How to Get Excellence in Your Exams: 6-Week-Plan
Alright kids, mock season might be over but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for the holidays.
NCEA exams are officially 6 weeks away. Yup, you heard it here first.
While cramming does have a nostalgic, self-deprecating sort of appeal, this year we’re going to do things differently. And I’m here to let you know, now – yes right now – is the make or break period.
I know it’s holidays soon, and I’m not going to try to convince you that you should be spending every day at the library. In fact, quite the opposite.
At this stage of the game – preparing for exams is less about consuming knowledge, and all about “setting the stage” for a productive, healthy and intentional exam journey. This means making it as easy as possible to study when you need to, and get into a peaceful, ready-to-focus mindset. Think of it like self-care for your brain. It’s fun.
To ensure no one winds up at ol-procrastination station again, we’ll be guiding you, step-by-step, through your plan of attack for study: from 6-weeks-out, right up until the night before NCEA exams begin.
So here’s exactly what you should be focusing on with 6 weeks to go until exams.
1. Get familiar with your exam timetable
This is the first, and easiest, step to getting prepared for exams (without trying too hard).
Knowing the exact time, date and location of your exams is the perfect way to ensure some control over how they go.
You can work out exactly how many days you have before each exam; you can identify a strategy for balancing study between subjects and even the simple act of looking at the timetable can be enough to motivate you to begin studying – especially when you realise how close they actually are.
This is particularly important for students taking lots of external subjects, as NZQA has a particularly evil way of ordering all your exams one after the other.
Having several exams in a row means you have to plan in advance – trust me, there’s nothing worse than coming home from one exam with no choice but to start frantically revising for the next one tomorrow.
Make a visual map of your exam timetable somewhere you look at every day. Put a little effort into making it look nice. Stick it above your desk, on your fridge, or next to your bed. Having your timetable laid out on paper will help to clear your head from anxious exam thoughts, and give you a semblance of control over the situation. You might even find yourself motivated to study when you look at it.
2. Work out what you know and what you don’t
Listen very carefully: you are not as smart as you think you are. Really.
This doesn’t mean you’re dumb. It doesn’t mean you’re a genius either. It just means that from a scientific and psychological perspective, humans are pretty bad at objectively assessing our own capabilities – good or bad.
Ever wondered why it’s so difficult to convince yourself to go to the gym, even when you know you really should? Or get up early? Or start studying? Or go to the one class that makes you feel like an idiot?
It’s because our brains are hardwired to help us avoid discomfort.
When studying, this comes out when we review our notes, and end up always going over the stuff we already know. We always leave the hard stuff until it’s too late, and pray to the NCEA gods it doesn’t come up in the exam.
But overcoming this brain default is way easier than you think. It begins with simply acknowledging the fact that you don’t know a lot, and you’re studying so that you CAN learn it.
The easiest way to work out what you don’t know and what you do know is with some good, ol-fashioned highlighting. *Becky screams with delight somewhere in the distance*.
- Go through the overview for each subject standard, with three different coloured highlighters.
- Use the first highlighter to highlight everything you’re confident with.
- Use the second highlighter to highlight everything you kind of know, but still need to work on.
- Use the third highlighter to highlight everything that you do not know.
Again, this will give you more control, by hijacking your brain’s default “easy-route” – to really learn the information that will stump you in the exam.
Once you’ve clearly identified everything you don’t know (and everything that you do) you’ll have far more clarity and intention in your studies.
Tasks are easier to complete when you actually know exactly what you’re up against. This is such an easy step to make, and will help you to realistically gage how much work you have to do to get through everything.
3. Set up a good study space
As Dorothy Breininger from the TV series “Hoarders,” argues: Decluttering can mentally prepare us for productivity in three ways:
- It clears the physical space so we can partake in the activity.
- It provides us with a sense of accomplishment which translates into motivation.
- It gives us time to think about or organise the activity in which we are about to engage.
