Nobody enjoys exams, but the fact remains that they are an important part of nearly every student’s experience. A-Levels are taken by thousands of students across the country each year, and as a current A-Level student, I know how stressful the whole exam season can be. There are seemingly endless piles of revision, and it can feel like there is a lot resting on your performance. However, there are also lots of techniques and tricks you can use to help you ace these exams.
Keep reading for plenty of tips to help you manage that stress and achieve your best during exam season, whether you are getting ready for A-Levels or any other exam.
Techniques to use when preparing for the exam
As an A-Level student, I know just how stressful exams are and just how overwhelming preparing for them can feel. However, the fact remains that the right preparation is key and it can make all the difference to your confidence for the exam as well as your grade.
Despite this, it can be difficult to know the right way to prepare for your exams. Look at the following sections for some key tips on the best ways to prepare for your exams.
Exam skill #1: Plan your revision
Sometimes, just getting started with revision can be the hardest part, as it can be overwhelming to think of everything you need to get done. This is a really common feeling, and there are plenty of ways to deal with it. The best way is to plan your revision thoroughly before you start it.
This involves breaking down your workload into smaller, manageable sections. Specifications often organise the content for an exam into subtopics, which can be a helpful place to start.
With these smaller topics, you can make a revision timetable, which makes it much easier to use your revision time well. It also makes sure you have everything done in time for the exam. A timetable makes sure you start early enough to get everything done and stay on track.
There are a few things to think about when making a timetable, such as spacing out different subjects, and making sure to leave time for extracurriculars and downtime. For a full guide on making a revision timetable, check out this article from Think Student.
Exam skill #2: Use a range of revision techniques
There are a huge number of revision methods, from flashcards, to videos, to exam questions – too many to cover here! Have a look at this Think Student article for a detailed guide to the best revision methods.
In general terms, try a range of different revision techniques, and find the ones that work best for you. Everyone’s learning style is different, so don’t feel like you have to revise in any particular way.
That being said, past papers are possibly the best way to prepare for the experience of sitting the exam itself. All A-Levels should have several past papers freely available on exam board websites. Have a look here for AQA exams, here for Edexcel and here for OCR.
Attempting these under timed conditions is a great way to prepare yourself for the timing of the real exam, including marking them with the mark scheme. This can help you see roughly what grade you are working at, and get you more used to what the examiners are looking for.
Exam skill #3: Make sure you know the logistics of the exam
Revision is obviously a big part of preparing for an exam. However, you also need to know about the logistical side. This includes information such as where you will be taking the exams, the dates and times, and what you need to bring.
This may seem obvious, but making sure you know all of this in advance reduces stress on the day, and avoids any mishaps. You don’t want to show up for your exam a day early – or late!
This also includes making sure any access arrangements you normally have in place for exams are being catered for. If you are not sure about this, your school or college will have a dedicated Exams Officer, and they are the best person to talk to about this.
Techniques for the night before the exam
The night before the exam is often when the panic sets in. You feel scared and nervous and completely stressed for your upcoming exam.
Being stressed and worried is understandable but it isn’t going to help you in the exam. Instead, you’re going to need to stay calm and get yourself ready for the exam. Look at the following sections to see the best ways to do this.
Exam skill #4: Revise key points
Lots of students are tempted to cram in as much last-minute revision as they can the night before an exam. However, this is not the best idea, as it can be overwhelming to absorb that much information in a short space of time, and you are unlikely to remember much of it.
Instead, go over just the key points needed for the test – things you already know, rather than new information. This can act as a refresher and get your brain prepared for the exam, without overloading it, and you will likely have some sort of summary sheet from your revision. If not, there are plenty of summary notes and videos available online.
Exam skill #5: Get all your equipment ready
Getting everything ready the night before an exam can save a lot of stress, rather than doing it all in the morning. This includes filling your pencil case – including spare pens and pencils, and any extra equipment such as calculators and protractors.
As well as this, make sure you know what time you need to be at the exam venue, and how you are planning to get there. Lots of this might seem simple, but going through this information can help you to feel prepared and relaxed.
Exam skill #6: Get a good night’s sleep
Students often have lots of different opinions on this. Some prefer to stay up late the night before an exam to get as much work done as possible, while others go to sleep early to get a full night of rest.
However, plenty of studies have shown that getting a good night’s sleep is vital to make sure you can perform at your best during exam season. Even if you feel fine to power ahead until the early hours of the morning, stopping your revision and going to sleep can actually be more beneficial for your grades.
Check out this article from the University of Surrey for tips on your sleep schedule for exams.
Techniques on the day of the exam
On the day of the exam, you may once again feel stressed and nervous. However, it’s the same drill as the night before your exam, you need to remain calm and keep a clear head.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Check out the following sections to learn how to stay ready on the day of your exam.
Exam skill #7: Eat a good breakfast
Often, nerves on the morning of an exam can make you feel like not eating anything. However, it’s best to eat a healthy breakfast – you’ll need that energy for the day ahead!
Try to avoid sugary foods and caffeinated drinks. These can give you a quick energy boost, but they often make you feel more jittery and anxious, and the energy will wear off quickly.
