Five things you can do right now to get a headstart on exams

May 02, 2016
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We’re all familiar with the heart-sinking moment that comes after you read the word “exam” in your unit outline. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who has ever looked forward to an exam. (Although, depending on where you stand, oral presentations are a lot worse.) It depends on what kind of person you are. Either way, if the only thing your upcoming exams mean for you is a whole lot of panic, just know that there are ways to get around that. There is no “cheat” to make a whole semester of information stay inside your head, but there are measures you can take to get the upper hand on your exams and gracefully glide past the need to cram.

Be all about past exam papers

The worst part about looking up exam papers is knowing that you’re about to make a whole afternoon vanish, but it’s definitely worth the hermitage. While you can never be too sure that the content will be the same as what you get tested on, you can generally get a good idea of what the exam layout will be if it hasn’t been made clear: the short-answer-to-essay ratio, whether there’s any multiple choice sections, how long you’ve roughly got for each section, and so on and so forth. Again, it’s definitely worth the afternoon.

Try to find a past graduate from your unit

The next best thing is some sympathetic professional advice. Obviously you should be getting help from whoever is helping you, but sometimes the answers you’re really looking for are more likely to come from a fellow student graduate. The same rule here applies with what chapter or area of your study the exam is going to focus on, but you’ll get a good idea if the unit coordinators are fond of the old obscure long essay question.

Start trying to suss out your tutor’s interests

On the topic of tutors and exam questions, most of the time you can bet it’s going to be about something the tutor (or unit co-ordinator) has an interest in - or maybe a PhD. This obviously isn’t a cosmic rule that you can apply in every situation. But if you know what academic area your teachers are approaching your course of study from, then you’ll likely find the exam has been designed in a way that expands on this. When you’re looking for previous exam papers, poke around the website to do some research.

Re-read the learning objectives of the unit

You know those unit guides they assign to each unit and tell you to read at the beginning of semester? The same ones you only ever use to check assessment due dates and referencing style, and the same ones your tutors usually call “the unit bibles”? Those things are handy – a lesson I never really learned until final year. Seriously, though, everything you’re expected to learn is written right there, and if you can arrange your study to line-up with those objectives… you see where I’m going.

Start collecting outside references whenever possible

The icing on the cake of any well-written essay is the ability to chuck in some outside references that you’ve memorised, as it shows you’re competent in researching the topic (and, hopefully, understanding it). Whether it’s just “background information” or applied research, whacking down an author or collective name and year of publication on the paper can be the underlining you need to prove that you’ve retained a contemporary take on your field of study. 

Jonathon Davidson

Jonathon is studying journalism at Murdoch University in Perth.

Image: Francisco OsorioFlickr Creative Commons license

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