Update March 2018: Since writing this blog post, I have created a free eBook called 70 ways to ace your exams. You can get your free copy here.
You can work so hard to learn large quantities of information for an exam, but if you don’t prepare yourself mentally and physically before that exam, all that hard work can sadly go to waste.
When it comes time to take your major exams, you have to relate to yourself as a top class athlete. You need to eat the right foods, have the right mental attitude and let your body rest when it needs to leading up to your exams. These simple things can make all the difference to your mental clarity and performance.
You may be thinking “But isn’t this common sense?” but common sense isn’t so common these days.
All the time I see university students drinking energy drinks like water, getting very little sleep and eating highly processed junk food whilst cramming for their exams. I have to admit, I’ve also done this myself and I don’t recommend it. It’s a recipe for disaster or at best, mediocre grades and a stressful, miserable time.
Here are my top 10 tips for taking exams so you don’t burn yourself out:
1. Get a good nights sleep
Studies have found that if you stay awake for 21 hours straight, you have the mental capacity of someone who is legally drunk (in terms of your ability to concentrate, memorise and recall information, etc).
You can’t afford to stay awake all night studying for an exam. Why? Becuase you won’t be able to effectively recall information for the exam. It’s as simple as that!
Make sure you get at least 8 hours of quality sleep a night.
2. Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, everyday
I make myself to go to the gym for 45 minutes to one hour each day during my exam period, but 30 minutes of walking, jogging, swimming, dancing, etc will be enough.
Often students stop exercising when it comes exam time because they begin to think that they don’t have enough time (“I must spend every moment studying!”). Big mistake.
Exercise helps us study more effectively for various reasons. Firstly, it’s a great way to relieve stress and anxiety. Secondly, it gets blood flowing to your brain (supplying oxygen, antioxidant and glucose) which can help you to think more clearly.
Think of daily exercise as being an investment in your final marks.
3. Drink plenty of water
Often when we can’t think clearly, it’s because our brains need to be hydrated. While studying and taking your exams, make sure you take regular sips of water.
4. Remember, your teachers want you to do well
Years ago, I started thinking that my teachers and lecturers were out to get me and would mark me down wherever they got the chance. As a result of this thinking, I became too scared to write anything in one of my first tests at law school! After receiving my terrible mark, my brother said this to me:
“Remember sis, your teachers want you to do well. They will try to give you marks wherever they can. It’s in their interest to do so.”
Don’t worry about writing a perfect answer. If you’re unsure, still write it down (even if it’s in dot points). You may not get any marks for it, but they won’t take marks off. Just remember, your teachers really are on your side (despite all evidence to the contrary).
5. Focus on what you do know rather than what you don’t know
Chances are there will always be something that you could have studied more thoroughly or don’t know so well come the day of the exam. By that stage, you can’t do much about that, so is there any point worrying about it?
You are better off focusing on the fact that you now know so much more than you did before and you’ll be able to answer many questions in the exam.
6. Eat a nutritious breakfast
Studies have found that students who skip breakfast experience a 20-40% reduction in cognition (i.e. concentration, memory and alertness). You want to eat a nutritious breakfast to feel fuller for longer, stabilise your mood and give you plenty of energy for the day.
Here are some healthy breakfast ideas:
Raw museli or porridge with nuts and chopped fruit Wholegrain toast with a variety of toppings (e.g. baked beans, tomatoes, avocado, etc) and a piece of fruit An omelette made with added vegetables (i.e. onion, spinach, tomato, and mushrooms) A smoothy
7. Avoid drinking caffeine (e.g. energy drinks, coke and coffee)
Caffeine is a stimulant. It gives you a rush and makes you feel good in the short-term, but eventually it wears off and leaves you feeling cranky and wanting more.
It’s also a diuretic, so it makes you urinate, which means you lose water, become thirsty and want to drink more soft drink.
Studies have found that when we have a cup of coffee or can of coke, we are actually inducing a state of stress. Caffeine drives the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones that in turn produce the fight or flight response.
Why not consider gradually replacing your caffeinated beverages with good old, simple water? You can jazz it up with some infused fruit or use a Soda Stream to carbonate it.
8. Go straight home after the exam
How many times have you stayed back after an exam to talk to your friends about what you put for each questions? How many times have you felt anxious after doing so?
It can certainly be reassuring to know that you wrote the same answer as your friends. But if you find out that you wrote something different and you have another 4 or 5 exams to take, this may throw you off your game.
The exam is over. There’s nothing much you can do about it, so move on and focus on studying for the next one.
9. Take a few deep breaths when you get stuck
If you come across a question that you’re not sure how to answer in the exam, stop for a moment and take a few deep breathes (in for the count of 3 and out for the count of 3). If you are not sure how to answer it there and then, move on to another question.
The worst thing you can do is start to panic, because as they say “Stress makes you stupid”. You won’t be able to think clearly.
10. Dealing with writer’s cramp/elbow
I’m sure many of us are familiar with writers cramp/elbow. This can be due to holding your pen too tight. Loosen your grip or get a pen that you won’t have to press down so hard on the paper.
The reality is, even with a good pen, your elbow will start to hurt at some point if you’re taking a 3 hour exam. When it does hurt, have a rest for a few moments (yes, you have time to do this!) and stretch it out on your desk.
I hope you have found these tips helpful. If you have some techniques or strategies that work for you when preparing for exams, feel free to share them below.
Want to learn more exam strategies? Click here to download a free copy of 70 ways to ace your exams.