Exam revision can be a daunting task; all exams are there to measure progress, but some determine which academic path you will take next, or even your future career prospects. However, approached properly, exam revision will take the pressure off you, make your preparation manageable, and even feel rewarding.
This guide will provide you with the ultimate in tips and tricks to help you make the most of your revision and stay on top of your wellbeing in preparing for your exams.
1. Start early
The best time to start revision for your exams was several months ago. The second-best time is right now.
Starting early is a critical step towards success, as it gives you time to cover all the material, make sure you understand everything, and revise it multiple times. Starting early will also reduce your stress and anxiety, and make sure you have enough time to check any information with your tutor.
Create your study plan and break down the material into manageable parts. This should include all the topics you need to cover, what you need to work on them, and how much time you need to spend on each topic – you will find that you naturally need to spend less on some areas as your recall will be better, so making sure your recall is adequate will be enough here. You will then have more time to work on weaker areas, and even access additional tuition if you think you need it.
Past papers will be particularly useful to you as they will allow you to see how questions are likely to be structured, and practise how you will manage your time in answering them. This is extremely helpful for subjects where you might be weaker; learning how to answer the question in a structured manner, showing your working, can help to get you enough marks to pass, even if you don’t finish the question, or don’t necessarily get all the information correct.
Started late? Don’t despair. Still create a study plan and focus your time on areas where you know you can gain the most marks. Practise structuring your exam answers and learn any formulas or quotations that you know will stand you in good stead over multiple possible questions.
2. Set realistic goals
Setting realistic goals isn’t only crucial towards exam success, it’s crucial for your mental health too. Your first goal should be to pass your exams – just that and nothing more; pass. If you need higher grades for some subjects than others, to go on to A Level or for university entrance for example, then those are the subjects where the bulk of your revision time should be focused.
Researching what you need to achieve for each level of grade will be useful to you here. If a goal of yours is “achieve at least 75%” in a specific subject, then knowing what that grade looks like in terms of example answers is an important preparation tool for you. It’s easier for you to track your progress, and gauge whether your answers will be enough, or if not, where you need to improve to reach your goal.
For the exams where you just need to pass, concentrate on your weakest areas. Assess your abilities realistically and set a time limit on how long you will revise each topic for. Pushing yourself harder will just see you heading for burnout, and wasting valuable time that you could be using on subjects where you need more than a pass.
Even though you won’t have taken your exams just yet, celebrate achieving your revision goals. Take a break for a few hours to watch a film or see some friends or reward yourself with a gift. Marking achieving your goals is a great motivator and will make the next stage of your work easier if your attitude is positive through knowing you’re on the right track.
3. Organise your revision notes
Making notes when you’re revising is an essential part of helping information to stick. However, random scraps of paper won’t help you when you come to read through them again, so arm yourself with notebooks, revision cards, sticky notes and washi tape (or whatever works for you!) and get organised.
A subject notebook can be useful if you’re focussed on one area with several sub-topics. It can also make it easier to see whether you have covered everything you need to revise, or whether anything is missing and there are gaps you need to cover.
Formulas, quotations or dates and places are what sticky notes were made for. Using different colours for specific areas can help if you’re a visual learner. You can also move them around depending on what you’re working on at any given time. Learning a particular set of dates? Put those sticky notes in your eyeline and look up at them as you revise the rest of the information.
If your handwriting is poor, type up your notes, or even dictate them into your phone and listen back to the recording – also useful if you have dyslexia and need extra revision support. As you get closer to the exam, making notes of your notes can often help you to refine and understand your subject knowledge even further.
4. Complete some past papers
The benefits of past papers are twofold; not only do they expose gaps in your knowledge and help you to focus your revision, they give you an idea of the depth of knowledge necessary to pass the exam. Most of your encounters with past papers are likely to be under classroom tuition conditions, with your tutors marking them and giving feedback.
However, once you know what the exam board requires of you, it’s easier to use them in your private revision as well.
Your exam technique can only really be learned by setting yourself timed questions. This will help you structure your answers, and even identify which questions are best left alone (where there is a choice) as they will involve too much time for the return in terms of how many marks they carry.
You will also be able to spot how and why you make mistakes; for example, you might find that you need to focus on reading the questions through several times before you know which answers they’re really looking for, or that you get too bogged down in detail that whilst showing a depth of knowledge, isn’t really relevant to the question that’s being asked.
Don’t forget to simulate exam conditions; turn off your music, put a do not disturb notice on the door, and only have the materials to hand that you will take into the exam with you. This will also serve to make taking the exam feel familiar and comfortable for you.
5. Stay healthy
Perhaps the most critical factor in your exam preparation has nothing to do with your revision at all. You are not a robot, and unlike AI, you can’t regurgitate information with little more than a prompt. Your revision schedule needs to factor in time for food, drink, sleep, exercise, and – perhaps most importantly – fun. All of these factors will significantly impact your exam performance.
Most of our processing of information is done when we’re asleep, especially if it’s information that has to be committed to memory exactly rather than as concept or facts that will be used in our own words. Make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep each night otherwise you’ll be falling asleep over your notes.
If your first thought is “I don’t have time to exercise!” (especially if you have left starting your revision programme late), read your notes into the recording app on your phone, put on your headphones, and go for a walk. Combining fresh air and moving your body with using your brain is the ultimate in revising smart!
Watch your diet; plenty of lean protein and fruit and vegetables will not only keep you alert but avoid hunger dips as protein keeps you fuller for longer. Drink plenty of water and watch your caffeine intake; don’t cut it out as you’ll have withdrawal headaches to contend with, but make sure you don’t drink more than you normally would in a day.
Finally, make sure you have a support group.
This is probably most usefully your peer group, as you’re all going through the same thing, but don’t rule out people who have been where you are and come through the other side. Exam season can seem like a hurdle you won’t get past, but even if you don’t get the results you want, it’s not the end of the world – sometimes another year and resits are exactly what you need to be in a better place to achieve your goals.