Different hints will be useful at different stages of the exam preparation process. This section will examine some of the difficulties students encounter around exams and will make suggestions which should help to solve them.

Preparation during the semester

One page summaries

As discussed in the the section about memorising for exams, begin preparation by making your own notes weekly and reviewing them regularly. Concept mapping is an excellent way to summarise topics, but there are other methods that you can use. Whatever method you use, make a one page summary of the ideas you have to learn on one topic (usually one class or one week’s work) summary. If there is too much information, it might be wise to break the information into sub topics. So for example if in one week or one lecture, you covered the anatomy of the leg, there might be too much information to cover in one summary. In this case you might make separate summaries of the bones, veins and muscles, or you might summarise the different parts of the leg separately, so for example the foot, the calf and the thigh and then summarise the bones, veins and, muscles found in each part. Whichever way you go, with big topics, it can be helpful to divide them into sub topics.


Make flashcards of key definitions and formulae and learn them throughout the semester (see the section on memorising for exams for more information about flash cards). Look through your overall summaries on a regular basis (weekly preferably) just to remind yourself of the information you have covered. Do this as though you are flipping through a picture book – look at the maps you have made and try to think about the main ideas without necessarily spending a lot of time on each one. There will be time to study your maps in more detail closer to exam time.

Past exam papers

If past papers are available, and particularly if the same lecturer is teaching the course, it can be useful to look at these to get an idea of the types of questions and possibly the types of topics that are typically set. This will give you an idea about what to study and how to go about it. All the same it is unwise to only learn the questions on past exams because you will not have a good understanding of the whole course and you may also receive an unpleasant surprise if the exam is set differently. Past exam papers provide useful practice, but do not use them as your primary method to study because you will not have an overall understanding of the course and thus may be unable to answer questions that are set differently or are on different aspects of the course.

Preparation during swot vac

Swot vac is the time between your last lecture and the beginning of the exam period. By this time, you should have all your revision summaries made and should be ready to spend time really committing the information to memory. Try making a time table that ensures that you have time to cover every chapter or topic at least once and preferably more often, before the exam. Allocate a minimum of one hour per topic, but break each hour into two half hour blocks with a short non-addictive break of say 5 to 10 minutes in between. A non-addictive break simply means anything that it will be easy for you to stop doing after the break is over. For example, doing a few exercises, taking a short walk, playing with the dog, having a snack and so on. Addictive breaks might include activities like going on Facebook, calling friends, reading an engrossing novel and so on. It is well documented that when we learn, we remember most from the beginning and ending of a learning cycle because our ability to attend is sharpest at these times. Therefore it makes good sense to ensure that we have many short learning cycles with many beginnings and endings to optimise learning capacity. Research about motivation also shows that we remember more (because we are more motivated to learn) when we study and take breaks, than if we study for a similar length of time without taking a break. Consider the graph below:

Study break chart

You can see from the graph above that the curves are similar: people remember the most from the beginning and ending of a learning cycle and forget most from the middle. However, the student who takes breaks has consistently higher recall than the student who takes no breaks. If when you are studying, you find that you are completely absorbed in the work, time will pass without you realising it. Of course if you are in this state, it is fine to keep going, but taking breaks is especially important when you are feeling bored, disinterested or lacking motivation. Knowing that you have only half an hour of study in a session, will increase your motivation because half an hour is a manageable amount of time, and most students would be confident they could study for this long easily. On the other hand, a student who sits down to study for an hour or more is less likely to feel motivated because of the length of time s/he has set down for study.

As well as taking breaks every half hour or so, it is important during swot vac to include time for exercise and relaxation even if it is brief. Having fun things to look forward to will encourage you to work harder knowing that you will have a break. An exercise break may be especially helpful because exercise improves your ability to think and learn. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour. All-night study sessions are exhausting and not usually helpful!

The timetable below shows swot vac time allocations for each subject (separate shading for each one) and time for relaxation and exercise. Make sure that you set realistic amounts of time and that you have some strategies to overcome procrastination.

