5 Key Ways to Help with Your Exam Preparation

It’s that time of year again and, if you’re anything like I was, you spend more time creating intricate revision timetables than actually knuckling down to the work.  Why is this?  I think fear of failure is the number one cause behind our reluctance to study but read on, because the following tips will help you to prepare for your exams without panic!

Learn from past mistakes

To help you learn and grow as you’re approaching your exams, one of the best ways is to review some of your previous exams and pick out some of the errors you might have made. Whether you’ve already taken an exam in the same course or with the same instructor, or are looking at exams from other courses, it’s a really helpful exercise as you can take some key learnings from one test paper and apply them to all of your exams going forward.

When you look back at past exams, as yourself the following:

  • Did I study enough?
  • Did I study the correct information?
  • Did I feel anxious when I was in my exam, or did I suffer from a mental block, feeling of panic or inability to concentrate?
  • Did I make silly errors that I could have avoided?
  • Did I follow the directions properly?
  • Did I struggle to understand some of the wording?
  • Did I leave questions unanswered?

Answering these honestly will help you understand if there are any patterns in your mistakes. Once you can see what they are, you can begin to find a way to address them and improve the next time you complete a test. Speak to your TA or instructor if you’re unsure or need some help in determining what kinds of mistakes you are making and how you might improve them.

Be prepared about what the exam might look like

An exam can take many forms, such as a multiple-choice, short answer or essay paper. The best thing you can do when going into your exam is to understand which kind of exam you’ll be taking and to familiarise yourself with it so it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Try thinking about how long it might be, how much time you’ll have to write it, and how long you will need to give yourself on each question to successfully complete the exam.

Also think about how much of your overall grade this exam will give you. That will help you figure out how much attention you need to give it (for example if it’s worth 60% of your grade, you should spend a lot of time revising and carefully answering the questions).

Above all else, think about what subjects you’ve been studying recently in class and try to do as many practice papers as possible.

Organize your study preparation

Don’t cram in everything at the last minute! Create a study plan that works for you. If you’ve never created one before, these tips will help you.

  • Think about what you’ve been studying in class and make a list of the topics that are likely to come up in the exam.
  • Map out different days of the week that you will dedicate to these topics. Leave yourself more time to focus on the ones you find more difficult.
  • Don’t cram the night before your exam. You need to remain calm and get a good night’s sleep, so leave this day free for going over everything you know to give yourself that extra confidence boost.
  • After you’ve reviewed each topic, tick them off to unlock that sense of achievement.
  • Don’t panic and stick to your plan – it will really help you!

Get your notes in order with tried-and-tested techniques

When you take a course exam, it’s not quite as simple as practising paper after paper in the hopes that some questions might be similar. You’ll need to really understand the small details in the course material, as well as the larger concepts that are at work. This will unlock greater knowledge and will help you link all the concepts that you’ve been studying in your course together. To help get you started, try one of these note-taking methods to help organize your revision materials.

Comparison charts

Try creating a comparison chart to try and analyse trends, similarities and differences between certain concepts you might have studied in your class. This will link everything together in a succinct way.

Flow charts

If you’re a more visual person then a flow chart might suit you better. Add colour to your flow chart to help simplify your learning processes.

Mind mapping

To help summarize a part of your lecture or to get a better overview of the entire concept, create a mind mapping document that will organize your notes together. The University of Guelph has a great guide to get you started with Concept Mapping.


Create a numbered list to help you order your notes and visualize traits or characteristics that might be linked to the course material.

Find some good study questions to practice on

When you’re practising on test papers, it’s a good idea to time yourself and sit in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. This will give you an authentic feel for exam conditions. Try finding similar past exam papers online, or create your own questions using your knowledge of the course and exam to practice with. Don’t use any notes if you wouldn’t be allowed to take them in the exam hall with you. And if you have access to the room, you could stop by to get a feel for the space beforehand.

To find practice questions, try the following:

  • Use the questions in your course notebook and answer them as you would in an exam.
  • Find the textbook study website and see if they have any questions available online
  • Get together with a group and ask each other relevant questions.
  • Quiz yourself using a series of flashcards. Don’t look at the answer until you really need to.
  • Ask your professor to provide study questions that you can work at home.
  • Try the “Cornell notes” method, where you use a notebook to write answers on the left edge of the paper (about 1/3 of the way down the page) and then write your answers in the right column across from your questions. Quiz yourself on these.

Allowing the maximum time possible to revise and using these tips and tricks will help you feel calm and collected on the day of your exam, knowing that whatever happens, you’ve done your best.


1 Comment

  1. Susie Wilkinson
    17 November, 2019 / 1:48 pm

    I think the main key to exam success is good revision skills, little and often, and take advantage of any study groups, the more times you go over things the more likely they are to stick in your mind.
    Saying that, I’m so pleased my MSc doesn’t have any exams!

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