5 things I wish I knew about exams as a student

Get ready for exams_9

70 ways to ace your exams

Update March 2018: Since writing this blog post, I have created a free eBook called 70 ways to ace your exams. You can get a free copy here.


When it’s exam time, you’re typically in either one of three spaces –

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.14.26 AM1. You feel confident and calm because you started preparing weeks in advance

2. You’re freaking out doing last minute cramming

3. You’re not doing anything because you’ve given up

You may feel like competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, the only difference being you’re not cramming hotdogs into your body, but facts. Lots and lots of facts.

Whatever the case, it’s important that you stay calm and learn from this experience.

You see, when you’re calm you’re able to think more clearly and reflect on the things that have worked and the things that haven’t worked so well for you.

When I failed my first test at law school, it wasn’t until I had calmed down that I was able to reflect on what went wrong and make improvements and adjustments for the final exam.

Here are five things I discovered at university about exams that I wish I knew when I was in high school.

1. Stress makes you stupid

RELAXThe worse thing you can do is panic and get stressed in an exam. Why?

When you panic, your mind usually goes blank and things can down hill very quickly.

You need to be able to think clearly so you can retrieve the information you need. So if you come across a question you don’t know how to answer, take a deep breathe in, tell yourself “There will be other questions I will be able to answer” and move onto another question.

2. Don’t study on the morning of an exam

It’s too late to absorb new information on the morning of an exam, so put away your textbooks. At this point you want to just look over the main ideas of the subject (e.g. an overview mind map).

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.14.13 AMIf you don’t feel like you know everything, that’s OK. What you need to do is focus on all the things you do know. Tell yourself thoughts such as “I will be able to answer a lot of the questions” and “I know a lot more than I did before”.

If you’ve been going to your classes and have done some revision, chances are you will be able to answer many of the questions. By telling yourself these positive thoughts you can remain calm, clear headed and focused.

3. Set concrete tasks for yourself

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.14.41 AMTelling yourself that you have to study for exams is just too overwhelming and unclear for your brain.

“Study what?” your brain says.

You see, your brain hates fuzzy and unclear things and tends to procrastinate unless it knows exactly what it needs to do.

Instead of saying you’re going to study, set a task that has a clear end point. You could read a chapter, create one mind map or solve 10 equations.

4. Work like a sprinter

You’ll get more done in less time if you complete your concrete tasks in focused intense, short bursts. Grab a timer, set it for 20 to 30 minutes and complete a concrete task during this time. But here’s the thing: You can’t get distracted by facebook, your computer, your mobile or TV during this time. You need to give 100% of your attention to the task at hand.

Then once the time is up, go have a break. Rest and recover for 10 minutes. Then set the timer for another 20 minutes and go!

Doing a few short sprints each day a few weeks before exams is much better than doing long study sessions a few days just before exams. It’s a lot less stressful too.

The alternative is to multitask but the problem with multitasking is it slows you down (you become up to 40% slower) and you don’t learn information as effectively. You also experience a drop in IQ and a low IQ is not conducive to good exam revision.

5. After the exam, don’t talk about it

Have you ever walked out of an exam and asked your friends what they put as answers for certain questions?

Doing this can seriously backfire and throw you off your game.

Is there really any point dwelling on what you put for certain answers when you’ve got several other exams to study for?

No. That exam is done and dusted and you can’t change the result. Save your precious time and energy for improving how you go in your other exams.

So my advice is simple – don’t talk about the exam until the teacher hands it back to you and properly spends some time going over the answers.

In summary

Here’s the thing: the exams you’re about to take probably aren’t your first and last set of exams so learn from this experience.

For instance, if you typically only start studying a few days before exams, perhaps consider giving yourself a few extra weeks to study for the next lot of exams. If your study notes are boring, then test out taking some visual notes.

The ‘Get ready for exams’ mind map above sets out some simple yet effective strategies for preparing exams. Check it out and acknowledge yourself for the things you’re already doing well. If there are some things you don’t do, that’s OK. Take note of them and make sure you incorporate these strategies into your study plan for your next set of exams.

Want to own a high quality version of the Get ready for exams mind map? You can purchase a copy and explanation sheet here.

Learn more exam strategies by downloading a free copy of 70 ways to ace your exams.