Swotvac timetable image fixed

Many students draw up timetables and then do not follow them. Here are some hints to get you started and to avoid procrastination:

• Turn off social networking sites or study away from your computer!
• Identify the things you do to procrastinate. Some examples of things students do to procrastinate include cleaning (yes, houses and cars shine at exam time!), cooking, baking, tidying notes (making them unnecessarily pretty), tidying the desk or house, day dreaming and a million other creative enterprises.
• When you have completed an amount of study time, say four 30 minute blocks, reward yourself with your favourite procrastination activity (but limit the amount of time you spend on it, possibly no more than 20 minutes).
• Use positive self talk. For example:

  • I have to do this, like it or not, I can do 30 minutes!
  • I want to pass/do well in this subject, so I will study!
  • This will not beat me.
  • This might be fun! I am sure I can find some interesting ideas here.
  • Other people are doing this/have done it, so can I!
  • I will give this 15 minutes and see what happens.
  • It is really important to “psych” your brain into a positive state of mind when you are studying because a brain that is feeling negative or reluctant to learn will struggle to absorb information.

Preparation very close to the exam

  • Check the exam timetable to be sure that you have the day, date and time correct.
  • Make sure that you know where the room is.
  • Go past the room before the day of the exam to be sure that you can find it easily.
  • Organise to have spare pens, erasers and all the things like calculators and other equipment ready for the exam.

By this stage you should know your work fairly well. Now is the time to do lots of practice from your text book, tutorial questions and possibly on websites that provide practice. It can be helpful to work in pairs or groups at this time so that you can compare and discuss answers. This can also be a good time to do past papers to set time without your books. Before you do this, be sure that you know the material well. Doing well on a practice exam can really boost your confidence, but doing badly may add to your stress.
Another useful strategy to try close to exam time is to look at the information that you have covered in your course and try to anticipate the types of questions that you might be asked. Often questions will be asked across lectures rather than on a week by week basis, so you need to anticipate these types of questions and then map or make notes that pull information together from across the course. For example, if you are studying a subject about genetic diseases in humans and each week you study a different type of disease, when you are asked a question in an exam, you will most likely need to draw information together from across the course (in response for example, to a set of symptoms) rather than just writing all you know about one particular disease that was covered in one week. These types of exam questions often require you to explain what you think the problem is and to justify why you ruled out something else, hence the importance of being able to pull information together from across topics.

Preparation on the day of the exam

  • Set out in plenty of time taking into account the worst traffic problems that you could encounter.
  • When you get to the room, try to avoid the “pre-exam buzz”. Rather, find a quiet place nearby where you can think positive thoughts and concentrate on keeping calm and relaxed. The pre- exam buzz can frighten you – for example if other students start talking or asking questions about content you have not learned or are not familiar with.
  • Positive self talk is very important prior to the exam and can include statements like these:
  • This will be over soon!
  • I can do this!
  • I have studied as hard as I could.
  • I am a good student.
  • This is my chance to show off what I know!
  • I hope I get an ‘aha!’ experience!
  • I have done exams before and survived/done well.

“Aha” experiences include those moments of insight when you suddenly understand something very clearly or get a sense of exactly how everything fits together. They can be exhilarating!

Preparing yourself for success in the exam

  • Follow instructions, for example write your name on the paper when instructed. If you leave it until the end, you may not have time to do so. An unnamed paper means no marks.
  • Leave your phone and wallet under your chair or wherever you are instructed to leave it.
  • Don’t bring valuables such as lap tops to exams. They may have to be left outside which may not be safe.
  • During perusal time (usually time to read the paper without writing anything in the answer book) take note of how much time you have and how much each section or question is worth. If it is a two hour exam and one section is worth half the marks, then you will most likely spend half the time on that section.
  • Always allocate and stick to an amount of time per question. You are always better to attempt every section, rather than doing well on some questions and leaving others out altogether.
  • Start with the questions about which you feel most confident, however, if you are doing multiple choice exams, it is usually best to answer them in order. Remember, sometimes later questions help you to answer earlier questions in multiple choice exams, so look out for this and be prepared to go back and change an answer if you are certain you had it wrong. If you are not certain and are swinging between two answers, it is usually best to stick with the first answer you thought of.

