Advice for students navigating exams season


With exam season upon our southern hemisphere students, I thought I would put together a few tips and thoughts that might be useful to students as they approach this coming season.

Before I start espousing the rhetoric of “work hard now and reap the benefits later” I would like to put forth a few disclaimers:

  • This has been one strange year so things are not what they normally are. Keep that in mind when setting your own expectations.
  • All students have different exam conditions ahead of themselves. Some students will have external assessments for every subject, some students will have none.
  • There is more to you than your exam results. While aspiring for your absolute best is a great idea, be prepared for whatever grades show up in January.
  • Studying for techniques can vary greatly for subjects. You will need to apply different strategies to each subject you are studying for.

Now that I have those to one side, I would like to focus on some practicalities around preparing for exams. If you are a student reading this I will assume you are going to sit at least one external exam for at least one subject.

So here are my four tips for getting through this coming season:

1. Know what your exam is going to look like. 

One thing about external exams is because they are set by an organisation outside of your school the examiner must set out very clear guidelines for teachers so they know what to teach their students. This information is usually freely available on your local state or national qualifications website. All exams usually have something like an “assessment specification” which tells you what you can expect in your exam. You might also find that this assessment specification has been around for some years. If this is the case, where you are, then past examination papers will give you a good idea of the format and type of questions you might expect. This can help you narrow your focus down to a more specific part of your course’s content.

2. Practise answering questions that are similar to what you expect to be in the exam.

This piece of advice is most appropriate for more prescriptive subjects like Maths, Science, Accounting and Economics. Each of these subjects usually have a group of questions which get asked in exams year in, year out. If you can identify, then practise these questions, it may help you get through those questions faster, so you have more time to deal with less familiar questions in the exam.

3. Answer the question. 

By the time you’re getting to the end of high school, some of the concepts you are learning are quite complex. So a lot of the questions testing your understanding of concepts are complex too. This means you might have questions that require you to expand on a chain of reasoning in order to answer the question. It is very easy f to get so bogged down in the process of working through a question that you can lose sight of the original question. So if you think you have finished answering a question, always read the question again to check that your answer actually answers it. If you haven’t answered it yet, then go back and complete your answer so it addresses the question fully.

4. Give everything a crack.

Many students operate close to grade boundaries. Some students are close to the boundary between a passing mark and a failing mark. Others are close to the boundary between an Excellent mark and a mediocre mark. The way you can ensure you give yourself the best chance of ending up on the right side of the particular boundary you sit on is to always have a go at every question. In virtually all cases, you can’t lose marks for content that is incorrect. But you can’t gain marks if there is no content at all. This might mean that you go through the exam once and answer all of the questions you feel confident to answer first and then you go through the exam again and try to answer the ones you are less confident about and you continue in this fashion until you run out of time. Something is always better than nothing when it comes to sitting exams.

Outside of these practical tips for preparing for and completing your exams, I would also add that you should keep things in perspective. These exams will provide a springboard for your next aspirations. However, there are multiple pathways to achieve success and life is full of second chances. Try your best, but don’t despair if your exams don’t go the way you planned. There are always more options and opportunities as life goes on.

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