It’s that time of year again, when parents increase the nagging by 110% and all the young people begin tearing their hair out. Yes, let’s cut to the point, we all know it’s exam season, and that means…
But never fear. I am here, as an actual young person who has recently lived through 15 years of the cruel education system and survived (with only a few minor breakdowns), to give you my humble advice. So, let’s get started, shall we? Here are my top tips:
- Try your best.
Ok, hear me out here, this is really important. The phrase on its own sounds stupid and meaningless and it’s probably one of the last things you want to hear right now, but this is literally the first step on the ladder to exam happiness.
Because the thing is, if you try your hardest then you won’t have anything to feel guilty about if you fail. It’s as simple as that. Maybe it’s just me, but the only thing worse than flopping an exam is knowing you failed because you didn’t try hard enough. If you tried your best, and actually put the time in; no one, not your teachers or your parents or even yourself can get mad. Because it’s literally not your fault. Exams aren’t for everyone, and perhaps you just had a bad day, a bad year, or a bad subject choice.
But that’s okay, there’s no shame in admitting that if you gave it a good shot. Some things just don’t work out. Maybe it was a really important exam, but they’re not everything. Breathe. Calm yourself. If you want to get somewhere you will. There’ll always be a way around it I promise (I’ll share some of my own examples later).
But how do you try your best? Really? You hear teachers say it all the time, but what does that phrase actually mean in this context? Well, here are some more detailed tips:
- Start revising early. Just an evening here and there, or the occasional Saturday morning at the library. Just start. You don’t have to create a timetable if you don’t want to (because I find them incredibly annoying personally) but you should set yourself a goal. Something realistic such as an hour each day. It hurts to say this but you really should use the Easter holiday and half terms to revise too. Just a few hours in the morning, that sort of thing.
- Organise your notes and go through everything systematically. Maybe this is just me, but I like knowing I have covered everything start to finish, so make sure you allow enough time for that. Be organised. Highlight and prioritise. Put things into folders. It helps, and can also be a good way to procrastinate.
- Do past papers. This is really important. It’s amazing how many people (former me included) revise but never actually look at the past papers – except perhaps in lessons. You need to understand the answer’s they’re looking for and how to write them. (Commonly called exam technique). This is literally half the challenge of passing an exam in the first place, so don’t be one of those people that miss it out or leave it to the last minute.
- Look up specific methods of how to revise and find what works for you. Mind maps, flashcards, extra classes, acronyms, the lot. There are hundreds of different ways to revise, and in school we’re rarely taught what to do when the time comes. So look these methods up, try them, and then settle for the one that works best. I personally like taking notes and then turning the newly learnt information into a question. This way when I go through and try and answer all of the questions later, I know if the knowledge has actually gone in or not. (And a lot of the time you’ll find that it hasn’t.)
- Ask for help, seriously, don’t be afraid. I know a lot of you won’t have a problem with this, but I did. Teachers can seem evil (and I believe many of them are – especially at secondary school ) but the trick is to identify which ones aren’t and will help. Even the horrible ones will probably look at you differently if you turn up at lunch with a question. If your teachers won’t help then try a tutor, your parents, or your friends.
Right then, now that’s done, let’s back to the general revision tips:
2. Don’t revise in your bedroom (or an area where you regularly relax).
This is another bit of solid advice, because when you revise in your bedroom, you’re less likely to be in the mindset for work, and will get distracted. When you want to revise, make sure you get up (early is best, perhaps 9) shower and change, before going out somewhere and settling down in a new space. Try a quiet table in your house, a cafe or a library. This way you’re automatically ready to sit down and learn something in a work environment, unlike if you were just crunching on some toast in your pyjamas. I found going out to the library really beneficial, as it meant leaving the house and separating my home life from work. It’s also nice to get back and not worry about doing any more revision, because you’ve already done your bit for the day.
3. Get plenty of exercise.
It’s common knowledge that a healthy body leads to a healthy brain. Exercise can also improve your memory, so it might help to try and do some if you don’t already.
Now I know what you’re thinking, if you’re not a naturally sporty person exercise is horrible. I hated it at school, but trust me, doing it on your own terms is another experience entirely. Going out, whether it be for a walk, swim, or cycle, you name it, can be so refreshing. Taking an hour in the morning or the evening stops you from feeling like you’ve wasted the whole day inside revising. It also keeps you healthy, and really helps with your mental health. Whenever I start to feel myself slipping, I step up the exercise and time in the sunshine, and it really does help me feel better.
3. Put the phone away.
This point is pretty obvious, and I’m sure you don’t need me to say it, but we all get distracted by our phones sometimes. So make that urge even easier to resist by putting it out of sight. You can check it in one of your breaks, and use a computer (preferably not your own) to look things up instead. If you want to learn properly, then you just have to put it down.
It sucks. But it’s only a few hours, and the internet really isn’t going anywhere.
4. Reward yourself with regular snacks and treats.
You did 45 minutes of solid revision? Yay! Go you, take a whole 15-minute break and get yourself a snack to celebrate.
Breaks are important. They allow our brain to relax and refresh so we’re ready for the next bit of learning. We can only concentrate for roughly 40-90 minutes anyway. So if you’ve done a sizable chunk of work, take a break, relax, and check your phone. You deserve it. I find setting a timer (say, 45 minutes?) and not moving for my break until that timer goes off is a great way to keep track of the revision you’ve achieved.
5. Get lots of sleep.
Gosh, I really am starting to sound like your mum here, I’m so sorry.
