My 10 best exam revision tips

Exams are right around the corner, and for many students with modular exams like myself, they loom horrifically over the Christmas period. You really want to sit back and do absolutely f*ck all over the break, but the presence of them sits heavy in the back of your mind and it’s stressful.

But it doesn’t have to be. In my experience of sitting January exams, the times where I’ve panicked are the times when I don’t know the course content well enough. I’ll have a general idea, an overview, but my in-depth knowledge is patchy and incomplete. The times I’ve sat in an exam, confident and collected and ready to write are the times when I’ve known exactly what I was doing – and a large part of that is down to the effectiveness of my revision.

Revision is, very often, boring, time consuming and plagued by procrastination. It can be a horrific use of paper, ink and memory space – but when it comes down to it, effective revision gives good marks. And as much as you can feel that you don’t want to do it and you don’t care (thoughts I’ve had, and given in to many, many times before), when the results reflect your effort in times it really matters, it can shape your life. And by ‘shape your life’ I don’t mean good grades = better job (because that isn’t always the case at all), I mean it can help you in your working life with things like time management and organisation.

I’ve found that revision and revising in general can be quite a personal thing, what works for me may not work for you – but trying other people’s techniques can sometimes help you find other ways to revise. It might not, and a lot of you may look at me like I’m crazy… but hey, I’ve done alright so far. A lot of triumphs and a couple of utter exam disasters have taught me a thing or two about effective revision vs cramming.

Ok I’ve waffled on long enough (am I helping you procrastinate yet?), on to the tips!

#1 Plan.

Fail to plan, plan to fail. Probably the most important thing I ever learned in year 5. It’s a lot easier to organise your time if you have a plan. Look over your course content and plan, Plan how long you’re going to spend revising a day. Plan how you’re going to revise. Plan.

Create a revision timetable, allocating time to each subject area you have exams for, and what you’re going to spend each block of time doing. Like, from 9-10 I’ll create flashcards with important dates on, and in the next time block for that subject, I’ll memorise the information on the flashcards.

#2 Have Breaks

It’s important to remember that you need to schedule slots in that revision timetable where you’re relaxing or enjoying yourself. No one can work effectively for the entire time they’re awake with no chance to unwind. Your brain needs a break to absorb the information you’re feeding it, and it’s a lot easier to get frustrated at yourself or the subject area when you’re reviewing things for two or three hours straight.

But it’s also important to remember not to give yourself a ‘break’ every 10 minutes, since this can devolve quite quickly into not revising at all. The ‘best’ study-to-break ration I’ve found in my quest for effective revision is about 50 minutes to an hour of concentrated study, followed by a 15 minute break, and in that break I’ll do something I enjoy that isn’t reading.

#3 Write it down

There is actual scientific evidence to prove that repeatedly writing something down makes you more likely to remember it. It’s to do with making more pathways in your brain and reaffirming them, but I’m no biologist, and the science behind it is a little out of my depth. Regardless, writing stuff down helps me heaps. I’ll write important or key info down in a different colour, usually something really bright and eye-catching, so that when I read over my notes again it’ll stand out.

In the same vein, keep writing things down. Condense your notes down repeatedly until you’re left with the ultimate information. Then make flashcards out of these. Keep doing it. Revising is a constant cycle of reviewing and condensing and committing information to memory. It’s gonna take a ton of paper and possibly a few pens, but it’ll be worth it.

#4 Spend more time on the hard stuff and do it first.

Traveling the path that requires more work is never especially fun, but it’s that path that gets results. Spending more time going over the things you don’t understand is kind of an obvious one, but sometimes it is just so much to do, and with everything else going on, it’s easy to shove the hard things onto the pile of stuff to ‘do later’. When you have more time. When it looks like it’ll be easier. When you’ve tidied your room three times and deep cleaned the carpets.

My best exam results came with me going through the harder parts of my course content in the mornings, and working through to the easier, more comfortable areas later on in the day. Sure I may have been forcing myself in the beginning, but putting myself in a routine where ‘once I’ve done the difficult parts, I can enjoy the easy’ made my revision much more effective. I wasn’t ‘putting off’ things any more.

