Students taking exam

Eliminating exam risk factors

Combine our seven point guide with a thorough revision programme and you will give yourself the best chance of succeeding on the day.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “he or she is good at exams” and while there are some people who can naturally deal better with pressure and seem to perform well under examination conditions, with the right preparation there is no reason why they should do any better than you.

Passing an exam is about aptitude and revising thoroughly but it is also about eliminating the risk factors that can lead to a poor performance such as not getting enough sleep the night before, arriving late because of bad planning or misreading a question. Combine our seven point guide with a thorough revision programme and you will give yourself the best chance of succeeding on the day.

1- Housekeeping

The day before, check the time and location of the examination and what you need to take with you. If your journey involves public transport or driving, check that nothing is likely to delay you such as roadworks and plan what time you need to leave.

2 - The night before

The tendency is to cram in as much revision as possible. Go through your coursework but don’t try to learn new material as it is likely to overload your brain. If you’ve prepared thoroughly and familiarised yourself with past questions, have confidence that you should already know everything you need to. 

Get a good night’s sleep and try not to obsess about what may or may not happen the next day. Set your alarm in good time to have a healthy breakfast before you leave.

3 - Outside the exam room

George Turnbull, the Exams Doctor at the Company of Educators, which provides a forum to bring together senior representatives across education and who himself studied mechanical engineering, says you should avoid being drawn into too many conversations directly beforehand.

“Keep yourself and your thoughts to yourself and don’t get involved in discussions about how things should be done,” he says.

Also remember to check basic things like ensuring your mobile phone is switched off.

4 - Inside the exam room 

When you sit down, take some deep breaths and read through the paper carefully. Countless exams are failed because students misread instructions or the questions themselves so take your time and double check everything you are being asked to do by the paper.

5 - The questions

Decide which questions you will answer and work out how long you have to spend on each one and don’t lose sight of this. Turnbull recommends starting with the ones you feel most comfortable with as it builds confidence. If the worst happens and you start to run out of time, try not to panic.

“If it’s an essay question, do it in outline and put down the main points you would have made. Or if it’s a calculus, go through how you would solve the problem,” says Turnbull, who worked for examination boards as well as the qualifications and examinations regulator, OfQual.

“Demonstrate that you understand the question and know how to solve it. That way you are likely to get more marks than if you tried to rush something down.”

6- Stay focused

Don’t get distracted by what else is happening in the room and what others appear to be doing. It is human nature to think someone is doing better than you because they appear to be writing faster or because they have finished ten minutes early. Get in your own zone and remain in it until the exam comes to an end.

7 - After the exam

Accept that it is now in the hands of the examiner and things are out of your control. Look forward, not back. Although it might be difficult, Turnbull advises not speaking to friends or holding post-mortems directly after the exam.

“I once worried about an examination I’d taken so much that it affected my preparation for the next one,” he says. “I ended up passing the exam I thought I’d failed and failing the next one I had to take,” he explains.

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