Every academic website out there has “10 tips for exam success”, or “8 exam don’ts” or “7 last-minute revision tricks”. So as exam season approaches, how could I resist?
What are my qualifications for dispensing advice? Well, I’ve planned, written and marked exams. I’ve worked as an invigilator, dealing with everything from nosebleeds and panic attacks to flagrant cheating. But more importantly, I’ve been taking exams for a very long time. I take exams when I don’t need to, just for the fun of it. I take exams when I don’t know anything about the subject, just to see what will happen (I once scored an ‘A’ on an exam essay about the workings of internal combustion engines, despite my complete ignorance of engines, combustion and indeed the workings of anything at all). If there were an Exam Appreciation Society, I would be President. (I don’t think there is, but when I googled it I found a Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society and a Cloud Appreciation Society: so maybe my time will come.)
So I have a few tricks up my sleeve (not literally: that’s frowned upon…) for success in any exam that requires you to write an essay.
Tip 1: Expect pain. A surprising number of people do not expect the physical pain of writing for three hours without a break. Remember that most of us aren’t used to it these days: we complain about the strain from typing, but we’ve forgotten the hand cramp and dented fingers from our days of intensive biro use. So think ahead: invest in some squidgy pen grips, or take a selection of different pens which require you to change your grip. And accept that by Hour 3, your writing will be slower and messier as you cope with the physical strain: so you might need more time for the final section than you needed for the first section.
Tip 2: Do your own thing. Exams are intimidating situations which make you doubt yourself. So when you’re looking around at people waving hands in the air for their third answer book and you’re still on page 3 of your first, don’t panic! If your thing is to think before you write, or to write slowly, or to be concise, don’t doubt that. If your thing is to write on every other page, to leave plenty of space for notes, that’s fine too. If your thing is to spend the first half hour dumping everything you remember onto a page, to clear your mind, go for it and don’t doubt yourself. Do your own thing, and forget about what everyone else is doing.
Tip 3: First thoughts are rubbish. It’s easily proven. Find a small child or a bored grownup, and play the association game, where you say a word, then they say the first related word that comes to mind, then you say the first word that comes into your mind, and so on. You may start with intellectual associations (eg. ‘Table’, ‘Ascanius’, ‘flames’, ‘Caesar’, ‘tapeworm’…), but almost immediately you’ll degenerate into the banal and weird (‘Blue’, ‘Sky’, ‘Ground’, ‘Alan Titchmarsh’…). First thoughts aren’t necessarily what you want to be judged on. So rather than using the first things that pop into your head in your exam essay, jot them all down on a ‘Planning’ page instead, and evaluate them properly before you base your entire exam performance on them.
Tip 4: Collect ticks. Markers tend to read through your writing and put a tick when you use a specific bit of evidence to make a point. Example 1: Tick. Example 2: Tick. Markers like evidence. Your grade depends on those ticks. So you should try to achieve at least one tick per paragraph, by mentioning examples to support what you’re saying.
Tip 5: Answer the question. Obvious? Yes. But crucial. How you go about it is up to you: perhaps it will help to write out the question at the top of your essay, or even at the top of each page. Perhaps you feel the need to vandalise the question with squiggles, circles and other ways of highlighting important words. Perhaps you’re in the habit of checking the question at the end of each paragraph. Or perhaps your way of engaging with the question conspicuously is to attack the wording of the question or the morals and intellectual capacity of the question-setter. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t end up writing the essay that you want to write, instead of the essay that you’re supposed to write.
Professor Helen King puts this eloquently:
Answer the question.
Answer the question.
Answer the ****ing question.
Tip 6: Learn a few extras. This shouldn’t be your priority: but it often happens that an unexpected extra detail can just push your paper over a grade boundary. So try to learn a few quirky details: a couple of quotations, a Latin phrase or two, some dates that you might be able to work in. Do get them right, though: a mistake in a gratuitous Latin quotation is embarrassing!
