Exams can be stressful. Knowing that your exam result will contribute significantly to your overall grade can cause you to feel pressured, which in turn can be detrimental to your performance on the day. By taking a strategic approach to completing your exams, you may feel less stressed and more equipped to manage the different question types you will encounter, which will enable you to demonstrate your skills, understanding and knowledge on the test.
We asked one of our student mentors, Henry, who achieved an ATAR of 98.5 to share his tips for sitting exams, tips that could assist you to perform to your absolute best. We hope you find them useful.
“Here is a guide on what you can do to give yourself the best chances of success during your exams.”
The Night Before the Exam
The night before your exam is really important to get right. You have worked so hard over the past year, and particularly over the past few weeks to prepare for your exam. Let your hard work pay off by giving yourself a relaxing night. Finish any studying by the early evening, and take some time to eat a nutritious dinner, socialise with friends or engage in an activity that will assist you to relax.
Hopefully, by the night before your exam, you will find it relatively easy to relax, because you have studied constructively up to this point and are therefore feeling prepared for your exam. If this isn’t the case then I suggest resisting the temptation to ‘CRAM’ the night before. Pulling an all-nighter might seem tempting if you aren’t feeling prepared for an exam, however, the lack of sleep you get as a result of this greatly jeopardises your focus and ability to think with clarity during your exam. My experience has shown that you are actually better off having a good night’s rest to reset your brain, giving yourself a fresh start the next morning.
Make sure to set an early bedtime so that you give yourself a full night’s sleep before your exam. To make your life easier on exam day, set your belongings by the door and lay your clothes out that you plan to wear the next day. Preparing the night before reduces the likelihood of you forgetting to bring something to your exam.
Bring your most condensed notes summary with you to bed, and take a few minutes to glance over them before you go to sleep. Often the last things that we think about before we go to sleep will cement more deeply into our brains and can influence what we experience in our dreams. Reading over your notes before you sleep can have the same effect.
You’ve prepared the night before and you wake up feeling refreshed after a full night’s sleep. Today is the big day! Make sure to fuel yourself with a nutritious breakfast in the morning before your exam. It is harder to focus on an empty stomach, plus your brain needs glucose to enable you to think effectively.
Try to arrive at the exam venue at least 20 minutes before your start time. Make sure to leave home with enough time to factor in traffic or a detour along the way. Arriving early will give you time to adjust to your surroundings and hopefully reduce some of those exam nerves!
Once you arrive at your exam hall, take a few minutes to walk around and orient yourself. Check that you have everything you need with you and are ready to take the exam. This is a good time to take a bathroom break as you don’t want to be wasting any precious time during the exam.
It may be tempting to talk to your friends about what you have studied, or test each other on key concepts before going in. I suggest you avoid doing this, as it is likely that this will incite stress which you don’t need. If you need to socialise with friends before the exam, try to keep the subject light and not related to the exam content. Remember, the idea of you allowing time before your exam is to relax you… so don’t undermine this for yourself.
Exam Reading Time
Ok, so you have made it this far. You’ve given yourself a good night’s sleep and nutritious breakfast. You made sure to not psych yourself out by not letting your friends quiz you. But now you face the most difficult task of them all… the exam! Just kidding, this is where you can ‘show off’ all of the knowledge, understanding and skills you have acquired throughout the year, as long as you stay calm and follow your exam plan.
Reading time is an essential part of your exam. It allows you to develop your exam strategy and gives you time to think about the questions in the paper. Often students don’t know how to use this time effectively and find they run out of time in the exam. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your reading time.
- Start reading the most ‘wordy’ section first. Most exams are split into multiple parts, which require you to apply your knowledge in different ways. Usually starting with the extended answer/ section or comprehension questions gives you time to digest the larger problems/tasks for a longer period of time, and will allow you to read the large passages of text fully during the reading time.
- Sort questions into ‘Can do easily’ (green), ‘can do with a bit of thought’ (orange), and ‘need more time to think/ I don’t know how to start’ (red). Make a mental note of which ones to attempt first, as these will give you a confidence boost when you start writing.
