14 tips every uni student needs to survive January exams
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
It may not be the reminder you want to hear right now, but January exam season is fast approaching. For many students, the latter half of December is not just a time for festive cheer; it's also the time to bunker down and revise, revise, revise.
But it's still only mid-December! We hear you say. That's right, and you owe it to yourself to enjoy the Christmas break, whatever that means for you. But January exams will come around before you know it and it's never too early to start thinking about how you will revise to ensure you pass with flying colours.
So, how will you revise? If you have a revision plan in place already, that's great. If you do not, watch this brilliant video on creating a retrospective revision timetable. Once your plan/timetable is in place, what extra things can you do to stay on track with it? We've put together a list of exactly this, to help you get to where you need to be.
1. Procrastination is your worst enemy
Procrastination is the art of putting off until later what you could (and probably should) do right now. It's a common problem for students and probably one of the most common reasons for poor performance during exams. If you want to do well on exams studying needs to be the most important thing you do. Start as soon as you wake up in the morning: open your book, grab your flashcards, open your laptop. The best way to ensure the first thing you do is study when you wake in the morning is to have everything ready before you go to sleep.
For more help on being extra productive, see our blog post on mastering The Pomodoro Technique.
2. Your health is wealth
If, like many people, you're going to splurge over the Christmas holidays, you're likely going to feel lethargic and a little 'slow' at getting back into your studies. The time you spend studying needs to be of quality, and you cannot do this well if your body is suffering. Do your best to stay healthy. Eat green, clean foods and avoid the heavy, sugary, fatty feasts warmed up in the microwave. Drink plenty of water. And don't skip on exercise or gym days. Find the time to keep your body fit, and your mental ability will improve.
3. The power of sleep
Certainly, part of keeping a healthy body (see tip 2) is getting the right amount of sleep. You are going to need it. Sleep will help you process and sort all the information you are trying to stuff into your head. Sleep will help you manage stress. Sleep will keep you fit and healthy. Get your seven or eight hours of rest at night, on a regular schedule.
4. Find study buddies
How many students have you seen sitting alone at a desk in a corner of the library, studying late into the night? It's a common scenario. But one of the best ways to learn is by working with others. Together you can find holes in what you know, reinforce the essential information, associate information with contexts, and just compare notes. You can quiz each other and compete for asking the most difficult questions. Just try and ensure that the people you work with are serious and committed to doing well; you don't want to get caught up with lazy slackers. Which leads us on to...
5. The pub can wait
There will always be students that want to do well, and students that do not care if they do well. You want to be the former and avoid the latter. There will be students who feel like they have studied enough and are ready to hit the pubs. And there are friends who will want you to come along. You can’t. Be firm and serious on this point. Say no. There will be time later, once exams are out of the way.
6. Say bye to social media
The sad truth is that web surfing and social media like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so forth can suck up huge amounts of your time. Who hasn’t opened their phone just to check an email, and two hours of social browsing later wondered where on Earth the time went? The best thing to do is take a break. They will still be there for you when you finish your university exams. And your energy will be far better spent focusing on exams.
7. App-ly yourself
Just because you’re off social media, doesn’t mean you can't use your phone altogether. Everyone learns differently and there are lots of apps that can help you with your studying. The trick is to find the ones that work for you in advance. Don't waste precious revision time finding a helpful app. We strongly recommend Anki, for example. Of course, there is nothing wrong with going the analogue path either. Making flash cards is still one of the best ways to retain information. And the best thing about index cards is that you can carry them around with you.
"Doing well in your university exams is a result of a careful balance of a number of skills: being productive and ruthless with how your time is spent, staying focused, seeking help when needed and through taking care of you."
8. Make the most of time
The professor/philosopher/author Umberto Eco claimed that he was so productive because he could find time to work that other people wasted. He could work on trains, standing in lines, waiting for other people. In fact, there was a novelist once who claimed that he wrote a novel while waiting for his wife to get ready to go out. Anytime he had to wait, he opened his notebook. What otherwise empty and unproductive time do you have? Could you keep index cards or a few pages of notes in your pocket to read while waiting in line at the shops?
9. Establish your territory
In order to revise well, you need to find a space in which you can be most productive. Some people need to be in a room so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat. Others work best when there is noise and distraction. Some like the comfort of their bedroom; others prefer the formality of the library. Either way, it won't be helpful to move from one space to another. Instead, establish a study territory and be consistent with the time you spend there.
10. Uni is a rumour mill
Every exam season, rumours are started and spread like wildfire. Wrong information often gets passed around – you may hear that you do not need to worry about this, or that. Or that the exam will be really easy, or really hard. Some students want to sabotage other people’s efforts; sometimes they are just misinformed. The sole authority for all these things is always the teacher running the class. Verify any rumours, no matter how real or possible they may sound.
11. Be quizmaster
One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to actually make up a sample one for yourself. It's can be a very therapeutic and helpful process. First, imagine you are your professor, but a very mean version, and make an exam out of the most difficult questions you can pull together. Then take this exam, and retake it. It's an excellent way to prepare. It may also help if you have a partner or group, where each person creates an exam with the intention of failing the others – winner gets a prize!
12. Forget what you know (for now)
One trick to really learning material well is figuring out what you know and what you don't. There are three general areas here: information you know and won't likely forget, information you know but sometimes forget or confuse, and information that you do not know (and perhaps do not know that you do not know). It sounds obvious, but don't waste time revising what you know. Focus on what you do not. You must find your weaknesses before your examiner does.
13. Play detective
Alright Sherlock, you need to flex your detective skills here and try and dig out copies of old exams. They can be a very effective learning tool. For many of the standard courses, the Internet may have various sample university exams or common questions of which you can make use in your studies. You may also ask the professor if they have old exams they might share, or professors from other sections. But do this early, however, to give yourself time to find what you need.
14. The early bird catches the (book)worm
How well you do on your university exams will have a lot to do with how much time you use studying. The sooner you start studying, and the more time you spend doing homework, the better your exams are likely going to be. Keep this in mind. If you have, for example, two weeks to prepare, do not wait until a few days before the exam to study. You might think the information will be fresh and you will remember better. In reality, remembering comes from over-learning. The material should not be fresh; it should be memorised. This takes time and repetition.
Bonus tip: seek help if necessary
It does happen, sometimes, that the stress of preparing for examinations overcomes students. They can become paralysed with anxiety, depression, and / or fear. Keep what you are doing in perspective: it is not easy. If you find yourself struggling emotionally find help. There are many services available to university students, and administrators are very aware of what students are going through and they really do care about you and your well-being. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an outside and neutral perspective from a professional. Do not hesitate to ask for help.