Life for a young person is stressful. I hate people who try and belittle our problems and pretend that it isn’t. Exams are stressful. Friendship/relationship drama is going on, and on top of all of this social media is constantly begging you to be checked and updated. It’s the biggest distraction in our modern society. It’s part of our lives now, and it can seem impossible to switch off (which is something no one over the age of 25 had to deal with when they were at school.)
I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here because I still struggle with this, but try and put the phone down get as much sleep as you can, mainly because it’s vital if you want to remember anything.
6. Keep your notes organised (and get lots of cool stationary)
I sort of already talked about this, but there is actually nothing more satisfying to look at than nice clear revision notes, trust me. Buy yourself a cute notebook and fill it with pretty gel pen colours and highlighters, whatever works. Ditch that boring black notebook your mum got you and go to town with a shiny rainbow one. Take pleasure in the small things, because for some reason, for me at least, it makes everything a little more bearable.
7. Try the Mind Palace Technique.
This should excite any Sherlock fans out there. If you want to be a bit quirky, then you can try what I like to call ‘the Mind Palace technique’. This is where you create a load of posters or notes, and stick them up in different areas around your house; putting one on each wall in a room, or grouping them into subject topics or whatever. Then you run around every room calling out the information on each wall. (You might want to make sure no one else is in for this part.)
You can do it however you like. You could dedicate one room per subject, then split the topics up by using the walls, or use the whole house for a certain topic you’re struggling with. It’s completely up to you.
When you’ve finished running around like a lunatic and calling out names, sit down at your desk, close your eyes, and imagine yourself visiting each room and reading the information – which is how you remember it. I tried it for the theorists in my English Language A level, and I was surprised at how well it really worked. You will look like an absolute clown, but it’s worth it. If you like a more active way of learning, then give this a go.
8. Don’t surround yourself with other people who are getting stressed.
There’s always that one friend who is constantly freaking out, and exams are no exception. (This includes any stressful online group chats you’re in too.) The people panicking may be nice friends, but their stress will only make you more stressed, which is really bad for your learning. Above anything else stressing out only wastes time and will just make you feel awful.
In short, avoid all the stressed people and just focus on yourself and your work. Like I said, if you’re trying hard, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about anyway. It will be fine.
9. Read the timetable so you actually know the date of your exams.
Have you ever heard your mum’s friend gossiping about that one child from your school who forgot the date of the exam once and actually missed it?
Don’t be that person. It may sound obvious but things like this can creep up on you. Make sure you know all the dates and note them down, and make sure you’re aware of exactly which questions you’ll have to answer too; as often it can be confusing in subjects such as English literature. Do your research and be prepared. Don’t be that one kid every year who attempts to answer all six 40 mark questions in an hour. They don’t tend to do very well.
Finally, I would like to share my story with you; because despite reciting all this advice, I have never been an A* student.
I don’t know where exactly it all went wrong at primary school, but I suddenly fell behind with the basics in English. I remember being put into special groups and workshops – so I suppose they did try and help me catch up – but by the time I reached secondary school there were some serious gaps in my knowledge. I did well in SATS and got placed in a fairly high English set, (because the tests were on creative writing and word association etc) but the truth was I suffered severely with spelling, punctuation and grammar.
I distinctly remember my first English lesson at secondary school. We did a spelling test out of twenty, with very basic words. But you know what I got?
Nine. Out of twenty. The next lowest score in the class was 17. I’m not going to lie to you, it was pretty embarrassing. I remember blushing and wanting to die on the spot. Yet, no help was given, and so, because I was too nervous to ask, I went through the majority of school not knowing the basics. I scraped along by copying friends and faking ill to avoid spelling tests, but when GCSE’s came along, I got a D. I retook it and got a C eventually, but I’d failed. Clearly, I wasn’t good at English, even though it was what I enjoyed most.
Despite this, I still wanted to take it at college, but you needed at least a B to study it, which obviously I didn’t have. However, (and I’m not a strong believer in fate) a miracle happened.
They messed up my GCSE results and I didn’t get the correct marks, which meant on the day of college enrollment, when they asked, ‘”But will you have a B when your proper results come through, right?” I panicked and said:
“Yes. Definitely. I think did really well in that exam.”
Ha. I started on the course, and low and behold, when my real results came through, it was not the B I had hoped for.
But it didn’t matter because I was already in! I was on the course! And they never checked to see what my actual grade was.
The first year of college began, and it was a bit like school. The struggle continued, I was too embarrassed to ask for help, and at the end of AS (the first part of A levels), it wasn’t really a big surprise to see I’d ended up with an E.
But did I give up?
Nope. I just filed for another retake.
Standing in that office, filling out that form, was the moment I realised that if I wanted to have any hope of being a writer, I was gonna have to buck my ideas up. Really. So that was it. I googled all the advice I could, I went to extra classes, followed all the tips I’ve just given you here and then really tried.
And it worked, in the end I got a B at A Level, something, at times, I never believed would be possible.
Now, a year on, I’m training to be a journalist at my local paper. I frequently have work published and have done freelance work, written short stories, poems, this blog; and in September I’ll be off to university.
I think I’m finally getting there. And I do believe I have what it takes to be a professional writer.
Exams. Aren’t. Everything. Grades don’t define you.
I didn’t even need high grades to get into the course I am on now. There will always be a way around things. You just have to be proactive and look for it. Of course good results help, which is why you should try hard, but they’re not everything.
If you want it you will get there. Just believe in yourself and try your best. You’ve got this.