How to survive (and thrive) during exams

That time of the year has come around again… No, not Christmas (well not just yet!). It is the “dreaded” exam period. Across the country and the world high school and university students are smashing out hour after hour of study (or procrastination) and often becoming very stressed about sitting their final exams. I am one of those students.

Now, I don’t claim to be a perfect student by any stretch of the imagination, and hence I am no “expert” on exams, but I do know that there are a few simple steps that, when taken, can seriously lighten the load during exams and help you to feel calm, grounded and prepared. Unlike most students, I actually enjoy SWOTVAC and exam period, because it is when I get to really get down and dirty with all the content of my subjects and take my understanding and application to a new level. I also do not get stressed (most of the time) during the actual sitting of exams, so combined with the fact that I know what kind of study suits me best, I tend to perform quite well in exams.

The following tips come from my own personal experience of what works, so whilst I believe them to be incredibly helpful, I am not implying that they will work for absolutely everyone. We are all different and ultimately it is up to you to work out what your study/exam style is. So without further ado, here are my top tips for doing having the best exam period possible.

studying

STAY CALM

This is the first and most important tip of all, but perhaps the hardest to actually implement. I know, I know, exams are stressful, but that doesn’t mean you should be in a stressed state for the entire few weeks of the exam period. I find the best way to stay calm is to remember these few things:

  1. You know everything that you need to know. There is no new learning at this stage, you are just revising what you have already learnt. And if you don’t know something, or haven’t learnt it yet, revision time is the perfect time to get your head around it.
  2. They are just exams. They might seem monumental at this moment, but think about them in the grand scheme of things… When you are lying on your deathbed, do you really think the mark you got for your first year biology exam is really going to matter? These marks and numbers do not define your worth, your intelligence, your beauty or what you have to offer to the world. You are SO much more than a mark, my friend.
  3. If you have studied as best as you can, you will do the best that you can – and that is all that matters. Sure it would be nice to get a fantastic mark, but if you really struggle with a subject and you give it 110% and get a Pass, then you should be proud of yourself. It is all relative, and even though exams are a common type of assessment that doesn’t mean that they are the best way to assess everyone. Some people will always find exams challenging, and if you are one of those people that is A-OKAY!

Make a Revision Timetable

One thing I have always done before exam revision even begins is to create an exam revision timetable. I make a little calendar (just on Word) and divide up each day into morning and afternoon. Firstly, I put the exams into the calendar, then any other commitments that I know I will have during the exam period. From there I work backwards from each exam, breaking each subject down into manageable chunks to do each day. I also like to try to revise each subject during the time of the day in which the exam will be, so if one subject has a morning exam, I will do that in the morning and the afternoon subject in the afternoon. Of course, this may not always work, but if you can it is a good idea. I also add a special celebration or treat after the end of my last exam (this year is a trip to Bali, but it can be anything). By sticking to this timetable there is no need to stress because you know you will get all the study that you need to done before the exam. To give you an idea, here is my current revision timetable:

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 9.50.35 am

Meditate (at least once a day)

If you are not already a meditator, then I seriously recommend you jump on the meditation bandwagon for exams. Even if only for exams, it is SO worth it. The list of benefits of meditation grows longer every day, but some key benefits are that it helps to reduce stress, increases energy levels and clarity of thought. Sounds good right? So how do you meditate then? Well, if you have never meditated before the best way is probably to find a short guided meditation (10-15 mins) that you like and use that. There are heaps available and plenty of apps that you can download onto your phone. Headspace is a good one (first 10 days free) or the free Melissa Ambrosini meditation (simply answer the question on her front page and she will email you her Manifestation meditation). Then just carve out a little bit of time each day to do your meditation.

Another great thing to do with meditation, once you have achieved a calm state, is to practice visualisation. Visualisation is SO incredibly powerful and simple to do. Basically, with your eyes closed, just start to imagine yourself doing your exam. Imagine yourself sitting down feeling calm and confident, opening up the paper and being able to understand and do all of the questions with ease. Imagine yourself finishing and having time to check over your answers and walking out of the exam feeling proud of your performance. Now it might seem weird, but doing this every day before your exam will make a HUGE difference to your attitude towards the exam. Our brains, whilst incredibly intelligent, cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is vividly imagined. So every time you visualise something your brain reacts as if it has happened. It connects the neural pathways required for you to perform in the exam as you visualised you would. Cool, huh?!

I meditated regularly all the way through Year 12 and my exams. And you know what, in my meditation I used to visualise the ATAR (final score) that I wanted. And guess what score I got? The exact one I visualised every day. I also used to visualise the university offer that I wanted, and I got that offer too. Right now, I am in my exam period for the final exams of my first year of uni, and in the past week I have started to meditate twice daily. I find the afternoon meditation is super powerful for overcoming the slump that I used to get when I had been studying all day, plus it stops me from reaching for little “sugary” snacks like dates or sultanas.

