Exam Tips – before, during & after

Exams are approaching and while they can feel like a stressful event, here are some tips and techniques to make sure you can maximise your time and efforts.

Dealing with Exam Stress

If you are feeling stressed before an exam, it is likely that you are seeing a negative or bad result inside your head. Make sure you are using positive self talk, affirmations, and are seeing a positive result. Visualise yourself going into the exam calm and relaxed. Feel yourself calmly writing the answers and the information flowing out of the end of your pen. See yourself successfully completing the paper with time to spare for a check of all questions. Imagine yourself walking out of the exam feeling confident and knowing you have completed the paper to the best of your ability.

Before the exam

Take time over the weeks before your exams to revise, relearn what you don’t know and clarify anything you are not sure about.

Here are some tips for the night before your exam:

  • Get a great night’s sleep, and remember cramming isn’t a smart option.
  • Eat a healthy, sustaining breakfast and/or lunch if it is an afternoon exam.
  • Relax and quietly review the key points an hour before your exam.
  • Ensure you have all your pens, rulers, calculator and spare batteries etc.
  • Get to your exam 15-20 minutes early.
  • Keep yourself positive by telling yourself to relax and visualising a successful exam.
  • Avoid people who are stressing out and speaking negatively about the exam.

In the Exam

Once you find your seat get organised by spreading out your pens, pencils etc. Take a few deep slow breathes before you start.

The first thing I recommend you do when you are allowed to start, is to quickly read through the entire exam paper. Scan it quickly, looking at the questions to see what will be required to pass this exam.  Once you have an overview of what you are dealing with, start with the easy questions first. This will help calm you and build your confidence.

Allow your subconscious to work on the harder questions while you are doing the easier ones.  By the time you get to the harder questions your subconscious mind will have come up with some ideas and answers. Plus, some of the easy questions and answers may have triggered information for the harder questions.

When writing your answers, make it easy for the examiner to understand your thought process. Examiners look for concise, readable, well-presented work that answers the question. Short sentences are best. Use simple words. Using long words inappropriately or words that you don’t fully understand will not impress the marker. It will give the impression you are trying to bluff your way through. Marks will be lost accordingly. Go for simplicity of wording and shorter sentences. Make sure your handwriting is easy to read.

Here is a list of words you may find in an exam paper and what they mean:

  • AnalyseTake to pieces what occurred and determine what makes up the various parts. This involves examining something minutely and critically.
  • Compare
Liken one thing with another. What are the similarities or differences.
  • Contrast
What are the differences between them, including the degree of difference if any.
  • Define
Give the exact meaning and describe the essential qualities.
  • Describe
Explain the features, qualities or properties in detail.
  • Discuss
Debate the positives and negatives.
  • Evaluate
Explain the meaning and analyse (take apart the whole) then put the important points together and comment or make judgement on it.
  • ExplainMake plain and clear and give the meaning of.
  • Illustrate
Make clear and explain with a description, examples and diagrams.
  • Justify
Prove or show to be just or right.
  • ListNumber the items down the page.
  • Outline
Give the main features and ideas, facts or principles.
  • State
Formally set out the facts clearly.
  • Summarise
Give a clear account of the main points.

Other tips include:

  • Read the instructions carefully.
  • Divide your time according to the marks. If it’s a three hour exam and there are three sections, each section should take 50-55mins, allowing time for reviewing at the end. If there are 40 multi-choice questions in a section you have just over one minute per question.
  • Ensure you answer the compulsory questions.
  • Remember to answer every question.
  • If you are running out of time, make sure you get down the main points.
  • Space out answers so it is easy for the marker to read. A good rule is to start each new question on a new page. Label each question clearly. Number the pages to avoid any confusion.
  • If you make a mistake, clearly cross it out and start again. The examiner will not look at your mistakes, they do have not time to do this when marking. One line through your mistake is enough.
  • At the end, if you have time, proof read your answers, check mathematical answers and working.
  • For numerical questions you should show your working steps. Marks are often allocated for each step so that if you make an error along the way, you may still be able to get good marks
  • For questions requiring descriptive answers, use the mark allocation as a guide to the number of points required. For example, to answer a 2-mark question fully, you are likely to be required to give two distinctly different points.
  • Include, where possible, an equation or sketch wherever relevant.

What to do when you can’t think of an answer

This happens to everyone. Take a deep breath, stretch and look up to recall the information. If you can’t recall a date, leave a space and come back to it later. If you are not sure about the answer, jot down a couple of points on the exam paper and tell yourself you will come back to the question after you have completed the next two. If you have forgotten some of your material, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where was I when studying this?
  • What was I thinking?
  • What did I say?
  • What letter of the alphabet did it start with?

After the exam

If you have more exams to study for take a break. Eat some wholesome food. Your brain takes up only two percent of your body weight and on an average day used twenty percent of the fuel (food) you consume. After all the brain power used in your exam, you need to refuel.

Take some time to go outside in the fresh air, jump on the trampoline or walk in nature. This will help re-centre you. Swim, run, cycle, dance – move to get your heart pumping and lungs working. If you need to take a power nap.

If you feel the exam didn’t go as well as you would have liked, there is nothing you can do about it now. Consider what you could have done differently before or during the exam and use that learning for your next exams. Most importantly, let the negativity go so you can stay focused for the next exam.

If the exam went well, congratulate yourself for showing up and doing the best that you could. It is all you can ask of yourself.

All the best for the next few weeks

Study Smart & Pass.

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Published on Monday, October 5th, 2020, under Study Skills

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

One Response to “Exam Tips – before, during & after”

  1. Christine Chia says:

    Wow Karen thank you for the exam tips..this came very timely because I have my 17 yo son sitting for his exam in a couple of weeks.

    I want to thank you for this gesture and your kind thoughts are very much appreciated..

    Once again, thanks so much.
    Stay safe Stay positive amidst the pandemic

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