Instead, try healthier foods like carbohydrates, proteins or fruit, that will make sure your body gets the energy it needs to perform at your best.
Exam skill #8: Arrive early
Make sure you leave plenty of time to get to the exam venue. Traffic delays are common, but they are not seen as an appropriate excuse if you turn up late for your exam. If you leave with time to spare, you won’t have to worry about delayed buses or busy traffic.
This also makes sure you have time to get everything sorted before the exam itself. You are often asked to arrive a little early anyway, to do things like put bags in lockers, and sign in. It’s also recommended to take a toilet break before the exam – a small thing, but you can’t go halfway through the exam!
Exam skill #9: Stay positive
A positive mindset going into an exam can really help. While this can sound generic, there are a few concrete things you can do to help.
The first is to focus on what you do know, rather than what you don’t. You have prepared for this exam, and you know more than you think you do!
Another thing is to keep the conversations right before an exam positive. For instance, it’s not helpful to talk to people claiming they did 15 hours of revision yesterday.
However, talking to friends who are in the same boat as you can be really reassuring. It reminds you that it is normal to be nervous, and can calm you down before going into the exam room.
Techniques for during the exam
The time has finally come and now you’re sitting your exam. Having done all of that preparation and revision, you now need to make sure that this all shows in the exam.
To do this, it’s important that you’re not making any silly mistakes and that you’re able to complete the exam. To see the most important ways to be able to do this, look at the following tips.
Exam skill #10: Listen to the invigilator’s introduction
At the start of the exam, the invigilator will read out a set of instructions. Most of these are self-explanatory, and it can be tempting to zone out and think about the upcoming test.
Try to focus on the instructions, as some may be unexpected, and you don’t want anything to disrupt you mid-exam. Check you have everything you need, including the correct paper in front of you and enough stationery, and that you can see a clock in the room.
Exam skill #11: Read the question
Possibly the simplest but most helpful exam tip is to read the question carefully. Feel free to underline important bits of the question, such as command words, which tell you exactly what the question is asking of you.
Check out this page of the AQA website for some examples of command words and what they mean. It’s focussed on A-Level Geography, but these words are used across a range of subjects.
Even if the question contains a lot of text, read it all through. Often, there is a lot more information in the question than you think. In fact, if you are stuck on a particular question, re-reading what they have actually asked you can be really helpful.
Exam skill #12: Take a second if you need it
As mentioned, exam nerves are to be expected and almost everyone experiences them. During the exam itself, you might feel your mind go blank on a certain topic or question, or you may start to worry about how the paper is going as a whole.
The best thing to do is to stay calm and not panic. The more anxious you get, the harder it can be to focus on the questions and your own knowledge.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but there are several methods that can help. Firstly, it’s fine to take a second to breathe deeply and clear your mind. Even though exams are time-pressured, this can calm you down quickly so you are ready to keep going with the paper.
If it’s a particular question you are struggling with, skip it. Starting a new question can get you back on track, and you can always come back to the difficult question at the end.
Exam skill #13: Keep an eye on the clock
Time management is something a lot of students struggle with in exams. Many of us have heard the dreaded time call for 5 minutes left and realised we have far too many questions left to answer.
To avoid this, make sure to keep an eye on the clock throughout the exam. A good time to check is at the halfway point. Once half the time has gone, you can check you are roughly halfway through the paper – if not, you can increase your pace.
One key time management tip is to not spend too long on any given question. If you are stuck, it is better to move on and come back to it if you have time.
This time will be better spent on long answer questions worth a lot of marks. You don’t want to reach a final essay question and realise you only have 5 minutes left to answer it because you spent too long on the shorter questions!
For plenty more tips on time management in exams, check out this Think Student article.
Exam skill #14: Use subject-specific advice from teachers
Often, you will have had advice from teachers about exam technique. This can be really useful for tips specific to that subject.
For example, in essay-based subjects, a common piece of advice is to plan any long, essay-style answers before you start writing. Alternatively, for maths, you will likely have been told about the importance of writing down your working out.
Exam skill #15: Check your work
Finally, nearing the end of the exam, make sure to check your work – it can be boring, but it’s always worth doing. It’s easy to make silly mistakes under the pressure of an exam situation, and going over what you’ve written gives you a chance to fix these.
Even if you don’t have much time left, there are quick checks you can do. For example, go through the paper and check you have answered all the questions. It can be easy to miss multiple choice questions, or you may have left a question to come back to later.
For subjects such as maths, it is quick and useful to check that your answers are reasonable. For instance, if the question is about working out the depth of a swimming pool and your answer is 73 miles, it’s probably wrong!
Techniques for after the exam
The final piece of exam advice is possibly the nicest – to relax after the exam! Having finished your paper and handed it in, there is nothing else you can do about it, so it isn’t worth stressing about.
Take some time to chat with your friends and destress. If possible, don’t get too caught up in the specifics of an exam.
It doesn’t matter if someone got a different answer to you or wrote about something completely different. You’ve done your best, and even if you have more exams to come in the season, make sure to enjoy the feeling of being finished with an exam!