October 23, 2020

What I Learned About Exams at Uni that I Wish I’d Known at A-Level


Study Skills’. The term brings to mind boring afternoons of workshops, useless tips from your geography teacher, and cringeworthy lectures from ‘study experts’ of dubious authority. Rarely does prescriptive advice do much good in this area – it’s healthy to maintain a suspicion of people telling you how to study, because it really is the kind of thing that varies from person to person. Nevertheless, for those commencing the long trudge to A-Level season, I have one tip that it took me far too long to realise in my time at university, and which totally changed the way I work for the better: work smart not hard. You might have heard it before; it sounds like a bit of a truism. But so many people never realise what a valuable idea this is. I’ve written a few ways that you can apply this thinking here: if you get it right, working smart will both make your exam season significantly less stressful, and help you to achieve the best grades.

The classic error that A-Level students make is playing the hours game. You’re probably familiar with it. ‘I did seven hours a day over half term’; ‘this holidays it’ll be nine hours every day’; ‘how many hours did you do?’. It’s understandable to want to quantify the work you are doing – and to want to tell your friends about it – but telling yourself that more hours equals more work is a huge error. During A-Levels I might sit at my desk for nine hours a day, spending half of that time taking lacklustre notes and the other half, say, staring into space, or watching a documentary about otters on YouTube, or planning my fantasy football strategy (my 2014/15 side was, I’ll concede, exquisitely managed). The fact is that I, like pretty much everyone, would not seriously be capable of sitting and staring at notes absorbing them for that amount of time. Setting yourself astronomical hours targets is setting yourself up to fail – and when you do fail to fulfil those targets it’s only going to make you feel more stressed.

A professor of mine at Oxford once told me he had never studied for more than four hours in a day. If he set himself that four hours target, and knew that he had the rest of the day to himself, he found that within that time he was totally productive and never procrastinated. This is no hard and fast rule, but I found when I applied his thinking – setting myself shorter but more highly-focused study hours – everything started to fall into place so much more easily. If you tell yourself you are going to work a short stint then the chances are that you will use that time productively, rather than committing yourself to marathon sessions where you know you’ll spread your work out more thinly. Also, this method is win-win – you work more productively and you get more free time to chill.

Working smart also goes for the kind of work you choose to do. Going through your A-Level textbook cover to cover taking notes on every single page is actually a pretty useless way to spend your time – certainly from the perspective of essay subjects. This is another point that I didn’t realise until university – you only need to learn something if you can clearly see how you might use it in an answer. In my undergraduate degree we had two six-hour exams – one on Chaucer and one on Shakespeare. There were no set texts – instead the exam would cover the entirety of each of those author’s works.

Among my friends there were two approaches to this obviously daunting prospect. The first, which my housemate took, was to spend about two months making notes on the entirety of Chaucer and Shakespeare’s works. This left him with several fat folders of paper and very little else. When the exam came, he found the pressure of having to think of all that information and formulate a creative answer on the spot to be too much. He is much more intelligent than me, and had worked harder than anyone else I knew, and he barely scraped a 2.1. The second approach, which I decided to take, fared better: spending as much time as possible looking at past papers, working out the areas that questions were asked in, and devising and memorising very detailed essay plans. This is not a question of gambling or question-predicting; the trick is to make sure your plans cover the broad areas that questions are asked in, but which have a stock of detailed examples that can show that you’ve read widely and have strong specific knowledge. This way, when you get into the exam, you’ve done your thinking already, and you can just focus on presenting it to the examiner in a clear and specific way, rather than trying to fit in as many facts and pieces of knowledge as you can remember and attaching a thesis to it at the end.

Realising that writing and memorising essay plans was more effective than learning all of the material also meant I worked shorter hours for finals than many of my contemporaries. It sometimes felt like cheating – most people were putting in these Herculean shifts in the library while some of us opted to work smart, and it was almost always the latter group that got the top grades. It doesn’t just go for essay subjects. Whatever exam you are taking, approach it tactically: work out what the examiner wants to read and spend your time focusing on giving them that and nothing else. If you break it down like that, exam season doesn’t seem so insurmountable after all.