7 Last-Minute Exam Tips That Could Save Your Grades

Panicking because your final exams start in a couple of weeks? In a few days? Tomorrow? Here are seven last-minute survival tips to help you get through your exams!

Updated 23 Jul 2019

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Panicking because your final exams start in a couple of weeks? In a few days? Tomorrow?

Exam periods can be stressful and traumatising for some, no matter how many times you’ve experienced it in your life as a student. Even if you are extremely far off from being prepared, there are still some last-minute things you can do to boost your grades.

Here are seven last-minute survival tips to help you get through your exams!

1) Don’t panic — get organised

No matter how close you are to The Big Day, it is absolutely crucial that you take the time to organise your study schedule.We know every precious minute counts at this point, but a good plan will give you a clear picture of what needs to be done, and by when.

After all, you wouldn't go on a trip without knowing the destination, how much time you have to get there and how you are going to get there, would you? The same applies to studying!

Here’s how to get organised:

  • Draw up a calendar and mark down all your exam dates
  • Work backwards to figure out how much time you have left for each subject
  • For each subject, divide them into topics and subtopics, and work out how much time you have left for each subtopic
  • Schedule out blocks of study times for each subtopic onto the calendar, making sure that the time allocated is realistic and achievable

Doing this will give you a clear idea of how much you have to study and when you need to finish studying. Depending on how much time you have, you can then work out how you plan to tackle each topic. For example, if it's a topic you have absolutely no clue about with only 3 hours of study time, you'll need to ditch the textbooks and go straight to red alert mode (see #6).

Taking an hour or two (but not any longer!) to organise your revision plan will definitely save you A LOT of stress and panic later on.

2) Use flash cards and cheat sheets

When it’s down to those final days and the clock is ticking, what you want is to have all your syllabus in bite-sized formats so that you can complete your revision quickly. Clearly, now is not the time to be reading from textbooks or thick bundles of notes.

Studies have shown that active learning helps to strengthen memory and aid future recall. A great active learning technique you can use during your last-minute study rush is flash cards.

Write down questions and concepts on one side of a card, and the answers on the other side. Keep practising and going through the flash cards, testing yourself as you go along. The mere act of recalling information will help reinforce what you've learned and make retrieving information a lot easier and faster in future!

Remember that the idea is to be able to get through your study material quickly, so when making your flash cards, make sure you keep them simple and have only one concept per card.

For things like formulae, squeeze everything into a single A4 cheat sheet so that you can refer to them quickly instead of flipping through your textbook.

3) Get busy with past year papers

We cannot emphasise this enough — past year papers will truly save you.

Practice questions and past year papers are great ways to test your understanding and identify the types of questions that are generally asked in exams. You’ll also have a clearer idea on what the examiner expects you to know.

Now, you might think that you should only tackle past year papers once you’ve completed your revision, but don't wait till then. In fact, there have been times where I completely skipped studying entire chapters and only did practice questions and past year papers.

If you are truly at a critical stage, here’s what you can do:

  • Skim through your entire textbook quickly, but don’t dwell on them for too long. Keep track of the sections where you know you’re weak at, or need to come back to later on.
  • Complete practice questions for each chapter, making notes and flash cards for areas that you don’t understand.
  • Go through at least 3-5 years of past papers, and learn from the sample answers directly.
  • Transfer anything that needs memorising into flash cards. For questions that you don’t quite understand, mark them down and group them into topics.

Once you’ve gone through enough questions, you will have a good idea on which topics you need to brush up on, and which topics need serious work. From there, it’s a matter of thoroughly learning the material that you’re struggling with!

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4) Switch things up to keep yourself fresh

So your exams are around the corner and you tell yourself that you simply cannot leave your desk until you have absolutely mastered the topic. After all, it would make sense that if you want to learn something well, the best thing to do is to fully focus on something for as long as you can.

But research has shown that mixing up tasks and topics is actually a better way to learn!

The Study: 120 participants were asked to learn the painting styles of 12 different artists by looking at 6 examples of each artist’s work. One group saw 6 paintings of the same artist in a row, followed by the next artist. Another group saw all the paintings in a mixed-up order. Surprisingly, the group shown paintings in a mixed-up order performed significantly better.

Mixing up subjects seem to help people learn better because the process of learning, forgetting and relearning again helps to cement and reinforce new information into place. Mixing subjects also forces you to notice the similarities and differences of what you’re trying to learn, making connections with prior knowledge to give you a deeper understanding of the material.

Although it may seem disorganised, try switching subjects every couple of hours. Spacing out your learning by switching topics can keep your mind fresh and help you study for longer hours!

5) Don’t keep reading and re-reading

Research shows that the common practice of re-reading (as well as highlighting) is an ineffective learning strategy. Re-reading the same material over and over again gives you a false sense of security, tricking you into thinking that you know the material better than you really do.

Here are some ideas of what you can do instead:

  • Write down key points on paper by hand (not with your computer!)
  • Draw diagrams and make connections between various ideas and concepts
  • Incorporate questions in your notes, instead of writing just facts
  • Read out (or even sing!) certain important points out loud
  • After reading a section, close the book and see if you can recall from memory

The idea here is really to make your learning more active so that it paints a unique picture in your brain. The brain loves things that are out of the ordinary, so you’re trying to create mental images of your learning material so that you can recall them better!

6) Buddy up with some friends

Another last-minute tip is to divide the syllabus among a group of friends. Pick a couple of topics each and make sure you learn them extremely well. Take turns to teach and explain the material to others. This will save time, and you can pick topics that are easier for you. Having to explain it to someone will also ensure that you have complete understanding of the topic.

Remember that when it comes to studying in groups, it is crucial that you set out study goals and limit the amount of people to no more than 4-5 people in a group. Larger groups can be distracting and may hamper productivity.

If your situation is dire and you suddenly realise that you didn’t cover an important topic, a wise choice would be for you to get a friend to help you out. (The 5th best student in class is a good bet, since the top three are probably already swamped with questions from others.)

Ask him or her to explain things to you in the simplest and easiest way possible, and remember to use practice questions as examples. Don’t expect to be a master at the topic if you’re taking this route. You are short on time, and there’s only so much you can absorb. However, you should get a general understanding and be able to at least attempt the exam questions.

7) Take breaks and get enough rest

Ever realised that a lot of your 'aha' moments seem to come when you're in the shower? Without warning, that lightbulb moment strikes you and whatever concept that you were trying so hard to figure out suddenly makes sense.

It's not a coincidence. Research shows that you’re more likely to have a creative epiphany when you’re doing something routine and monotonous, like showering or exercising. It allows your brain to switch to auto-pilot and make new and creative connections.

While we’re not encouraging you to hit the showers every time you’re stuck with a question, it's good to take frequent breaks during your study marathons. Try using the 50:10 technique, i.e. study for 50 minutes and take a 10-minute break. Go for a walk, do some light stretching or take some time out to meditate and focus on your breathing.

Also, don’t forget to get enough sleep and rest! Science has already told us that late-night cramming and pulling all-nighters do not work, so don’t feel guilty for getting some solid rest. Sleep actually helps you consolidate everything that you’ve learned and help you recall better.

Remember, the eleventh hour is all about survival, and the last thing you want to do is feel sleepy and lose concentration while taking your exams. So, make sure you get enough sleep!

Can't seem to retain information after a study session? Try these fool-proof hacks to improve your memory.

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    Loh Sue May

    Loh Sue May

    Editor and writer. When I'm not busy putting words onto pages, I'm messing with spreadsheets and playing air guitar.