I’ve written my fair share and maybe a bit more of exams in my lifetime. Exams are daunting experiences for many and preparing for exams represents as much of a struggle as passing them. Exam preparation and writing can be filled with emotions of anxiety, fear, overwhelm, overconfidence or outright panic.  While I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself an exam expert I’ve developed a system over the years that has helped me become comfortable with taking exams and getting good results in them. So I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt over the years to help students and professionals in preparing for exams.

Who does best in exams?

I’ve helped people with exam coaching (finance, accounting and management in case you’re wondering) and this is always my first question; who performs the best in exams. The answers I usually get vary from the smartest students, the quickest learners, the most experienced and a few others. The answer I am looking for is those who answer questions best. And that’s how exams and tests assess how good we are, and how well we answer the questions posed to us. So what you want to be to pass exams is good at answering questions. The question then becomes how does one become good at answering questions in exam settings?

The thing about tests

Exams are tests and we will use the terms interchangeably. A big part of many tests is assessing how good you are at taking the test itself. One great example of this is the provisional driver’s licence exam. None of the content in the test (or any exam for that matter) is a complete surprise but the trick comes in identifying what the question demands and focusing on the important parts of the question. Another issue that plays a part in this is time. The time limits on exams and tests add pressure of their own. In short tests and exams are also in part about how well you handle pressure.  So how do we best prepare ourselves to answer questions in the face of pressure?

Start with a Dry run

To start with you need a dry run test. This is not for the faint-hearted but I’ve found this always gets me in the right frame of mind to study for an exam. The dry run is best taken after you have covered the entire syllabus and all you do is take the exam or test without any extra preparation. You want to do this as the first thing in your exam preparations. You may have different results from me but nothing tells you need to study like scoring 35%. The dry run also shows you your problem areas so you know what to focus on when studying.

Practice… a lot!

Sop thanks to your dry run you now know what to study and how much to focus on it. What you want to do is practice using past exam papers or something as close to them as you can get. Your focus at this point should be on learning the concepts. The ideal way to practice a using 3 textbook examples and one past exam paper-style question. It depends on what sort of time you have but the ideal frequency is daily. Do not attempt full past exam papers yet, the time for this will come.

Time is of the essence

The second thing you need to focus on is time. You’ve probably heard already that you should look at how much is available in an exam and allocate time to a question proportional to its contribution to the exam mark. Using a minutes per mark method is great. It does vary a little from discipline to discipline but the method is quite accurate. You want to go one up on this method and should be able to complete a question in half to two-thirds of the time allocated for the question. So you want to finish a question that deserves 30 minutes in 15 to 20 minutes. Again it varies with the discipline but this is a sweet spot.

Exam conditions

Finally, you want to write full past exam papers in exam conditions. That means two uninterrupted hours for a 2-hour exam. Each time you do a practice question, test or exam make sure you note your areas of strength and weakness. Your reading and revision will be dedicated to those areas you need to work on. All the while you should be able to hit that half to two-thirds of the time target. Why do you want to do this? Two important reasons here. You almost always do better work when you work slower and you can afford to do so in the exam if you have to practise answering questions fast. Secondly, finishing quickly gives you time to review your answers. Lots of time. You’ll be happy to have it.

It differs from person to person but I would want two to three weeks to work through these tips.  While practice and timing can be done together, writing under exam conditions needs its week. Give it a try if you have exams coming up, would love feedback on the method.