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Cheat Sheet

Passing Exams For Dummies

Let’s face it. Exams can be very stressful — especially if you’re just starting out! While we all know that great preparation is the key to great performance, whether you’re at high school, university, college, or undertaking a career exam, you can never get enough advice to help you prepare. This Cheat Sheet gives you some key tips for preparation before your exams and for keeping a level head on the day, too!

Passing Exams Starts on Your First Day of Class

It’s easy to assume that as you go to classes, lectures, tutorials or the like, your preparation for exams will be months away. This assumption, however, isn’t helpful. If you can think of exam preparation as being part of every class in every day — not just the final weeks prior to examinations — you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort later on.

Information retention (and understanding) drops off significantly after 24 hours. This means that if you don’t review your learning a second time that day, what you have done in class will become a distant memory very quickly.

Think of learning like playing the piano. Playing a few notes just once with a long interval between each note doesn’t make music. You need to play the notes frequently in close succession. Your brain cells communicate to store the knowledge or skills you are learning in the same way. You have to practice, review information, or reiterate your learning repeatedly and in close succession, in order for it to be understood and retained in your long-term memory.

So take this hot tip and save yourself a lot of time later on. Spend a little time every day reviewing your class notes (or practicing that new activity or skill). Think about them, question them, extend some effort to make sense of them.

In this way, the second review will strengthen your neural networks and your understanding and memory retention along with it. Repeat the same review within a week and again within a month. When you come to prepare for your exams a few months down the track, the effort you put in to understanding and retaining information will be obvious.

You’ll find that the preparation before exams will be effortless and efficient. No longer will you need to spend hours going over and over content. It will all be easily recalled from memory because of the effort you put in earlier!

Exam Practice Tips before Exam Day

One of the biggest challenges new students face is the fact they’ve not done a lot of exams to know how to perform well. It usually takes a few exams and a bit of trial and error before you can really get the grades you’re after.

Here are a few tips to help you get more practice in during the days leading up to your exams:

  • Ask your teachers, past students or go online to get a hold of exam papers from previous years. Often, variations of the same question from a previous exam will be used in a current exam because teachers are repeating the same curriculum year after year. With a little detective work, you can get a fair idea of what you’ll likely be asked on your exam and how long you have to answer each section.

  • Invite a friend or two over to undertake a practice exam with you. Set up a few desks and with a clock handy, time yourself to complete the exam as if it were real. When you are finished, mark each other’s answers and evaluate your performance. What sections were you happy with? What sections need more preparation? Use these practice exams to guide your next study efforts.

  • Practice taking the exam in your mind. The ideal mindset and emotional state you most need for a great exam performance can be mentally rehearsed. Using your imagination, create a mental movie of you walking into the exam room, feeling confident and assured of success.

    Confidence generally comes after you’ve taken action, so if you haven’t had many real-life experiences of these exams, practicing in your mind is a great way to build your confidence.

    Your brain doesn’t know the difference between physical practice and imagined practice. Much of your brain processes occur in the same way. So by mentally rehearsing a confident approach to your exams, your brain believes this is actual practice and will store the desired response in your memory in the same way. How cool is that?!

Hot Tips for Exam Day

So you’ve mentally rehearsed your ideal performance and practiced for weeks. It’s now time to make it through the big event! Here are a few tips to help you make the most of exam day:

  • Get a good sleep. Try not to be up all night cramming for an exam the next day. If you don’t know your stuff by 10 pm the night before the exam, let it go. A good night’s sleep is essential for good brain functioning the following day.

  • Seek spiritual support. Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, prayer creates a powerful focus of positive intent. Miracles can happen with a strong emotive prayer for a positive outcome.

  • Feed your body and mind. Your thoughts, emotions and body all work together, so get yourself into a positive mental/emotional mindset: Eat a light, nutritious meal; have a glass of water or energizing fizzy drink; then a little later, take a bathroom stop. Arrive five minutes early for your exam but as you stand outside the exam room, try not to talk about the exam to your friends.

    Hearing their nervous thoughts isn’t going to help you alleviate yours. Focus on something else like how you will celebrate after the exams or do some quick fast-paced exercises.

  • Get in ‘the zone’. Many top athletes talk about getting into their ‘performance zone’ — a mental space where all their senses are centered on the task at hand. When you enter the exam room, march in like you own the place. Fill yourself with confidence as you repeat your positive affirmations, “This is it — I can do it!” Breathe deeply, focus your thoughts on the job at hand, take a seat, and prepare for instructions.

  • Plan once you’re in the exam. Once you’re in the exam, take all of the instructions in and start planning your approach:

    • If your exam has any long-answer questions, tackle these first before the multi-choice or short-answer questions.

    • Read through the questions twice so you’re certain you understand what is being asked. Decide which questions you feel most prepared for. If you have planning space provided, quickly jot down any memorized exam content.

    • Look at your watch and jot down on the page margin what the time will be when you need to finish writing. You must stop and move on to the next question, even if you haven’t completely answered the question.

    • You can come back to incomplete questions later if you get through the short-answer questions. If you run out of time, simply write “Out Of Time” in the margin and bullet point any extra thoughts you won’t have time to write about. You may not get points for unfinished sentences, but you may get points for bullets because you showed you knew the content and could have written it more precisely if you had the time.

  • Celebrate! It’s really important that you reward yourself for your efforts. This releases pleasure chemicals like dopamine in your brain, which improves your motivation levels. But remember, “It’s not over until it’s over.” Don’t go out partying when you are half way through your exams. Delay your big pleasure rewards until you’ve finished your final exam. Then reward yourself for the effort you put in. You deserve it!

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