You’ve still got a while to exams, there’s no need to panic about quadratic equations just yet. So this means you’ve got time to invest in your environment – and take some time to actually make your study space a place you want to be.
Find a quiet area in your house, and clear all external clutter from it. Organise your study notes efficiently. Buy or find some pretty stationery (don’t go crazy Becky, you only need a couple of pens) and put something on your that makes you feel comfortable, safe and focused. This could be a little ornament, a candle, some incense, a cushion, or even just your favourite lamp. Make sure your space is clean, tidy and comfortable. Call this your study space, and try to get into the habit of sitting down there whenever you are studying.
4. Start building a habit of studying
Habits are the process by which a behaviour, through regular repetition, becomes automatic or habitual.
Sick of the internal battle you have with yourself every time you sit down to study? Start building a habit of study now, and eventually that dialogue won’t even occur in the first place.
Think about how great it would be if studying wasn’t something you had to fight yourself to do. No more anxiety whenever the word comes up! No more procrastination, and wasting time! No more guilt and no more frustration at your lack of self control! Imagine if studying was as automatic as something like brushing your teeth in the morning: an unquestioned, easy and necessary activity – in order to get on with your day.
The nature of habits is that you don’t think about the act so much before you do it. Because it’s just a part of your routine, you spend less time thinking about the action: and your brain doesn’t work as hard to convince you out of it.
The best part? You won’t even have to work hard to begin with. At all. In fact, the earlier and smaller you start – the more likely you are to stick with it.
Much has been written on the science of habit-building, and we’ve written several pieces on how to apply this to study, which you can find here and here. We won’t go through the entire rant again, but basically habit formation comes down to:
Start off by structuring your day around your study routine: carve out a specific time in the day where you will do study no matter what.
Set yourself a goal for repeating this action, and stick with it for the week day. Eg: this week, I’ll spend 20 minutes studying after school everyday.
Activate your “cue” – something that basically reminds your brain to enter “study zone”. Set a timer, or light a candle. Put on some deep house music or your favourite pair of socks. Make it work for you. No matter what it is, make sure that every time you repeat the action (studying) your cue is activated – this means when the cue gets activated in future, your brain will slip more automatically into preparing for the activity.
Finally, and most crucially – once you’re finished with your repetition – reward yourself! Give yourself a rush of endorphins for putting in the effort, and eventually your brain will begin to associate the act (studying) with the pleasure (dopamine). No matter how well your study session went – from exceptional to abysmal – make sure that you give yourself the treat for effort. It’s like training a dog to do a trick, except it’s your brain and the trick is study. Heh.
Finally, and most importantly, take the time to relax.
You’ve finished mock exams, you’re nearly on holiday, and life is relatively good. Externals might be coming up, and you might be up to your head in internals – but you’re still on track.
Now’s your time to do everything you’ve been putting off because of mocks. Buy a face-mask, go for that hike, binge-watch the show you’ve been watching anyway – only this time guilt free.
It’s okay to be selfish, and as much as school teaches us the opposite, you don’t have to spend every waking minute thinking about your education!
I know that you’re busy, stressed and maybe even a little lost in life at this point in time. Taking the time to take proper care of yourself can be hard. Juggling expectations, personal goals and external pressure can eclipse all other aspects of your life.
Now’s the perfect time to refresh yourself for a better term. Schedule some time for being alone, exercising, and having fun with your friends. Get to know yourself better, and work out what you need – not just to function and make it through school – but to thrive! Do something for no reason other than because it makes you happy. Spend a day flopping around on the couch, and don’t beat yourself up for it. List any anxieties you’ve had over the past few weeks, and then rip the paper up and throw it in the fire.
With a bit of attention to yourself and your own growth (mental, physical or emotional) – the fog surrounding exams will lift significantly. Things won’t seem as difficult or impossible or overwhelming or panicky.
No matter how your mock exams went, you deserve this time for you so that you can do even better in the real thing.