Stay Healthy

Your brain, like any organ of the body, functions best when you are healthy and nourishing your body with the best food possible. Even if you don’t eat perfectly all the time, make an extra special effort during exam time to give your brain good quality “brain food”. This includes plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids and good quality fats – so plenty of avocado, eggs, full fat butter, coconut oil, lean meat, olive oil, nuts and seeds. My favourite brain food is walnuts – they look like little brains which I think is Mother Nature’s big hint to us! As always avoid processed food and sugar. There is this kind of myth that our brains need glucose to function, and so I know plenty of students who take lollies and other sugary treats into exams to “fuel” their brains… This is not a great idea, firstly because those things just aren’t good for you and secondly because sugar just increases your anxiety and stress. Instead, have a good quality breakfast/lunch before your exam – like an omelette or a nice big salad with fats and protein – and take in some nuts or a few little bliss balls to snack on if you really need it.

On that note, it is so super important to MOVE during exams. I know that nothing makes me feel worse than sitting down all day studying, I feel lethargic and exhausted by 5pm. It doesn’t matter what you do, but make sure the exercise you choose makes you feel GOOD and that it gets your mind off exams. If you love the endorphin-release of running or a good gym session, do that. If you love to do a slow yoga practice, do that. If you love to swim or walk or dance or do Pilates, do that. For me, my two exam exercise rituals is yoga in the morning and then a walk in the afternoon (usually before dinner). Nothing makes me feel happier than putting on a good playlist and going for a walk in the sunshine. Whatever it is that makes you feel alive – JUST DO IT!

Study Smarter, Not Harder

I have to admit, this motto is one that I have taken from one of my fabulous Year 12 teachers, but it is a powerful concept. I know so many people who spend a ridiculous amount of time studying, thinking that the more they do they better they will do. Hate to burst that bubble, but it is not true. What sets apart people who do well and those who struggle is the efficiency of the type of study that they do. What type of study suits you best will depend on what type of learner you are. If you don’t know, then search for a little online test to work it out. This is instrumental for finding your most efficient method of studying, because if you are a visual learner and you spend hours upon hours reading from a textbook, then you are not studying most efficiently.

For example, I am a mix between a visual and literacy learner, so reading for me does work for some things. However, when I am studying for biology I absolutely love to get out coloured textas and draw little flow charts, diagrams, or pictures that put complex processes or relationships into a visual form. I then stick these diagrams on my wall and create what I like to call “My Wall of Biology”. I then have a visual reminder everyday and I just scan over the wall to remind myself of these concepts.

What I think is most important during exams though, and this is a universal rule, is don’t waste a lot of time re-writing notes. In some cases you will have a year’s worth of notes and to try and re-write them all is simply too time-consuming. Instead, just pick the parts you struggled with most and re-write them in your own words. I think the best way to really revise for exams is to do as many practice questions/exams as you possibly can. I like to throw myself cold into an exam at the beginning of my study as a ‘diagnostic’ tool. From that you can evaluate which areas you are comfortable with and where you need to revise a little more. Then keep doing questions, because ultimately exams are not going to test your ability to regurgitate notes, but your ability to apply concepts to the questions given. And if the subject is humanities based, write as many essays as you can.

Another great way to study is with a group of friends. Find a group in which there are different strengths, and then organise to get together and go over a practice exam or some questions. Having someone else explain a concept in “your” terms may help you to understand it, as will seeing someone else’s logic in approaching a question.

Sleep

It might seem glaringly obvious, but sleep is absolutely crucial to a successful exam period. When we sleep our brain is able to sort through all of the information from that day and sort out the trash from what is important. It is when our brain consolidates the new neural connections we have formed from our study. If you aren’t getting a quality sleep each and every night then you are immediately at a disadvantage, as your brain cannot process the study you have done that day. I know so many people who fall into the trap of cramming or staying up very late the night before an exam trying to fill their brain with every last detail. BAD IDEA. You are far better off simply to finish your study for the day and go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

If you struggle to sleep due to stress, then try some meditation or deep breathing before bed. Also, turn off your electronic appliances at least one hour before you want to sleep. Make sure your room is dark, quiet and cool (get an eye mask and ear plugs if this is not possible). If you are truly finding it hard to sleep, consider trying some natural sleep remedies, such as purchasing melatonin pills to help you fall asleep, drinking chamomile tea before bed or taking magnesium (it relaxes your muscles and helps you to fall asleep). And if you happen to suffer from insomnia, I would recommend getting some professional help from a naturopath or other holistic healer to help you get quality sleep each night.


So there you have it – some simple (mostly) and effective tips to make your exam period just a little bit easier. Best of luck to everyone out there who is studying right now, may your brain be a sponge for knowledge!

Keep healthy and happy,

Erica xx

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