When exams go wrong…

exam-stress-cartoon

Sometimes, after months of hard work, hundreds of timed essays, a carefully planned revision timetable and more coffee than is good for you, it goes wrong anyway.  The exam board suddenly changes the question style, or you sleep really badly the night before, or you’re ill, or you just panic – and it feels like the end of the world, because you put in all. that. work. for. nothing.  Add in the pressure of having to get up tomorrow and do an entirely different exam, or, worse, college places hanging in the balance or university applications looming, and some students find themselves facing very real – and very upsetting – stress.

So what can you, the student, do about it?  Nothing – and everything.  Nothing, because what’s done is done.  In that sense, you need to do your utmost to put it behind you as soon as possible because you don’t want the upset to affect tomorrow’s exam, or tonight’s revision for that matter.  Shake it off, go for a run, play a computer game, have a long bath – do something that will take your mind off it for the next hour or so.  Then put the offending books out of sight (but don’t bin them!), get the next lot out, and crack on.

(Parents often find that whatever they say in this situation is entirely wrong – however lovely you are about it, a very distressed student may well interpret your concern and care as an indication that either you didn’t think they were clever enough in the first place, or you don’t understand how upset they are, or why.  They’ll realise you don’t mean any of these things eventually, but in the immediate aftermath, it may be best to offer hugs while they’re crying and to just listen to their fears with plenty of tea and cake on hand.)

And then, as I said, you can do everything.  You can use this upset to fuel your determination to get through the rest of your exams.  Once they’re over you can talk to your teachers and make a plan for next year – maybe a resit, maybe not.  Maybe your coursework result will be enough to pull you through.  Maybe your chosen university will accept you even if you drop a grade.  Maybe an AS resit will be far easier by the time you’ve done a whole year of A2 work.  There are lots of maybes out there, and they don’t involve punishing yourself.  If you want to resit, great, do it with bells on!  If you don’t, make a new plan.

Because here’s a secret.  Exams are, really, totally, enormously important.  While you’re doing them.  Next year, this lot won’t matter so much.  And the year after that, they’ll hardly matter at all.  Your SATs are the most important exams you’ll ever do…until your GCSEs.  And your degree is the most important qualification you’ll ever get…until you can write on your CV that you’ve got X years of experience in the job.  There is ALWAYS a way forward.  There is ALWAYS something new around the corner. There is ALWAYS a next stage.  And yes, right now, your exams are important, and it would be foolish to say otherwise. But one day, a few maybes away, noone will give two hoots what you got in your A levels because they’ll be far more interested in you being able to explain an example of how you once overcame adversity, and they might even give you a job if they like your answer.  Or, maybe, you’ll be the one conducting the interview.  Maybe maybe maybe…

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Revision Blues

So, how do you approach that enormous pile of files and books?  Put them under your pillow and hope the information magically gets into your brain while you dream?  It’s one approach, but I can’t guarantee it’ll work… What I can guarantee though, is that starting is the hardest and most important bit.  Here are some ideas on how  to get going.

  • Make a plan.  Work out how many days you have until the end of your exams, and then how many revision sessions you can do per day.  If you’re on study leave then you can probably do 2 sessions in the morning and 2 in the afternoon.  You might want to do some evening sessions too.  Keep your sessions fairly short – an hour to an hour and a half is fine, depending on your age and attention span.
  • Get a big bit of paper and draw a calendar on it, showing each of those days and sessions.  Write your exams on it.
  • Go through each of your subject files and write a list of all the topics you need to revise.
  • Work backwards from your exams and put your topics into your calendar.  Use a pencil as you’ll need to rearrange them while you work this out!
  • Remember that one session per topic is probably not enough.  Plan in second sessions to go back over your notes and consolidate your learning.  Also plan in sessions where you can do timed past papers and essay questions.
  • You might not stick to this calendar rigidly, but if it’s there, prominently on your wall, it should help you keep focused on all the things you need to do.

Next, decide your approach for each subject.  Get organised – you need a file where you can find things quickly and easily.  In English you might need time to do any or all of the following:

  • Re-read your texts
  • Learn quotations
  • Study the mark scheme
  • Read exemplar essays
  • Read through your own old essays and preps
  • Read past examiners’ reports
  • Plan essays using the mark scheme to help
  • Write essays
  • Write essays in timed conditions

How do you learn quotations?  Some people find this really easy and others find it awful.  If you’re in the latter camp, try and integrate it into your everyday life.  For each theme or character you need a sheet of plain A4.  Write the name of the character or theme in the middle and circle it, then go through the text and pick out the main, appropriate quotations.  Write them around the page in different colours so they stand out.  Once you’ve done this for the whole text, wallpaper your bedroom.  That way when you’re losing focus during your revision and you glance up to stare into space, you’ll find yourself staring at King Lear instead…  Another good place to put them is in the bathroom.  Nothing like staring at the loo door to help you learn quotations about philosophy and the meaning of life!

So how do you start revising?  Make a plan and then…just start!