Before writing an exam.

12 Aug, 2014

Read this before writing an exam paper or a test.

Read the stuff in bold in you have little time or want a refresher.



Take a few, 5-6, DEEP breaths to relax yourself just before the paper. Maybe with your eyes closed. Do this in a bathroom if you feel people are watching you. But sitting at the examination table, I can tell you that no-one else really cares what you are doing. For more about the benefits of deep breaths: Nathaniel Branden, How to Raise your Self-Esteem. The science behind it is that taking slow, deep breaths (from a previous state of faster, shorter breathing) slows down the heart rate and is conducive to calmness. Also deep breathing means more air – and importantly MORE OXYGEN - gets into your blood and into your BRAIN. If you get stressed out during the paper, take a couple of deep breaths. (Don’t be excessive, you’ll get sleepy. One usually becomes calmer after a couple breaths. If you are still super stressed in an exam after trying the breathing exercise for some time, then consider talking to an adjudicator. Or taking a toilet break and calming yourself down in the loo.)

Which question should you answer first?

Browse through the paper. Answer your best question first. Then your next best question; and then your next best question; and so on. Remember the minutes: marks ratio. How many minutes should you spend on each mark? By browsing through the paper I mean getting a brief understanding of what each question requires (If you are dyslexic see the note below). You should be able to almost instantly know which questions are better or worse for you. This may manifest good or bad feelings and emotions in you. Note that your best question is not necessarily someone else’s. Someone’s worst question could be your best.

Note if you are dyslexic: If you are dyslexic, consider not browsing the whole paper before-hand; you know yourself best. It may take too much time but you if read fast enough you may be able to read everything first without wasting time. My advice from a dyslexic friend (who did well by the way): start answering questions from the word ‘Go!’ in the order that questions are set. For a particular question, if you don’t understand what is required after reading half the question, skip the question, move on, come back to it after you’ve reached the end of the paper. You must know the methods to answer types of questions; this comes from practice during study.

Read first, then answer

Don’t rush into answering a question before thinking about it. First, read a question without a pen or pencil in hand. Then pretend that you have misread it, think “Oh no, I misread the question.” And then read it again. The point in not having a pen or pencil is to not start answering a question before you understand (or have possibly read the full question). After you have read the question THINK about what is required. If you like highlighting or underlining key words in questions (this is sometimes useful in long exams), you may do so; but remember to read the question properly and answer the question asked.

Dealing with difficult questions

If you are having difficulty with a question, it may be better to leave it. This is a biting point for many students who feel they must answer everything. If you skip a few questions and get 80%, that’s still a good score. Note that leaving a question doesn’t mean you abandon it totally; you can always go back after you’ve answered the questions you can more easily answer. The point is: don’t waste your time. Work smart.

Find out what % you think you can achieve (before the paper). If you think you can achieve 60%, answer 75% of the paper. The point is to go for accuracy. If you want 85%, then answer 85-100% with complete accuracy. (The higher percentage of paper answered is to account for mistakes). In summary – rather aim for a % that resonates with you and answer whatever you answer correctly; than aim for answering 100% of the paper, rushing through the paper, and answering things with lower accuracy.

Consider this scenario: You write an exam. The examiner says to stop writing. You look through your paper. The only unanswered questions are ones that were difficult for you; the easy ones you answered, probably with great accuracy. This scenario is more desirable than finding out that you missed out easy questions and wasted time on hard ones.

Sanity check your work

Check your work. You should always think about the ‘realness’ of the final answer (the conclusion if you will) for each question when you are finishing up the question. Does the answer make sense? If it does, hooray, move on to the next question. If it doesn’t, see if you can quickly modify the solution (more difficult with long-written answers). If not, change what you can (if mathematical), if not (particularly in languages), skip, hope you can come back to it later, pray if you will, and move onto the next question.

Be confident and focus

If you have worked you should have faith in your self and believe you can pass. Doubt makes memory recall and thinking more difficult. Believe you can pass; believe you have the ability to pass; believe you can. Take a few deep breaths if getting nervous; calm your mind, it may help. Many things can happen that can cause you to suffer in an exam. Personal things. This has happened to many people. Do what you can. Maybe talk to someone. Focus your mind: what’s important? At the examination, those 2 or 3 hours of the exam are VERY IMPORTANT. Because they happen once and go away [unless you plan on repeating the course]. Leave personal issues at the door, and focus on them after the exam.

After the paper

Hey! It’s after the paper! Congratulations! You’re alive! (hopefully) Don’t fret about the paper afterwards. Don’t discuss it with friends. The point of not discussing the paper is to not think about the paper, to not think about the mistakes in questions you made, to not lower your confidence (you need it for the next paper). Forget about the paper (you’ll get the results at some time in the future, don’t worry), enjoy life, and focus on your next paper if you have one. A must-do after a paper: rest for about 3-4 hours after the paper. A nap helps rejuvenate you from within.

If you are writing a paper just after the one you’ve just written, it’s up to you whether to rest or not. I recommend resting. It helps the brain for the next paper. If you’d rather not rest, say you want to study some more at least relax the 30 min before the start of the next paper. It’ll help the brain and assist memory recall and thinking capacity. We wish you the best of luck for your paper.


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