How to pass exams
The most important advice that I give to students who come to me for free mentoring is how to pass their exams.
Before reading this post, read a newer one which sets the scene.
Most of them think that the purpose of an exam is to demonstrate to the examiner how much they know of or understand the subject. Wrong!
An exam is a mark scoring exercise. Nothing more, nothing less. I owe this to Charles Huttingh who helped me through Honours/CTA and the Board Exam.
So how to pass your exams –
1) I have to assume that you know the subject. When learning, use lists, mind maps (if you don’t know what these are, find out via Google), reading out loud while writing. Appeal to as many of your senses as you can. I like to draw diagrams like flow charts that I can visualise in exam conditions. They help me set up and maintain the stucture of the answer.
2) First off, it is important to know that when you get to the really difficult stuff like Honours, the vast majority of students score within about 3% of the pass mark (either side). This is fact. Accept it. So now you can reasonably assume that if you know your subject you are one of them. i.e. that you are likely to score 47% unless you do something about it. So you need to pick up at least another 3% and preferably 6% between the start of your preparation and the actual exam. How are you going to do this? Well, every little helps. There are tips below involving abstinence, brain food, exam pens, double spacing, mind meetings etc. Every one of these is worth at least 1/2% to 1%. So don’t poohoo them, they could make the difference between 3% short of a pass and 3% above a pass. By the way, in order to become a Chartered Accountant at the age of 54, I had to write 32 exams over four years (if my memory serves me correctly). I passed every single one of them first time. Here’s how.
a) Prepare a whole ruck of simulated exams on each subject (you can get the questions and answers from past papers and from your textbooks)
b) Draw up a calendar starting about 8 weeks before the exams (you must decide how long depending upon how many papers you will be writing and how much leave you can take if you are working). The time will be allocated as follows –
i) Morning – Write simulated exam under strict exam conditions
ii) Afternoon – Mark the exam and
iii) List the points that lost marks
iv) Next day – Revise only the points that lost marks
v) Next morning – Write the next simulated exam under strict exam conditions
c) Stop drinking alcohol one week before you start the simulated exams
d) Google “brain food” and change your diet accordingly
e) Buy a distinctive “exam pen” with blue ink.
f) Start the program. And here are some essential points to remember –
i) When the clock starts (and it must start on the hour exactly, as if you were in the exam), first plan your time. Allocate time to each question in proportion to its marks. Then against each question write down the STOPPING TIME. Don’t do what many people do – write the amount of time you are allowing for each question. You don’t want to be doing mental arithmetic all the time to figure out when you must stop.
ii) Use only your “exam pen” and never use it for anything else. Why blue? Because blue is restful on the examiner’s eyes and believe me he/she is under a lot of strain.
iii) Write on every other line (double spacing). Why? Because the white space in between lines is restful on the examiner’s eyes.
iv) Every line must earn one mark (or part mark) and one mark only. Don’t try to pick up two marks in the same sentence – chances are that you’ll only be given one of them. Why? Because the examiner is moving extremely fast. Once he/she sees your point they’ll give you the mark and skip the rest of the sentence.
v) Don’t write anything that does not score a mark.
vi) Don’t read the question through before starting. Just read what is required of you and get started.
vii) Remember that most exam questions contain mark scoring points in the question itself. Grab those marks!
viii) If you are required, for example, to prepare a Balance Sheet, do the layout, then fill in the easy stuff first. Then the less easy and gradually work towards the most difficult. When you run out of time, stop. Don’t fall into the trap of starting at the top! This technique is what Charles Huttingh called the “End product approach”
ix) And yes. Show your workings and reference to them (it’s no good having scribbled workings and its no good if the examiner can’t find them quickly and easily). If you get the wrong answer, you may well pick up marks for your method.
x) While writing, keep revisiting what is required. Make sure that’s what you are giving the examiner, because that is ALL he is looking for.
xi) When the stopping time for that question arrives STOP. Yes STOP, STOP, STOP. And get on with the next question. Your mark scoring rate is highest when you start a question (because you’re picking up the easy marks first) and then it falls off so that towards the end of the allowed time, you are scoring marks at a much lower rate than you will be at the beginning of the next question. Leave yourself space on the paper to come back to that question if you have time at the end (unlikely).
g) When the simulated exam time has finished, stop writing and take a break. Then mark your paper, making a note of each mark that you did not score (you are not interested in the ones that you did score). Take another break, probably until the next day.
h) Thoroughly revise or practice all of the points for which you did not score a mark. Take another break, probably until the next day.
i) Write the next simulated exam and repeat the process right up to the day before the actual exams. The timing should probably be a simulated exam every two days.
j) The actual exams should just feel like a continuation of what you’ve been doing for the last eight or so weeks and you’ll be right in the groove. (I wrote 18 simulated exams before the Board Exam. then the Board Exam (which we wrote over two days) was just numbers 19, 20, 21 and 22.
k) Once the actual exams start, don’t do any more revision, swotting, nothing! Relax between exams, get to bed early, listen to Mozart if you like classical music (apparently this is good for the brain).
l) Want another tip? As you may know, I practice a form of self hypnosis to help me achieve my goals in life. Now you don’t have to do this (and it does sound a bit off the wall). In the run-up to my exams, before I started each of my simulated exams, I would sit somewhere quiet and focus my awareness inwards. Then we would have a meeting – me, my left brain and my right brain. My left brain (our cognitive, calculating brain) would agree to do the actual answering of the questions, my right brain (our artistic, picture brain) would agree to overview what was going on right through the paper, constantly checking that my left brain was answering the question and not going off on a wander. Me, well, I would undertake to get us to the exam early, find a good seat, take a pee before the start, do the time planning and timekeeping and stay cool! I got the easy job.
m) Now, a lot of the tips above (like the exam pen, the brain food, the abstinence from alcohol, the Mozart) may not inherently make any difference to your physical wellbeing, but what you are doing is programming your subconscious for success. It is all about how you feel about your ability to pass and the more little things you have done in that direction, the more confident you’ll be.
n) Go for it and good luck!
By the way, I passed these tips on to a young lad named Rolihlahla in 2013 – he was battling to pass his exams even though he knew his stuff. He sent me an email over Christmas 2013. He’d just learned that he had passed his BCompt Honours/CTA (at the first attempt) and believe me that’s a killer exam.