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5 Top Exam Tips


When tests or major examinations approach, nerves get tense and anxiety grows. As there are always going to be examinations in one form or another, there’s not much that can be done about that - but using these tips, your nerves may be calmed a little and anxiety lessened. These five pieces of advice are based upon experience.

These tips are slanted mainly towards literature-based tests, but broadly their principles apply to any subject.

1. The first and most important thing for any student is to have at least read the texts upon which any examination is based. Always a good start. But after that:

2. Know what your examiner is looking for. There will be materials somewhere which summarise this for you. Some answers simply do not require all the information you may want to write down – and some may require more. Guides on this are not the most exciting read, but you need to know what they are looking for. It’s your examination.

3. In most English Literature exams, Personal Response to what you read is very important; you will of course need to show that you know each of your texts, but much more than that you will be expected to show the examiner that you understand how each author has created this response in you by looking at the language he or she uses, the imagery, the form and structure and how it all relates to the themes and ideas of the whole text. Your personal response, and your understanding of how the writer has created this, matters much more than your knowledge of any terms. Technical terms are just a useful shorthand way of explaining some of your reactions.

Big question: what if you didn’t really have much of a ‘personal response’? Dig deep - what was your response supposed to be? Work on that basis and construct something sensible. Try to show that you have enjoyed what you have read even if you haven’t – the best answers show a knowledge of the texts, accompanied by engagement and enjoyment.

4. Start to plenty of quotations and/or references to exactly what is written as soon as you possibly can. Quotations are supposed to support and illustrate what you say. If they are there, say something about why they are relevant: pick on a word, or an image, for example.

5. Big One: Answer exactly what the question asks you and not what you think it asks, or worse still what you wish it had asked!

This is a common error and loses more marks than you might think. It seems unjust that the examiner will overlook an otherwise brilliant answer just because it doesn’t address the question asked - but that is what will happen, if you drift away from the question.

Even a sailing genius will fail if he or she sails to the wrong destination.

Having said all of this, though, the most important tip, senior to all others in terms of getting a real grasp of the situation, is that examinations and tests are artificial constructions: they are set up to try to determine someone’s abilities in an unreal set of circumstances. Answering a random question in a narrow time frame under pressure is something that you will rarely be required to do in real life - unless you’re taking a test, that is. So examinations and tests really measure only one thing: your ability to take examinations and tests. Real ability is measured over a longer period of time and by what you produce.

Certain organisations in the world judge people according to the marks they got on particular papers - but individuals will tend to assess you on actual live experience and production.

That’s worth keeping in mind over any exam season.


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