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Exams, especially those covering basic maths, can be stressful and frustrating, and not many people enjoy doing them. But jumping through the hoops of an exam doesn’t have to be hard. If you can reach a point where you feel prepared, have a good, solid plan, and know how to relax, exams should hold no fear for you.

Young Man Studying Tim Gouw @ Unsplash

Know what you’re up against

Practising on past papers is one of the most effective ways to prepare for an exam. Past papers give you a great idea of the kinds of questions that come up. Go through some exams from previous years – under your own self-imposed exam conditions if you want – and find out which bits you spend the most time on and where you can improve your understanding.

Then focus on those areas for your next few study sessions before you try working on another past paper.

Most exam boards let you download past papers from their websites, either free of charge or for a small fee. Some bookshops also sell books of past papers. Or try asking your college tutor if they have any papers you can practise on.

Practise the hard parts

Try practising slightly harder questions than those you expect to see in the exam, so when you sit the real thing you think ‘Wow, this is easy!’ Don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t do. Just see what you can figure out and applaud yourself for questions you answer correctly.

Remember the basics

Have you ever watched a football team train? Players spend hours practising short passes, turn-and-sprint, keep-ball and other routines that they’ve done since they could walk. The players haven’t forgotten how to run – they’re just practising what they spend most of their time in a match doing.

Try warming up for your study sessions with something you find easy and will use over and over – perhaps some times tables or estimating exercises. Keep your hand in with the basics and you’ll find the more complicated topics easier.

Use the final few minutes before your exam

If you tend to forget simple things in exams, the crib sheet is your friend. On a piece of paper, write a few key points you need to remember. Then spend the last few minutes before your exam reading the crib sheet over and over again.

You can’t take the crib sheet into the exam room, but you can make notes. So, as soon as the examiner tells you to start writing, write down as much of the crib sheet as you can remember.

Don’t exhaust yourself

In every exam hall, you’ll always see at least one all-nighter zombie – someone who looks like death warmed up and then put back in the fridge, with bags under their eyes and hair like something out of a Tim Burton movie.

You can tell at a glance two things about this person: one, they’ve been up all night studying; and two, they won’t do well in the exam, even with their eyes propped open.

Before your exam, have a good breakfast and drink enough fluids. Your brain runs on this stuff. Trying to think when you’re hungry, thirsty or tired is like driving on fumes with no oil in the engine and no air in the tyres. No good can come of it.

Think positive

Your brain can be a bully – but it’s a bully with no substance behind it. If you assert yourself and say ‘Oh yes I can!’ or ‘Get out of my way, brain!’, you can overcome the self-doubt and low confidence that plague most people at some point.

Tell yourself ‘I’m smart, I’m capable, and I’m going to show me what I can do.’ You may be surprised how much better you do than when you listen to your inner bully.

Have a ritual

Having a starting ritual removes much of the worry and stress. You can create your own ritual by thinking about exactly what you’ll do when you sit down for the exam, and in what order. It doesn’t have to be complicated – something as simple as take a deep breath, imagine how great you’ll feel when you get your results, and then start reading the first question would work well.

Manage your time

The idea is not to spend too long on one question – if the answer doesn’t come out quickly, mark the question with a star and come back to it later.

You have limited time in the exam, so spend that time picking up marks you can definitely get before you spend time on marks you may get eventually. Getting to the end of the exam and finding you’ve missed three easy questions because you were looking at one hard one is a calamity.

You probably know the feeling of thinking really hard about something for ages, and then giving up, only for the answer to hit you halfway through your walk round the park later on. Leaving a question and coming back to it later can be a really efficient exam technique: as you work on the easier questions, your brain can still work on the harder questions in the background.

Guess if you need to

If time’s running out and you’ve got a minute to answer the last five multiple-choice questions, you don’t really have time to read the questions, let alone work out the answers. In this situation you have two possible approaches:
  • Miss out the questions and get a guaranteed zero for those questions.

  • Guess the answers and maybe pick up a few points.

Maths tests usually aren’t negatively marked, so you don’t lose points for giving a wrong answer. If you guess when you don’t have time or are genuinely stuck, the worst that can happen is that you score no marks for that question.

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