Tackling different types of exams

Multiple choice

These can be challenging. Don’t think they will be easy because one of the alternatives on the paper is correct. Here are a few hints that may help with multiple choice exams:
• Try a process of elimination – there are usually two answers that are wrong and then you have to decide between another two (sometimes three).
• Choose the answer that is most often true and the one in which each part of the answer is correct. If one part of the answer is not true, the whole answer is usually wrong. For example:

Long term memory is:
a) Good for storing memories
b) Good for storing memories, good for problem solving and very large in capacity
c) Good for storing memories and very large in capacity
d) Best accessed through cramming

a) Is true (but eliminate it because it is only part of the answer)
b) Is not true because one part (good for problem solving) is not true
c) Is best because every part of it is true
d) Is obviously wrong (easily eliminated)

Short answer

Short answer exams need very succinct answers which closely match the key words in the question. You need to do exactly what is asked in the question – not simply write everything you know about the general topic. If permitted, underline the key ideas you need to write about and circle or highlight the key verbs in the question, for example: describe, explain, justify, compare, contrast, and so on. If you are not allowed to write on the exam paper, write these key words on the scrap paper provided. When answering these questions, remember that each sentence should probably be a new idea that can earn you a mark. Use language that will signpost for your marker that you are actually doing what the question asked, in other words use the language of description, explanation or whatever you were asked. Consider the following examples:

Keyword used in question Language signposts
Describe A feature of…
Another aspect is…
Explain One reason…
This happens because…
Further explanations include…
Compare Similarities include…
Another common feature is…
Justify This is a useful theory/idea because…
Another reason for this is…..because….
Contrast On the other hand…
A significant difference is…
By contrast…

Essay questions

These also require succinct answers which directly relate to key words in the question, but in addition to this, they should be cohesive and present your argument or idea in response to the question. For example, if the question is: Which theory of the theories studied in this course most effectively explains social discourse? You would need to explain your position or response as a thesis or main idea and then justify it. Your position/response/thesis could be:
• Theory one is best because of the way it explains this element or these elements or
• Theory one is useful because of the way it explains this element, whereas theory two is useful because of its explanation of another element.
Once you have decided on a thesis, each paragraph will explain the details of the case in relation to this. So each paragraph will justify or give further detail about your initial response/thesis. At times it is helpful to explain a number of possible answers or responses to the question and then explain why those are not the best responses, or point out their limitations.
In order to help you to get your memories onto paper quickly, it is often a good idea to take a few minutes to make a quick concept map or plan showing the issue that will be discussed in each paragraph, and how each issue will relate to the question. When you plan quickly, it has the advantage of allowing you to think about the content (information) that you want to include first, then when you write you can think about how you will make links between ideas and structure the writing so that it flows.
Sometimes when answering short answer and essay questions, students have difficulty answering in detail. Never repeat yourself simply to write more, rather think about the 5W’s + H in relation to the topic:

Who? (For example, who would this apply to?)
What? (For example, what is most important here?)
When? (For example, when would this be applicable and when not?)
Where? (For example, where would the most important examples or instances be found?)
Why? (For example, why is this most important/useful?)
How? (For example, how does this work best?)

Not all of these questions are applicable all of the time, but running through them will help you to think in more depth about your topic. Remember nothing is more annoying for examiners than students who have no more points to make, so they simply re-write the same point in slightly different ways, hoping for more marks!

Moving on after the exam

If you must analyse how you fared with your friends or alone, do so, but think about what you did well and not so well without spending too much time worrying about all that you did wrong or could have done differently. If you chastise yourself for not doing as well as you think you should have done, it is likely that you will not be in a good frame of mind to study for your next exam. However, once you have received your results, it is often possible to make an appointment with your lecturer to get some post-exam feedback. This can be useful so that you learn what to do differently next time.

Reflection and Conclusion

Different preparation for different stages

• At different stages of the semester up to the time of the exam itself, there are different things to do in order to organise yourself.
Which stage of preparation is likely to be most challenging for you and what did you learn in this chapter to help you to deal with it?

Bear in mind

• Procrastination can pose a major barrier to success at uni if you allow it to do so.
How much is procrastination a problem for you and what do you plan to do about it?
• Answering questions directly and clearly in exams will help you to gain marks.
Which strategies about writing in exams which were discussed in this section do you think will be most useful to you and why?