Results day. The most dreaded day in the student calendar and year after year, a day of disappointment for me.
The problem? I was using the sledgehammer approach to studying. I thought that the more hours I put in, the better my results would be. I was working all the hours possible, without the better results. For my final year, I decided to abandon what I knew and put my trust in a book.
I have now graduated from the University of Warwick and can confirm that the lessons in this book work. My grade this year was 6 percentage points higher than last year and I worked a third of the hours. No all-nighters, no late night study sessions, no early morning study sessions and no studying on weekends (I did work on one Saturday a term).
Figure out what the exam will cover.
For my course and many others, exams make up the majority of the final mark, therefore your exam performance will ultimately determine your final grade.
Work backwards from the exam.
Let me give you an example. Your exam requires you to answer two essay questions on two different topics of your choice. Your preparation throughout the year should then be focused on writing the best possible essays on your two chosen topics. Just in case, you may want to have a back-up essay as you do not want to be in a position where you can not answer half of the exam.
For my first year economic history exam, I did not work backwards from the exam and instead tried to revise all of the topics. The difference in my attainment in economic history between first year and third year is 23 percentage points.
The Question/Evidence/Conclusion Structure.
All university courses can be segmented into questions, an exam is a series of questions and writing an essay is your response to a question. During a lecture, your professor will suggest questions, present evidence and then conclude. Recording notes or preparing mock exam answers in the question/evidence/conclusion format guarantees that you are noting the important stuff.
If you study a non-technical course (Politics, Philosophy, History etc.) your evidence should be arguments from academic papers, and if you study a technical course (Maths, Physics, Computer Science etc.) your evidence should be step-by-step solutions to problems.
Framing your notes in this way makes them directly transferable to exams or essays. Notes that are just arbitrary statements from your lecturer are useless for crafting strong answers.
Quiz and recall.
Can you write the answer out from memory? If yes, then you will be able to do the same in the exam. Unfortunately, no matter how excellent your model answers are, if you can not reproduce them in the exam, you will not get the marks.
You will want to put off quizzing yourself, yet it is essential to exam success. Start small, even as trivial as a list of the key points. Trying to memorise an entire essay is daunting, but a few bullet points is straightforward. To further reduce the pressure, start quizzing yourself as early as possible, not just one day before the exam. Still not convinced? The first time I recalled an exam answer perfectly, I jumped up from my seat, smashed my knee into the table and lay on the floor in agony, yet elated from my triumph.
Demote your assignments.
Smaller assessments, which often take place throughout the year, usually have a negligible impact on our final grade.
Of course, you should aim to score as high as possible, but do not let these assignments consume hours of your time, make you miss your classes and distract you from preparing for the final exams. I made this mistake most notably in second year where I scored high in the minor assignments, because I studied excessively for them, but scored low in the crucial final exams due to fatigue and poor revision technique. As a result, my overall grade was low. In my final year, despite some of my assignment scores being lower than my second year, my overall grade improved from focusing predominantly on the assessments which carried the most weight.
Consult your expert panel.
For essays in particular, I asked friends to read my work and give honest feedback. My expert panel saved my grade on many occasions including one incident where I would have received a score of zero on my essay without them. Choosing your panel should be determined by three things: honesty, ability and patience. Honesty is the most important quality because an expert panel that is scared to tell you where you went wrong is useless. Ability concerns getting high quality advice and patience is necessary because you may need to consult these selected individuals multiple times throughout the year.
To end, I would like to congratulate everyone on their results! If you are pleased with yours, celebrate and bask in the glory, you deserve it. If you are not pleased, you have just read a Summi article with strategies to help you in your future academic endeavours. No more excuses 😉.
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