A Winning Formula for Exam Success

Our education consultant Mark Comfort shares his top tips for students to achieve exam success. We loved Mark's article and wish all our students the very best of luck in their exams. You can do it!

As a qualified teacher, I have prepared pupils with the skills they need for exam success and have formulated a recommended list of exam techniques, tips and tricks. Here is my winning formula for exam success; I hope it benefits you.

Use breaks and routine to create a sustained, rigorous and thorough revision programme. Study a few topics each day to prevent boredom and divide the hours per day by your number of topics. When your exams approach, prioritise different subjects as the exam comes up. If you’re struggling to make the plan yourself, ask your teacher or a tutor to help.

Use practice past papers to build your revision. Research your exam, make sure you understand what each question asks of you, read model answers and check the mark scheme for each question. Do so by searching for your exam board and their past papers online. Ask parents, teachers and tutors to supply you with as many past exam papers as you can get to practise with. Completing these past papers is the best way to actively apply your knowledge and embed it in your memory; if you know the exam questions and how they are marked then you know which parts to practise. Prepare yourself for exams by completing practice papers in timed conditions. In this way, you can learn in practice as well as in theory, how to achieve high grades in your exams.

You are far more likely to recall information if you have actively used it in different contexts. Instead of reading and rereading the same sentences, try rephrasing the information and writing it down. Your chances of recalling information are much higher if you interact with the information. Discuss it with your friends! Unsure of how something is applied? Google it!  Apply what you have learned in different situations. Teach your family about meiosis or the cold war, you’ll be surprised by their interest or by what they may know. Consider how you could research or revise information in new and informative ways.

Keep yourself organised. If you are revising from muddled and unclear notes then your memory will be just as muddled and unclear on the subject. Group your revision notes into topics. Rewrite your notes if need be to make them clearer and more streamlined. Use colours to highlight key information and actively associate the colour with those ideas to make it easier to remember. Use a maximum of three colours, any more and you will probably get confused between them. Don’t take this in the opposite direction either; don’t waste time making your notes look pretty, after your exams, you won’t need them anymore!

Use the Pomodoro technique, that is to say: Revise for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break. After 2 hours, take a 30-minute break. Start the process again. The reason for this is that your brain will retain a certain amount of information input. After 25 minutes, your information retention (Your ability to remember) decreases. Taking a break and doing something else for five minutes gives your brain a chance to “reset” and take in more information once again.

Use your surroundings. How long do you spend looking in the mirror each morning, brushing your teeth or combing your hair? Now imagine you had a post-it or keynote with information that you always forget stuck to the side of the mirror. This could be as simple as a key definition or as complex as a diagram of a cell. Take into account how long you will be in that area (There's no point putting up more material than you can revise in the five minutes it takes you to brush your teeth!)

Adopt a calm and methodical approach in the exam. Read through all the questions of the whole exam paper once. This will help avoid any surprises later in the exam and help steady your nerves. Breathe, calm yourself. Be methodical and calm in your approach, don’t be afraid to re-read the question. Set aside time for planning at the start of each question.

Start with the quickest and easiest questions. If there is a familiar topic or a very brief question, begin with these. Completing these questions early in the exam will relax your anxiety and focus your efforts on later questions. For each longer mark question that you plan, note down the key points that you would like to make and briefly order them with a number. Know how many minutes you should spend roughly on each question. Make sure that you leave enough time for these longer and higher marks questions. If there is a question you’re unsure about, keep going. You should prioritise easy marks and high mark questions first. You may merely need to look at the question from a fresh angle and will be surprised at the number of new ideas you get when you come back to it.

Show your working out. Unfortunately, due to the fast pace of exams, some students forget to include their working out. Showing the logical process you undertook is vital in the many subjects such as the science, economics, and maths where you’ll have longer equations in multiple questions dealing with a topic. You may come to the wrong answer at the end, but your method may be correct. This will give you few extra marks If you can show the examiner your logic; ensure that you show your working out in detail for a question even if you aren’t sure of the end result.

Read through your work. At the end of your exam, your stamina will be low and you will want nothing more than to hand in the paper and abdicate future responsibility - hold on! If you have finished early in your exam, check back through your exam paper to look for missing details, correct and improve your work as you do; this may net you those few extra marks that will make a difference to your grade. Ask yourself:

  • Have I explained everything properly?
  • Have written the correct units for each question?
  • Does my introduction set out my arguments?
  • Does my conclusion reflect on my arguments?