How to ace exams

Whether we like it or not, exams are an integral part of the global education system and it’s smart to get a few tools in our toolboxes to engineer desirable results while avoiding a daily meltdown and stressing out our families into the bargain!

But what if we find ourselves unable to keep our minds on the material; are simply overwhelmed by its volume; or, worse still, believe we have absorbed it, but enter the exam and draw a blank?

Due to the fact our abilities and intelligence are being measured, exam time is inevitably nerve-racking. With judgment day looming, no wonder we find it hard to focus and keep from feeling overwhelmed. Nor is it surprising we fail to retrieve the answer to an exam question from our addled minds when put on the spot.

Fortunately, however, there are tried and tested roadmaps to get us to where we want to go.

First, let’s take the ability to concentrate. Getting down to a task can be daunting. It’s like standing at the foot of a mountain. The peak seems unattainable; the climb, a trial in endurance. Instinctively, we try to dodge the pain and think of other things we’d rather do. We find it hard to ignore the scale of the task ahead, instead of keeping our eyes on what’s immediately in front of us. The key? Break it into bite-sized pieces.

Among others, the Pomodoro technique is based on this principle of taking small steps and confining our focus to the immediate future, thereby avoiding feeling swamped.

Study material should be divided into manageable chunks and tackled in 25-minute spurts of intense concentration, after which we can get up and move around for five minutes – even look at our phones if we have to. Once each task is completed, we tick it off and enjoy a sensation of progress.

Pumping up the fun are apps such as Big Stretch for Windows and BreakTime for Mac that depict our progress in the form of a plant that thrives on study time. And for those who get motivated by competition and connection to others, there is even a swot ladder to climb, pitting us against fellow study fiends.

But what if we believe we have all the information in our head, yet freeze once we enter the exam?

Drawing a blank happens when we are under pressure, which is why many creative geniuses come up with their most original ideas when they are either half asleep or deeply relaxed.

Computer program inventor, Ray Kurzweil, for example, visualises a problem he’s trying to solve before going to bed, betting the answer will come to him in a dream. For similar reasons, artist Salvador Dali would wake himself up right before he went to sleep.

But being drowsy in an exam is clearly not advisable. Instead, we need to make sure that we know the material back to front and inside out, so that we are completely relaxed with it, to the extent that forgetting it would be as absurd as forgetting our own name.

To become totally familiar with our material, it is not enough to simply read and parrot. We actually need to test ourselves on it so we can practise applying what we have learned.

Imagine watching a film. Many details escape us. But if we watch it with questions about the characters, plot and setting in mind, we feel far more confident when asked to discuss it.

Teaching the material we have absorbed is equally effective. Try explaining it in a way someone else will remember. Make a video! Try it out on an unsuspecting sibling!

The moment we have to teach something we’ve learned, we gain a far deeper grasp of it and no amount of panic will unseat it.

Active learning, good organisation and the accumulation of small manageable goals inevitably lay the foundation for a deep-rooted confidence that can make exams a chance to show off what we know rather than the arena in which we get caught like a rabbit in headlights!


· Close the door to your room.

· Write down all the distractions you may fall prey to and allow yourself to indulge in them after the session.

· Organise your study time before you start the session.

· Start with the easiest material first.

· During 25 minute-bursts of concentration, park all devices.

· Try to move about during your five-minute break.

· Take pride in your progress by ticking off tasks.

· Use a motivating organizational app to spur you on your way.