5 Things You Didn’t Know Can Help With Exams

by Jerrold Soh | Jun 26, 2013 | 3051 views

You know, besides actually studying for it?

So there’s this colossal exam that’s coming up, and it means half of the world to you, because the other half technically doesn’t exist now that you’ve got an exam to take and the world pretty much stops spinning. You’re all prepped up, having poured in 20 hours per day cramming all that academic information into your suddenly curious mind. And you’re ready.

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Or so you think, because on the day of the exam your old friend Sleep calls in and demands you repay his debt. Feeling slightly dizzy and yet strangely euphoric, you step into the exam hall, not realizing you haven’t actually brought your pencil case today – you left it on your study table as you hurried out after some final readings.

The next thing you know, you’re running around begging others to lend you their stuff, and in all of this fluster all that important information you saved in your head as last-minute short term memory starts leaking out. Things are not going well, and from your pedestal of confidence and preparation you fall into the mud pit also known as panic and stress – and you have no idea how to deal with it because you thought you’d be absolutely prepared by now.

And it all goes downhill from there. All because you forgot to bring your pencil case...

Of all the reasons why people don’t do as well as they should for their exams, some are way more ridiculous than others. It’s one thing to fail because you genuinely didn’t care about studying, but it’s a terrific pity if you’ve put in all that effort, but didn’t realise that dealing with exams involved more than just mugging, including…


#1 – Taking care of the small details

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This is one thing we’re all horrible at, because most of us lead lives in which these apparently inconsequential things are all taken care of for us – by our parents, maids, teachers, admin staff, so on. So much so that when the time comes for us to tackle the demon that is exams ourselves, we don’t realise how much they really matter.

So the pen is mightier than the sword. And you wouldn’t want to bring a rusty sword into battle, would you? The quality of the pen you use can affect your performance, especially for exams that require lots of writing (read: History). You never ever want to just use that pen that’s somehow always been in your pencil case for the exam. Most people will buy new ones, but even then it is infinitely wiser to consciously choose what kind of pen will suit you best. Some people prefer ink pens and the rough feedback they give when writing. Others prefer ballpoints and their smooth, spherical splendour. Some go with 0.5s because their handwriting is typically atrocious, while others prefer 0.7s because their words are usually too small. It is as crucial to know which ones suit you best as it is to know which key words will answer which questions well.

The same applies to almost every other piece of battle gear you will need in your quest for marks. Your jacket to prevent you from shivering so much you can’t write as fast. Your water bottle to prevent you from dehydration and losing focus (it’s been scientifically proven that adequate hydration improves concentration.) You never, ever want to feel uncomfortable during your exams, so make sure all these things are well sorted out.

And who could ever, ever forget that amazing thing known as the ENTRY PROOF? Which does have a purpose, but seems like it was initiated as a practical joke to be played on every single student because…

And it’s one heck of a painfully expensive experience to replace.

Moral of the story? Bring.TheDayum.Entry.Proof.

Now that you’ve got all those external details settled, it’s time to prepare yourself within, starting with…


#2 - Developing A Pre-exam Ritual

Before you put on feathered Indian hats and dance in honour of the bell curve gods, let me explain that a pre-exam ritual simply means a set of actions you go through to get yourself into that entire ‘groove’ of exam conquestery. And trust me, you need as much groove and mojo as you can get when you’re talking about exams.

Doing this is similar to the fixed routines that many professional athletes go through before the big day to remind their bodies to transition into fight mode. People are known to sleep with their baseball bats, cut their fingernails, compulsively eat chicken before their games, and do all sorts of wacky stuff. One NFL defender was so desperate to get into gear he habitually requested his coach to bestow upon him nothing else but a slap right across the face as part of his preparation.

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Because, you know, no pain no gain.

So if you want to score your As as consistently as an NBA player scores his free throws, then go on and start thinking of something you can do that’ll help you get into that familiar flow of focus you’ll need to tackle your exams with confidence.

