Not knowing the best way to revise is a perennial problem for any student. It’s easy to panic when you feel overloaded; this can be dangerous when panic turns into paralysis. It’s important to bite the bullet and get stuck in, while also remembering that there is no strict formula for revision. It’s very much a personal regime. These tips are perhaps more relevant to humanities-related degrees and less relevant to science-related ones. If you are doing a science degree, my best advice for you is to curl up into a ball and cry about your life choices. (JUST KIDDING!) But if you’re in the same boat that I was in, then read on. Here’s what you can do:
1. Look at past papers
Everything is digital nowadays. You should be able to log in to your university website and find an online library of old papers. This is a great way to find out what to expect from the exam and learn how to parcel out your time. Remember to stick to newer papers and to check if there are any reconfigurations of the exam format for your year.
2. Write out essay plans
You don’t necessarily have to do a past paper as a dry run. A good idea is to write out essay plans, which I find are the best approach to organising your notes thematically. It gets you thinking about material you’ve covered in the style the exam requires. Just don’t fall into the trap of rigid learning; you can’t identically copy a plan for an actual exam question.
3. Make copious amounts of notes
Make notes of your notes of your notes. Memory atrophies over time. I find writing and condensing notes promotes a certain economy about what you retain. It’s a way of cutting out the fat, so to speak. Don’t just lavishly apply highlighter to old notes: you’ll end up with a fluorescent stack of pages and a not so fluorescent result. Write and rewrite by hand. I find that practising handwriting is crucial, since you’ll have to do it in the exam and it helps link brain activity to motor coordination, or something like that. If you haven’t deforested a Wales-sized chunk of the Amazon for paper, you haven’t written enough.
4. Find some privacy
Sequestering yourself in a cobwebby recess of a library can be a good thing. Don’t stay at home where you can melt into the sofa and binge-watch Netflix shows. It worked best for me to sit quietly in the study hub and glue my face to a book. Working without your laptop can help too, by removing the temptation of social media.
5. Be wary of the clock
Time flies. Don’t spend a disproportionate amount of it revising one module. It will cause you grief later on as you scrabble together some notes and cram for that final exam. Leave yourself time to cover what you need to. In the actual exam, paying attention to the clock is critical. One point that is reiterated by frustrated examiners in their reports is that people hand in scripts with incomplete answers. It’s worthwhile to read these examiners’ reports, since it can help you avoid making common mistakes.
6. Be tactical
Pick your topics carefully. If you have an English exam, you will probably need to combine authors for your answer. You can choose authors that coincide or contrast. As long as there is some good scope for comparison then you should be OK. As a secondary point to this, try and employ obscure or different material. Don’t follow the arguments a lecturer makes word for word. A bored and sleep-deprived examiner is not going to be enthralled by seeing yet another predictable answer about the symbolism of blood in Macbeth. Differentiate yourself from the pack and you’ll earn some brownie points.
7. Don’t panic
This isn’t just the famous friendly lettering of Douglas Adams’ guide to the galaxy. It’s a good mantra for exam stress to take care of your body as well as your mind. Don’t overexert yourself or OD on energy drinks. Diamonds are made under pressure, but going into the exam hall with a clear mind is also important. Don’t feel like you need to vomit up every glob of information you’ve revised. Take a deep breath and do your best.
Nick Potter, UCL English graduate