In my experience, the hardest part for most students (including myself) when getting ready for an exam is not actually learning the material- the real problem is having, and spending, enough time on all the material to be tested. I’ve seen friends and students study almost endlessly, but also aimlessly, only to realize when it’s too late that they haven’t prepared themselves for the exam after all.
The long-lived rule of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is as follows:
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
That is precisely my take on taking an exam- know yourself and know the test.
So how to study?
- Know yourself- it is crucial to get this out of the way first. You need to know if you are a person that needs a lot of time to prepare so you never feel like you’re in trouble, or someone who needs pressure to focus. Look over how you prefer to learn- are you a visual, auditory or tactile learner, or some hybrid of the above?
- Know your opponent- you should never just study by reading material and then taking the exam. Always start by knowing what the exam consists of, both in its scope of material you need to have prepared, and also the manner in which it will test you. You need to do practice questions. If you know you can answer the questions when it’s practice, you can remind yourself when it’s crunch time during the exam that you’ve been here. It is a HUGE boost.
- Define winning. There’s no point in taking an exam and not knowing why you’re there in the first place. Different exams have different importance- some hold the pressure of admission into a program or school, others are just another grade that will average out for your final. Define your win, then shoot for a score 10% higher than that- this means you’ll have to study 10% more (material learned and time committed) than you would to just get the score you’re shooting for. Figure out how far you are from that goal score. Budget time accordingly.
- Win. In the days leading up to the exam, the day of the exam, and while you are taking that exam- know you are there to win. When something goes wrong, when there’s a question you freeze up on, when you are not certain if you can finish- remind yourself that you studied like you know you best could, you’ve done enough practice questions, you’ve won before and you can do it again. It’s not positive thinking; it is thinking rationally in stressful situations and using the experiences you’ve earned and accumulated through appropriate study and practice.
The above is a very concise and pretty abstract approach to preparing for an exam. I’d be happy to field questions or help make it work specifically to your situation.
You don’t need to be forced into situations to cram- choose to by being intentional about studying in the time you want to, and you’ll find you can really learn more information than you usually would have.
It gives you more time to doing the things you would want to, and get to do them without feeling guilty for having not studied yet!
By Denny Simon, Private Tutor