How To Prepare for Exams at College

Studying in library

Before entering college, we have big dreams about it…we expect it to be a place of fun and excitement, where we can cut classes as per our wish, watch numerous movies with friends, where we can sharpen our talents and become an expert in the field of our liking, etc. But a few months down the line, we are fully baffled by what all is taking place around us: Numerous assignments and class tests, frequent university exams, practicals, projects, etc., etc., etc. We find everyone (except us) doing everything promptly; we find ourselves lost at times and sometimes even thoroughly frustrated. We find it hard to balance our ‘life of fun and excitement’ and our ‘life filled with exams and assignments.’ What I am penning down here are a few tips which can help you to spice up your campus life, and at the same time, get decent grades.

  1. Consistency and perseverance: Since time immemorial, only consistent people have succeeded. Smartness, intelligence, and last-minute hard work are all secondary. Even if you don't prepare all that much on a daily basis, every little bit counts. You will notice that your grades are far higher than someone’s who studied much more than you during the eve before the exam but wasn’t consistent. So set aside a fixed amount of time daily (the amount of time you will have to dedicate each day depends on your requirements). If you only want to pass, you may dedicate less time (like half an hour or so daily), but if you are aiming for super-high grades, you may spend 3 or 4 hours daily going through your books and getting any misunderstandings, however silly they may be, clarified immediately, either from friends or teachers or anyone whom you think is worth asking. A lack of understanding can spread and even spoil the things you have studied properly, so get your questions cleared up as soon as possible. Once you have understood a chapter without much ambiguity, you will be able to complete a test well, even without last-minute preparations.
  2. Review: This is an area which most of us hate to the core and something we rarely do. We find it ‘boring’ or ‘sleepy’ to go through what we have studied earlier again. To really appreciate the need for review, we need to understand the nature of our brain. It’s actually like dynamic RAM--it needs periodic refreshment to retain the contents! So revise important formulae, definitions, concepts quite often. This will help you to remember them much better than trying to bone up on them on the eve of the exam. Also, many formulae that you learn in the initial stages are very important for future studies. If you learn all these formulae and concepts just before the exam, chances are that you will never remember them in the future. So review often, not for long ‘boring’ hours but for a few minutes every day. BELIEVE me, review helps a lot during exam times as well as for the future…I have had umpteen number of personal experiences in the past regarding this.
  3. Don’t take tests too seriously: This may be something you find contradictory to the conventional advice of ‘take all the tests and assignments very seriously and work very hard for them.’ See to it that you have covered the required syllabus. If you take tests too seriously, you will end up having no time for fun and you will tense up due to the anxiety of facing the exams. You can prepare for university exams thoroughly during the study leave…provided you have approximate ideas of all the required subjects and have a good understanding of them. Tests are held so that you go through the lessons at least once before the main exams and clear your doubts so that exam preparations can progress smoothly during study leaves.
  4. What to do if you hate a subject to the core?: Usually, we choose subjects of our interest to do at college….yet most of us will find one or more subjects very dry and boring. Additionally, recurring low marks that we get in these subjects make us hate the subject even more! What you need to do in such a situation is make an analysis of the subject, see what all types of questions are generally asked in the exams and prepare so that you can somehow pass the exam rather than going too deep into the subject.
  5. Diplomacy and perception: I have always felt college life needs much more diplomacy than school life. At school, your mistakes and lack of responsibility were shouted at often, but teachers never expect maturity and diplomacy from students and such misbehaviors are usually forgotten soon. But at college, professors and lecturers treat you as equals and expect you to be diplomatic and responsible. If a teacher finds you unimpressive or misbehaving, this impression remains with him forever. As such, there is an increased risk of losing more marks in assignments, tests and internals just due to the prejudice in the teacher's mind. Remember college isn’t like school; you need a lot of cooperation from staff to succeed since a lot of marks are in their hands. No teacher will hate you because you are weak in a subject; they will only sympathize and help you more. Bitter relationships begin when they feel that your attitude and conduct are not appropriate. Please, please don’t have bad relationships with any teacher/professor.
  6. Assignments: For me, assignments are nightmares. If the teacher to whom you have to submit is very strict and particular, you better submit it in time. I have found that many bad relations between teachers and students arise due to non-submission of assignments. Such an estranged relationship can affect your overall performance. If the teacher is a soft type, or of the kind ‘submit in time and I will give good grades or else you may lose out a few marks,’ you can give it a little less importance than the ‘strict, short-tempered' ones. But don’t neglect such teachers to the core…everything has a limit!
  7. Use pen and paper for numerical problems: I have only one thing to say about this…if the subject has numerical problems…like math or physics, DO the sums…I repeat DO the sums using pen and paper…reading through them is an UTTER WASTE of time! You may as well go for a movie rather than wasting time reading the numerical problems! Believe me, its true. You may, however, read through the formulae on the exam day (eve or morning) to just refresh your brain.
  8. Definitions and theorems should have the exact wording as in the original text: It is always advisable to write definitions, laws, hypothesis and theorems as they appear in the original text. Using your own wording often leads to an alteration in the meaning or omission of essential details. Try to memorize them, preferably by writing them down.
  9. Preparations as exams come close: The following points will help as the exam comes close and you are into your study leave.
  • Time management: Manage your time extremely well as it is crucial for good results. Maintain your consistency during leave also. Set precise day-to-day goals and a master plan as to how much you will have completed on the day just before the exam. There are numerous sites that offer time management tips for free…you can visit them for a deeper understanding of the importance of time management and efficient time management tips. Set aside the last day before the exams for revision alone…don’t try to learn anything new as it will only confuse you more. Go through everything that you have done throughout the semester once and brush up on important formulae and concepts.
  • Stress management: Stress is inversely proportional to the time left for the exam. What I don’t understand is why stress out? Stress can 1) Reduce your efficiency up to 50%. 2) Lower your confidence and test-taking ability. 3) Cause ulcers and shorten life. We aren’t very keen in achieving any of these three (maybe even more) things…so be stress-free. After all, all great scientists, businessmen, celebrities weren’t high scorers (many of them flunked quite often also…), but don’t take this as an excuse for not preparing. An easier way to succeed is to prepare well rather than learning things the hard way. So feel relaxed and calm. Don’t study all day through…keep aside some time for play and fun. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy!
  • Previous question papers analysis: This is a marvelous way of scoring marks. Collect and analyze previous years' question papers and study accordingly Even my friends who haven’t understood the subject matter well manage great grades by just learning according to the previous years' patterns. There may, however, be surprises if you rely on this mode alone, as the university may alter the style of questioning, but surprises are few.
  • Last but not the least, ‘How to write the exam well.' Very few things can improve your grades easily. They are clarity, good presentation, time management (again!!) during exam sessions, explanation with diagrams and graphs rather than paragraphs of theory, and writing answers you know properly first and not wasting too much time on any questions which are confusing.

The above-mentioned points can easily be made practical and you will find that you need to actually spend less time with books if you are consistent and review often. The rest of the time is yours! Do things that you like (some geeks like to study then also…no probs, go ahead!), things that you always have dreamt of doing at campus and live the life of your dreams at marvelous college!


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Dear Akshay,

I came to this, knowing about it from your father. You have written exceedingly well. Though I had crossed exam-writing age 30 years ago, I still find your writing very appropriate. Your example about DRAM is quite original. I have a son and daughter at college; the daughter will surely be following 80% of your suggestions and my son, the other 20%!! Well done. Please visit my How-tos, too (How To Avoid the Common Cold; How To Lead a Peaceful Life, etc.).

By Anonymous