Tip 7: Introductions and conclusions matter a lot. For most people, their introductions and conclusions in exam essays are weak spots. Their introduction doesn’t really introduce the essay, because they don’t know what they’re going to write; and their conclusions peter out because they run out of time, or because they had a last-minute thought and stuck it onto the end of the essay. Make sure your conclusion sums up your main points, to make it clear that you have some main points!
Tip 8: Prepare for the worst. So you’re revising exemplarity, or mechanisms of empire, because that’s the main focus of the Block. But what if the exam question is on Ovid specifically, or on Mommsen’s views of empire? Do you know enough to write for an hour on the obscure bits of the Block? Exam-setters have a nasty habit of switching to very specific questions when you’re expecting general ones, and if you’re not prepared for that it can be disastrous.
Tip 9: Smile! Yes, that sounds silly. But taking a minute to smile can relax you and change your perspective. I’m not suggesting laughing out loud at the invigilator (they don’t like that): but when you see a question you like, pause for a second to smile to yourself and release some of the tension. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes to your focus and your energy levels.
Tip 10: Buzz words. A buzz word is any word (or short phrase) that’s repeated, sometimes with annoying frequency, during your course. If you’re studying Augustan literature, it may be pietas, or exempla, or furor, or ‘moral purpose’, or ‘traditional values’ – and of course the frequent repetition of ‘civil wars’. If you’re studying Roman History, buzz words may be ‘empire’, ‘culture’, ‘identity’, ‘Romanisation’, ‘urbanisation’, ‘acculturation’, ‘globalisation’ and so on.
Buzz words are critical because they’re the means by which you can demonstrate that YOU’VE STUDIED THE COURSE. I’ve put that bit in capitals because it’s the thing many people forget. The exam is not an abstract exercise to find out whether you’re the sort of person who can write a great essay under pressure. The exam is specifically designed to test what you’ve learned from the course (otherwise you might as well sit the exam before you start the course, and save everybody a lot of time and effort). Your job is to show that the essay you write today is better than the essay you would have written a year ago.
It’s very common for someone under pressure to answer the essay question in as simple a manner as possible. In many ways that’s a good thing, but it can lead to blind spots. You might find yourself writing an essay on Livy without mentioning exempla, or an essay on Roman Britain without raising the issue of Romanisation – and if those are the main themes of the course, your marker will raise one elegant eyebrow and say with a sigh, ‘Another one who hasn’t opened the course book!’. Your essay may be very good, but your grade won’t be, because you’ve missed a key point that you should have included.
The beauty of buzz words is that they’re very easy to learn, once you become aware of their existence. Most modules will have between five and ten buzz words, although you may be able to think of a few additional ones which are less important. The important thing, once you’ve identified them, is to learn them: and not just superficially. They need to become part of your vocabulary, to become so much a part of your thinking that you won’t be able to ignore them in the exam.
So how do you make a buzz word part of your thinking? Well, that depends on how you think. Some people like to write an essay about it: if you’ve written a whole essay on Augustan revival of tradition, for instance, it puts ‘tradition’ high up on your mental list of important considerations. Other people will research it, looking for definitions and different interpretations in articles and books. If you’re feeling whimsical you can put buzz words into songs to remember them. A few years ago a couple of people in my class re-wrote all the lyrics to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to cover the buzz words of the Aeneid…
… Thunderbolt and lightning,
Juno’s really frightening me!
Poor Aeneas, poor Aeneas, poor Aeneas, poor Aeneas
Poor Aeneas all alone,
and in a storm!
I come from old Troy, nobody loves me!
He comes from old Troy with a great destiny!…
Buzz words alone will not help you pass the exam. That’s not what they’re for. Instead, you should see them as an insurance policy, protecting you from that post-exam sinking feeling when you realise that you wrote a whole essay on Aeneas without mentioning pietas. Buzz words are your disaster-avoidance checklist, your way to avoid falling into a hole.
And finally: Luck matters. A belief in luck can change our state of mind. So put on your lucky socks; take in your lucky pencil; chew your lucky chewing gum. It can’t hurt: and it could make all the difference to your confidence.
Good luck, all! I hope that some day I will welcome you as a card-carrying member of the Exam Appreciation Society…!