Exams: how to cope, and maybe even do well

Possibly the most dreaded and stressful time of the year for many high school students, final exams are a perennially formidable challenge. Many of us find this to be a result of pressure coupled with a feeling of inadequacy in the sense that we are not prepared enough to get a high mark.

There are two types of stress that most people experience before going into an exam:  “I do not know anything” and “I might not be able to recall what I have learned.”

The truth is that if you have been paying attention in class, then it is only a matter of the second version of stress, and this stress is surprisingly helpful because it encourages focus and pushes you to be flawless. If you have this type of stress then there is a high probability that you will have a good performance in the exam because of how the questions are phrased, in that their specificity will make it difficult not to recall something that you have learned.

If you have not been paying attention in class then you do not really deserve to get a high mark in the first place and you will be experiencing the first type of stress, which is not beneficial because it will likely deter you from confronting the issue effectively, nevertheless you can still be helped. The most effective way I found to prepare for an exam in this situation is to find the syllabus document and mark off everything you do not know, then make SWOT Notes and quizzes specifically for that information.

An extremely simple and surprisingly effective solution to the second type of exam stress is to complete past papers prior to an examination. These work because they provide an idea of what the coming exam will look like, which helps you become more familiar with the subject and the types of questions that are to come. This means you will not have to speculate as much and can narrow your studies onto the relevant information.

Also, examination writers are humans and humans can get lazy sometimes, so there is a reasonable chance that a few of the new questions will be extremely similar to previous ones, maybe even straight recycled, and if you are lucky you might just come across one of these questions in the exam and get those marks for free since you will have virtually done it before. 

Additionally, past exams give the advantage of testing your knowledge beforehand and gaining experience with exam technique, yet it is common belief that past papers help you get really good at past questions, but not the new ones.

On the contrary, if you do not do past papers, then there is no way of really narrowing down what you actually need to know and what sort of information will actually be useful, which will force you to learn the entire syllabus to a frightening extent. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is rather time consuming and inefficient. Since you cannot be tested on every single part of the syllabus, it will likely leave you disappointed after the exam when something you have spent hours studying did not even come up once.

For a subject such as English, where it is not only knowledge of a text but also a skill of writing essays, then doing plenty of practise essays – maybe one per day for a week or two – and handing them in to your teacher for marking will drastically improve your English results, as it did for me, because it allows you to determine your most effective writing style. The additional confidence gained from now knowing how to consistently write good essays will help you enjoy English more and absorb more of the actual knowledge regarding the text.

This ‘confidence’ aspect is pivotal to the purpose of past exams because doing well on past papers helps you to process the stress in a positive capacity, which can actually help you. After all, stress is associated with alertness, something that is often beneficial in an exam scenario.

I have found a correlation between the number of past papers I have done and the marks that I get. For instance, in the most recent mocks I did the most past papers for Math and English and they turned out to be my two highest marks, whereas in Biology and Physics I did the least past papers and they were my two lowest marks. This causality is actually incredibly useful because it contributed to my understanding of the importance of doing past papers.

Essentially, if you are able to utilise the second type of exam stress to sharpen your focus and find the drive to do past papers well in advance of the exam, coping becomes much easier and you will maximise your chances of getting your best possible mark.

Written by Eliot Lew, published on 24/09/2018. Header image from Pexels (CC BY)

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