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Your guide to surviving college exams

Find out how to prepare for college exams and what to expect


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in education


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Exams are a stressful time for most people, but if you know what to expect and prepare as much as you can in advance, it will be easier. Remember, if things go wrong, it's not the end of the world. There are always more options, and often you'll have the opportunity to try it again.

How to prepare for exams

Exams are an inevitable factor in student life. The weeks before the exam can be stressful so take some time to do exam prep and get ready, print notes, talk to the lecturer, anything that will help.

Make a study plan

Ask your friends or classmates to help with this and try to be realistic about how much study you can get through every day.

Avoid comparing yourself to your friends

Everybody has a different way of preparing for exams and what suits someone else might not work for you.

Avoid cutting out large parts of the course just because you don’t like them

Those topics might just be the ones that end up on the exam paper.

Tips for studying

While there are plenty of other things you could be doing with your time, spreading out study instead of cramming will make you a lot more prepared and feeling ready for exams. One of the best ways of getting through exam time is to have a good plan for how to study well, look after yourself and manage your time. Read 5 ways to make studying easier here.

Your study space

Arrange your study space to ensure that it’s warm, quiet and comfortable and free from distraction.

Know what works for you

Don’t feel obliged to just sit in front of a book with a highlighter - there are many different ways to study. You should pick whatever works for you. Different courses and classes require different methods of study.

Condense your notes

Condense your notes into 2-4 simple revision sheets with key phrases or equations to revise before the exam.

Avoiding exam stress

Exam stress can be overwhelming. If it all seems to be getting on top of you, there are plenty of things you can do to keep calm and get perspective.

Be positive

Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Spend time with people who are positive, it will rub off on you. Avoid
 negative thoughts, such 
as “everyone else seems 
better organised, while I’m 
struggling”.

Click here to read 6 ways to promote positive thinking.

Be active

It doesn't actually help spend all 
your time inside studying. Go out and do something active, go for a walk or a run. It will help to clear your mind and stay focused when you actually are studying.

Make the time

Make sure you make the time to study. If it’s too late to revise properly and you’re cramming, then listen to your body and rest when you need to. Otherwise you risk burn out.

What can I do if I get easily distracted while studying?

Everyone gets distracted, and it's hard to stay focused for hours at a time. Often, this can lead to procrastination when we're supposed to be studying.

Staying off social media

If you can't keep off social media, try downloading an app that can block various websites for a certain length of time such as selfcontrolapp.com.

The Pomodoro Technique

If you're struggling staying focused on one topic, give the "Pomodoro Technique" a go, which involves working in 25 minute bursts with 5 minute breaks in between. Have a look in the app store for a pomodoro timer app.

Learn more about how to live with procrastination here.

Preparing for exam day

Here are some things to make sure you cover before the day:

  • Check your timetable for the correct time and location of your exam
  • Make sure you have worked out how you will approach the paper, such as knowing how many questions do you need to answer and how long do you have for each question
  • Set your alarm before going to bed and plan how you will get to the exam venue, with plenty of time to get settled
  • After study, make sure you do something to relax and try to get a good night's sleep
  • Try to avoid browsing the internet after study; you are most likely using your laptop to study so take a break from staring at the screen
  • Get everything you need for your exam ready (stationery, calculator etc.) the night before

Read more about how to prepare for the first day of exams here.

What to do on the day of the exam

Above all else, make sure you stay calm when exam day arrives!

Before the exam

  • Eat light balanced meals with slow energy release foods
  • Make sure to drink enough water as dehydration can make it hard to concentrate
  • If you are worried about nerves or anxiety, address it before your exam – take a walk or talk to someone

During the Exam

  • Take a deep breath before opening your paper and use the first few minutes to read each question marking the ones you will attempt
  • If you have questions or concerns about the paper, alert the invigilator
  • Stick to your time allocation for each question
  • Don’t give up - if you are running into trouble and can’t focus, take a break or start another question
  • Allow time at the end of the exam to review your answers, as key ideas often pop up when re-reading the text that you’ve written 

After the exam

  • Make sure you have handed up everything you need to submit
  • File away your exam paper with your notes
  • Take a short study break; get some downtime before tackling the next module
  • If you are feeling stressed or worried, talk to someone you trust

Addressing common exam concerns

There are a number of concerns that many people have around exams.

What if I’m late for the exam?

Go to the exam room/hall and see if you will be admitted. Contact your department, the exams office and/or your Students’ Union if you run into difficulty.

What if I miss an exam or I’m too sick to sit the exam?

Every school/college has a procedure for instances where a student misses an exam. Contact your head teacher, department and your Students’ Union. Make sure to keep doctors’ notes, as you may need to submit a copy.

What if I sat the exam but I’m not happy with it?

If there was an issue with the paper, contact the teacher/lecturer responsible as soon as the exam is over.

If you are unhappy with how the exam went for you, wait for
 the results before taking action. You can then talk to your teacher/Students’ Union about appeals and/or viewing the script.

Remember, the Students’ Union and the exams office are there to talk and support you with exam results. There is always the option to repeat the exams.

Who can I talk to if I'm feeling stressed?

If you're feeling stressed about exams, it will help you to open up about it. Here are some people you could talk to:

  • Your classmates, friends or family
  • Your lecturer or teacher
  • Your Students’ Union
  • Examinations Office
  • Guidance/ College Counsellor
  • Medical/Health Centre
  • For a list of other support services 
visit: pleasetalk.org
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Published April 29th2013
Last updated August 21st2018
Tags exam prep exams studying exam stress
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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