Exam tips

A friend of mine is coming up for her mid-term exams in the US, so I thought it might be a good idea to mention a couple of things that have helped me in exams.

Firstly, relax. I always think about exams as a way to demonstrate what I know, so think of them as a puzzle: ‘how can I say the most things that I know about my subject in answer to these questions?’ Approach them with the attitude that they can be an enjoyable workout for your brain and you’ll perform a lot better than if you’re massively stressed. So, relax.

A good way to help you relax is always having enough water. Obviously you don’t want to drink so much that you need to go to the toilet constantly, but the brain is the first part of the body to get dehydrated and this reduces its efficiency. Have a glass of water on your desk that you can sip at and don’t be afraid to ask for more during the exam. You might even like to get more than one at the start. There is another benefit of this: we don’t sit exams every day, but we do drink everyday, so we put a familiar motion in our body to help it relax and feel more at ease with the strange activity of exams. For the period before your exams, maybe a week or so, every time you take a sip of a drink think ‘relax’ and really get yourself to feel it. This will help condition you to associate relaxation with the drinking motion, and whenever you take a sip of water in your exam you’ll feel invigourated and ready to produce some great answers.

So, that’s the mental approach to the exam, now you need to get the best elements of what you know onto the paper. I would always spend the first five minutes of an exam brainstorming at the top of your answer sheet. It might feel like a waste of time, but it will give you a plan of what to write that you can refer to throughout the exam, so that instead of wondering ‘what shall I write next?’ you can simply look at the next point you want to make. This also helps you get everything said that you want to include, but more about that in a moment.

Write a two or three word summary of the question topic in the middle of the top third of the paper, then think of major ideas to branch off with from the main topic and draw them on.

Look through the main ideas and add branching sub-topics. Get about three or four sub-topics for each major idea. If you can’t think of that many then consider putting that main topic as a branch of one of your other topics.

Take a few moments to look at the overall set of ideas for themes and links that you might want to mention at the beginning of the essay, and then number the topics in the order that you want to write about them. With only a few minutes effort you then have a plan of what you need to write and in what order you will present it. Put a single line through the plan, to show that it’s not part of the formal submission, but leaving it perfectly readable. I’ve heard examiners say that seeing such plans increase the chances of a good score because, although they cannot formally mark it, they demonstrate the thought processes of the student and indicate a logical and organised approach to the subject matter.

Here’s an example plan that I drew up in a few minutes:

Here there was a hypothetical question of ‘President Bush’s reputation is extremely low in the international community. Discuss what factors have contributed to this situation.’

In the middle of the plan is the theme ‘Bush failings’, then we have four main subjects branching from this: Environment, Foreign Policy, T.W.A.T. (The War Against Terror), and Speech.

I then put in the main topics I could think of for each of these main areas of failure, such as not engaging with the Kyoto agreement, the prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq’s prisons, the lack of W.M.D.s in Iraq, and Bush’s sub-standard public-speaking abilities.

I began numbering the topics and decided that I had enough material and that discussing Bush’s lack of coherent communication skills next to allegations of child rape to get mothers to talk in Iraqi prisons was to trivialise the latter, so I crossed through the ‘Speech’ section. If an examiner looks very quickly at the plan they will be able to see this thought process, so you have demonstrated an analytical decision before they’ve even begun reading. Great!

So, my essay would move through the subjects like this:

Bush’s failures
-Environment
–Kyoto
–(Oil drilling in) Alaska
–(Tax breaks to polluting) industries
-Foreign Policy
–Trade
–(Stopping imports of) UK steel (despite requests from the PM and his support in other fields)
–(Encouraging) China (into trade, then stopping imports when China gets better at textile production than the US)
–Afghanistan conflict (this may have been a good choice, but invading a country because of groups in it sets a bad precedent)
–Iraq
—(Was there any long-term) plan
—(Lack of rights for those in) Prison
-TWAT
–(Widespread allegations of, and legalistic redefinition of) Torture
–(Strategy that has) Angered Muslims (making them more likely to become radicalised)
–(Allegations of Iraq having) W.M.D.s
—(False) Evidence
–(Allegations that the war was really about controlling) Oil
–(Allegations of widespread) Corruption

As you can see, it would be pretty easy to write an essay from this quick plan, just by filling in the gaps. Also, this approach gives you a simple method of time-management. If you’re only on point 5 of 20 and you’re halfway through your time then you know that you need to make your next few points more quickly to fit everything into the time available.

I hope this has been of some use to you!

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