#5 Be stern with yourself 

I’m a massive procrastinator. I am, and I’ll quite happily admit that because I’m also a creative person, and through procrastinating come some of my best ideas. But when I’m trying to do well academically, avoiding doing work is not A Good Idea, so I have to be stern with myself. This can be anything from leaving my phone uncharged/out of sight/on silent so I don’t get distracted, or putting parental blocks on certain browser pages (bye bye youtube) for the duration of the days revision. I also make sure that I stick to the schedule I’ve set myself in my revision timetable, or as close to it as I can, so that I have some semblance of a solid routine.

#6 Colour is your friend (and so are organised notes).

This is one of those tips that isn’t for everyone. I personally hate high-lighting as a revision technique, since it doesn’t really solidify the information in my brain for me. But writing passages out in colour coded segments, or just the key points, I find really helps me. Organisation of my notes is another thing. I like to be particular in certain areas of my life (others are a bit hit and miss), but neat notes, for me anyway, are a lot easier to read and learn from.

#7 Exercise/ stay active

I’m not talking train like you’re going to run a marathon, but doing light exercise in the morning before I start hitting the books (or the web-journals, damn uni), really helps me. There’s probably science behind this too, but going for an early morning jog, a half hour session of Just Dance, or a couple of blogilates videos makes me feel a lot more motivated for the day.

Sometimes I’ll go for a walk for about 40 minutes around lunch too, just to get out of the house. Being cooped up for ages doesn’t sit well with me when I have to do it. If I want to stay inside it’ll be on my own terms, not because revision is forcing me too.

#8 Sometimes music helps

I find revising with instrumental music on low volume in the background can help me when I’m feeling like nothing is going in. For me, working in a completely silent environment drives me up the wall, as my ears are trying to pick up on the smallest of noises. Though working somewhere where there are voices and people makes me angry and unable to concentrate. I try to find a happy medium when I need to shake up my revision, so I’ll turn the volume right down on my speakers and play some film scores or a bit of Two Steps from Hell. It gives my brain something a little extra to focus on.

#9 get a study buddy

Having someone to bounce ideas around with you helps. Having someone who can explain something you don’t quite understand also helps. For a lot of people, getting together a group of course-mates is a really good idea. It gives you social interaction as you all (attempt) to do some work. For me, this is something that doesn’t always work. I find it’s much more productive for me to collar one or two classmates, not a whole group, and revise with them. Or even just one. Work out what the weakest areas you both/all have, and work on them. Who knows, one of the parts you don’t understand may be one of your friends strongest areas, and vice versa. Another really effective way to revise is to teach the areas you’re knowledgeable on to other people, so that you reaffirm what you know.

#10 don’t see it as a bad thing

The point that changed revision for me was when I stopped seeing it as a chore – something I absolutely had to do that was stealing my winter break away from me. It was an effort to reach for the books and sit and work, because I had it in my head that everyone else was out having fun and I was stuck inside. I hated it. It made me resent what I was studying. even when I enjoyed the course, and I felt like nothing good was going to come from it.

Now I have goals and aspirations and I see revision as a way to get to those goals easily. It’s amazing what teaching yourself to think differently does. I don’t dread revising as a whole anymore, there are parts I still don’t look forwards to, but I try and think creatively about those, and work around the reasons why I’m not amused by these sections. Basically, I’m trying to reach an end goal and I’d rather not sit in an exam and have the first question make me cry. Not that I do papers with multiple compulsory questions anymore, but you get my drift. Sure it might make me look like a geek in the long run, but I’d much rather be successful in an education that I’m paying for and happy that I can go on to do what I want on the back of a good degree, than, well, not.

I hope these tips are somewhat helpful to you! Remember your goals and what you want to accomplish in the dark times, that’s the little beacon of light you are working towards! Also sitting in exams having too much to write is much, much better than sitting in exams and not having anything to write at all.

Much love and revision spirit to you all!

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2 responses to “My 10 best exam revision tips”

  1. Kathryn says:

    This is really helpful especially your last point! I think that's what is letting me down. I'm going to use this and work on my whole studying thing over Christmas ready for the new

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