Before, During, After: Surviving your Exams

Library Student Team
6 min readMay 7, 2019

By Fiona from the Student Team

It is exam time again and your nerves are probably beginning to get the better of you. Don’t worry! This is a natural feeling most of us get each exam season. Preparing well for exams no doubt makes us more confident about the unknown, and therefore helps to calm our nerves. But let’s face it — preparation alone is never enough.

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Even though it may not be entirely possible to leave your nerves outside the exam room, you can adopt a number of tactics to increase your chances of excelling in your exams. And guess what? You don’t have to face the exam blues alone — there’s a lot of support offered by the Library through My Learning Essentials.This ranges from workshops on managing exam stress, open-book assessments, and academic writing for exams among others, to online resources and relaxation sessions.

Having completed exams for almost 25 years now, here are some of my own techniques which I hope you will find useful.

Before the exam

Resting is key. You need a fresh mind to think clearly in the exam room and this requires having enough rest the night before. I normally stop revising a couple of hours before each exam or, for an early morning exam, the night before. From that point, I focus instead on reflecting on what I already know.

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Last minute confirmations. Make sure you double-check the date, time and venue for the exam before going to bed the night before. A former classmate once missed an exam because they thought it was scheduled for the afternoon rather than the morning. Make sure you carry pens you are comfortable writing with, maybe even what you have been using for your revision, which you’re sure write well and fast enough. Once set, endeavour to reach the exam venue at least 30 minutes before start time — this should give you some time to gather your thoughts and to relax.

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During the exam

Instructions. Listen carefully to any instructions given by the invigilators and read the instructions on your question paper or answer sheet in full before you start. Seek clarifications about whatever is unclear at the start. Don’t leave anything to chance! Having worked very hard, you don’t deserve to be caught off guard for failing to read or follow exam instructions.

Question choice. Be sure to go through the whole question paper before deciding which questions to answer. You may find that questions you are better prepared for are in the middle or the end of the question paper. Read the questions not only with the aim of identifying the topic being examined but also the topic specifics you are required to address. Most times exam questions assess knowledge about a particular aspect of a topic and not the whole of it. Examiners are more interested in you answering the questions than anything else, so remember you won’t earn marks for discussing everything you know about a topic unless it is relevant to the questions asked.

For scenario-based questions, use a highlighter to highlight the relevant facts or a pen to underline them. You need to have read the question at the end of the scenario first for you to be able to identify the relevant facts in the detailed scenario. I do this all the time and it saves me from losing time re-reading the scenario from the beginning to find such facts.

Question order. Think of the order in which to answer your questions. Are you more comfortable tackling harder questions before easier ones, or longer ones before shorter ones? It doesn’t really matter, provided you know what works best for you. I always start with my easiest question to boost my confidence and to impress the marker at the start of my script. I was sceptical when I first tried this approach and expected to pass the exam only marginally. You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to have excelled in it. As it turned out, starting with my simplest question did the trick for me!

Answer planning. The importance of planning your answers to each question before you start writing cannot be overstated. I always list the main points I want to discuss on my answer sheet — just before my introduction. This way, I can go back to the list in case I forget any of the key points. The list also shows my marker what I intended to include in my answers (in case I run out of time to explain all the points in detail) and therefore counts for something.

Similarly, it is important to plan how much time you will spend on each question. Ideally this should depend on the mark allocation for each question. Once you have done this, remember to keep an eye on the clock or your watch, making sure you do not exceed the time you have allocated to each question. This way, you can be sure of having time to attempt all your questions. You stand a much higher chance of scoring a decent grade when you make a fair attempt at all questions than when you concentrate on some questions at the expense of others.

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Remaining on track. It pays to reread your exam questions at different intervals as you answer them. I do this every 10 to 15 minutes to check that my arguments are still relevant to the questions I am addressing. It is very easy to be carried away if the topic being examined is one you like. Don’t fall prey to this.

Structure. You should always structure your essays properly. In the least, you should have an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. This applies not only to coursework essays or dissertations, but also exam essays. Use concise paragraphs and sentences, and try to leave a blank line between your paragraphs. More importantly, use recommended frameworks to structure your answers where applicable. Law students, for instance, are encouraged to use the Issues-Law Applicable-Application-Conclusion or ‘ILAC’ matrix for problem questions. Such frameworks have been devised to enable you to structure your answers better hence you should not ignore them.

Handwriting. Do your best to write as legibly as you can, as poor handwriting can lead to the marker not understanding your arguments. It would be difficult to greatly improve your handwriting overnight, however you can make some adjustments to make sure you don’t lose marks because of it. Writing on every other line can make it easier for the marker to follow your writing and it also leaves you with more room for corrections. On this note, always remember to leave sufficient time at the end of your exam to make these corrections! If you are still worried, speak to your tutor about your concerns and ask them how they’d prefer you to write — one of my tutors once advised me to write in capital letters, however not all will allow that.

After the exam

Relax and have some fun. It is sometimes tempting to discuss with your colleagues how you approached the exam questions. Try not to do this as it could cause you unnecessary stress. Rather, make time to relax whether you still have other exams or not. More importantly, learn from the good and bad experiences you had during your past exams to do better in future exams.

Good luck!

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