* NOTE: Don’t mark the page in any way during reading time (not even with a fingernail!). Doing so can lead to severe consequences. It’s not worth it.
- Avoid reading multiple choice questions until you have read the rest of the paper. Usually, these questions do not require as much reading as the other sections, so it is best to save these to read last or during exam time.
- Think about how you are going to attempt the paper. Spend the last few minutes thinking about the order that you will be attempting the questions in and for how long you plan to spend on each. Set time goals to keep you on track so you can complete the paper within the allocated time period.
During the Exam
Now that you have read over the paper and developed an exam plan, it is time to begin answering the questions. Personally, I prefer to start with the short answer questions and leave multiple-choice questions until last, however, I would recommend doing what works for you. For some sections of the exam, consider these things:
Multiple Choice Questions
Multi-choice questions are a great way to gain some quick marks in an exam. You still have the chance to guess correctly so these are your best bet to answer when you are short of time (better than leaving extended answers blank!). The questions are designed to trick you however, so important to keep your wits about you by using these few tricks.
- Cover over the answers when you read the question. This may seem unnecessary, but covering the answers over will prevent you from being persuaded when you read the question. Can you come up with an answer without looking at the options?
- When looking at the answers try to find an answer that most closely matches your initial thinking (when they were covered over), as usually, your gut instinct is right! Covering over the answers whilst reading the questions will prevent you from doubting yourself so much.
- If the first trick doesn’t help, don’t worry! Use a process of elimination to narrow down the options, what can’t the answer be? It’s likely that in a four option multi-choice question that you will be able to eliminate two options almost immediately.
- If you’re still feeling stuck, make an educated guess and move on. It’s better not to waste time on these questions as they aren’t worth many marks. Mark the question, so you know to come back to it if you have time.
Extended Answer Questions
The extended answer question is the most involved section of an exam. It often involves writing several paragraphs or performing long, multi-stage calculations. This section will be worth the most marks in your exam, so it is in your best interest to spend the majority of your time here.
- Underline key words in the question. There are critical/keywords in the question that you need to look out for. Understanding the meaning of these greatly improves the depth of your answer. Think about what the question is asking you.
- Spend a few minutes planning your response. This is critical for essay type answers. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking the time to flesh out your ideas allows you to write in an organized manner.
- Keep referring back to the question. I cannot stress this enough to you. You only get marks for answering the question, so make sure that you are staying on track by continuously referring back to the question. Does my answer harness all of the critical/keywords in the question?
- Check over your answer for mistakes. Often it’s tempting to move on from an answer as soon as you have finished it. However, doing so leaves your answer unedited and potentially with mistakes. Give yourself a minute to read over your answer to make sure that you have answered everything to the best of your ability.
The Final 5 Minutes of the Exam
The final few minutes of the exam is your chance to check over your answers and consolidate them, and to also complete any questions you may not have answered yet. The amount of time that you should spend checking over your exam is about 5 minutes for every hour of your exam. So for a 3-hour exam, take the last 15 minutes to check over your work.
- Start with the questions that you haven’t answered yet. Now that you’ve attempted the rest of the paper, you have had a bit more time to think about the question, or you may have seen something in another section of the paper that might help you out.
- Then go over the longest questions that are worth the most marks. Making sure you have these ones right will give you a large boost in your final exam mark.
- If you are running out of time. Make an educated guess and move on. This tip is only reserved when you know you don’t have enough time to complete the whole paper in time. Leaving multi-choice questions until last allows you to quickly circle answers, and you have a chance of getting them right! It’s harder to do this with written answers as they take longer to write out.
When the time is up, make sure to stop work immediately. Attempting to tidy up your answers after the timer ends can result in a swift and avoidable penalty against you. I strongly suggest you don’t do this.
Yay! You’ve finished your exam! Take some time to relax and do something fun for a bit, you’ve earned it. Make sure to get back into your study routine quickly though, if you have more exams coming up. Good luck!
Student Mentor, Optimise Learning