expose you to different styles of language and wording of questions (which may throw you in an exam situation).

7. Don’t avoid difficult subjects

Force yourself to study those painful subjects. That’s the only way you’re going to get better. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. But it probably won’t be as painful as you think.

8. Don’t try to wing it

You may be able to wing a test, but exams are a completely different ball game. As one student said, “You need to actually study”.

Student’s advice:

“Don’t go into the exam hoping a topic will or won’t be in it. For example, in lit quite a few of us only studied a novel and a play and just hoped the poem would be easy. It wasn’t easy.”

9. Don’t get distracted

The Internet is a giant distracting sinkhole. You can waste hours watching a new Netflix series (as one student did) instead of revising for your exams.

Student’s advice:

“Don’t have distractions near you. Eliminate them. One by one.”

10. Don’t study for several hours straight

Take breaks. Regularly (every 45 minutes). Give your eyes and brain a rest before they start to hurt.

11. Don’t let break time drag on for too long.

Find ways to bring yourself back to your study. A timer going off after 10 minutes can be a useful prompt. A reminder from a family member or friend can also work.

12. Don’t be shy and suffer in silence

Feeling confused? Ask your teachers for help. It takes courage but it will prevent a lot of pain, stress and confusion later down the track.

Student’s advice:

“If you have any questions ask teachers for help. If a certain question keeps coming up in past exams that you don’t understand then seek help.”


13. Don’t make mountains out of molehills

Reframe your exam experience by saying, “Exams are just like two tests put into one” or “This is just one big test”. If you do the work, there is no need to worry.

14. Don’t tackle your exams without a study plan

A plan can help you focus on your weak areas and space out your study. It can also help you develop the habit of sitting down to do the work (when you don’t feel like doing it).

Student’s advice:

“Start a study timetable so that you get use to studying more for longer and find your most effective way of studying.”

15. Don’t re-write your subject notes

Use effective study strategies instead. Mind map, make flash cards, teach a friend a concept, do past exam papers, watch videos on Khan academy, etc.

16. Don’t become a malnourished sloth with poor hygiene

Exercise every day. Shower regularly. Eat three square meals a day. Treat yourself to some healthy snacks (e.g. blueberries).

Yes, you need to study but you also need to look after that amazing machine that is your body that houses your brain. That’s right, that critical tool you need for your exams. Your brain needs to be in good working order. So look after yourself.

Final thoughts

Don’t learn the hard way. If you’ve just finished your mock exams, I recommend you brainstorm your own list of things to avoid doing.

Explore what you don’t want to do for your next lot of exams. But don’t stop there. Challenge yourself to find a positive, creative solution for each one.

Based on your experience, do you have any tips on what to do (or what not to do) when it comes to preparing for exams? If so, feel free to post any tips below.

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