And within this ritual, you might want to include some…


#3 - Power Posing

I know this sounds like you need to have as much muscle as Terry Crews to pull off, but power posing has, fortunately, nothing to do with manhunt. In fact, it’s championed by a female psychologist, who believes that our body language can and will influence our minds.

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Not the POWERRRRRR pose I’m talking about.

In her illuminating TED-talk which you should totally watch (especially from 10:00 onwards), Amy Cuddy explains a few experiments she conducted and how posing in various ‘high power’ positions actually can increase your testosterone and decrease your cortisol levels. Before you start thinking about how this can be helpful for…other areas…know that testosterone is commonly associated with confidence and power (sorry ladies), while cortisol is known to cause stress.

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Posing like this for a few minutes before your exams might really help you deal with all that anxiety and panic.

It’s sort of self-deception and mind control, but whatever works works. And as amazing writer Neil Gaiman said, the way to believe you can to do things that seem impossible is simply to pretend that you’re someone who can.

And if playing pretend doesn’t quite calm you enough, then…


#4 – Use Totems To Help You

The number of potentially Indian references here are actually quite amusing. Perhaps they were really on to something with their cave drawings and spiritual beliefs. But Native American culture aside, this idea was totally taken from Inception.

For those who haven’t watched the show, other than the fact that you absolutely need to watch it (make it the first on your ‘Things To Do After Exams’ list), a totem is a physical object the characters carried around and used to remind them of what’s real and what’s not.

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Objects like these.

In other words, physical objects can help you cling on to the desperate reality of your situation, before you get carried away into the word of mental blocks and hysteria the moment you look at the question paper and realise you’ve spotted the wrong ones. The trick is to make your totem something that can actually be brought into the exam hall – something like a country eraser that reminds you of home, or a special pen that a friend gave you. What I personally used was a jacket.

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Which made me feel a little more like this guy every time I put it on right before the exams. Pretty helpful if you ask me.

And when you start to feel like you’re slipping away, just reach out, physically and metaphorically, for that object, and hopefully it’ll help you with a little course correction.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a physical object. We all have that friend or teacher who uses the word ‘actually’ or ‘basically’ in their presentation so many times we start trying to count the total number of times it occurs. Actually, what happens here is basically that they are actually using these filler words that basically fit in anywhere to actually bring them back to what they’re basically trying to say. Humans are creatures of habit, and being able to fall back on something habitual to us helps to re-orientate, familiarize, and make us comfortable with the current situation.

Now that you’re all prepped up, externally and internally, one last thing you might not realise could help you with your exams is…


#5 – Other People

Surprised? It’s actually no secret that people who do well in exams typically do well as a class. So how is this possible when exams seem like an absolute zero sum game?  That’s because contrary to popular belief championed by the concept of the bell curve, other people can help you do well for your exams, even in the last minute preparations you’re doing.

Honestly speaking, this entire site was founded on the idea that working together is the way to go, and although it is possible to tackle the monstrous exams alone, studying and learning is often more effective in groups. This is particularly true for the few days and weeks leading up to the major exams, because everyone you know will be extremely concerned and busy with preparing for them, so much so that by the time it’s five minutes before the test, many people will be almost overflowing with the knowledge they’ve tried to cram into their minds. And that is the best time to go and benefit from some of that excess capacity.

I kid you not when I say a significant portion of the marks I got in exams are thanks to some of these last minute interactions with friends – when I walked up to this guy and he was all like ‘hey did you study this specific part about this little concept that I think is really important?”

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“No actually! Tell me more...”

Moral of the story: Work with other people. Not during the exam, because that’s cheating, but before the exam, cos that’s totally allowed.

And of course, when you receive you should also give, and I’ve also done my fair share of last minute enlightenment. When everyone graciously shares knowledge, everyone benefits. Therefore, you should really share this article with all your friends right now. The button’s right below…that shiny red one there…see it? Yup that one! Go on, click it! Wouldn’t hurt y’know…

Last but not least, good luck for your exams. Because none of the above will count if you’re totally unlucky anyway.


Have more great exam techniques? Share them in the comments below!


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