As exams draw near, the daunting prospect of reviewing a term’s worth of content and synthesizing that material into a short series of answers will cause no small amount of anxiety and stress. Far too many bright students feel overwhelmed by the prospect of studying for a cumulative exam (meaning it contains elements from all the material covered throughout the term). I am here to tell you that the prospect is far from daunting, and there are ways to work through that understandable sense of stress.
After four years of leading tutorials and teaching undergraduate students how to successfully manage their time preparing for and writing exams, I have developed a series of helpful tips for the end of every term. I was delighted when Dr. Christopher Grafos approached me to write about this topic, which I think will be useful to undergraduate students everywhere. The advice that follows shouldn’t simply be bookmarked for reference before you walk into your exam. Read it now. Think it over. Keep it at hand as you begin to review.
Let’s begin with common mistakes we’ve all made at some point when sitting in that lecture hall for two or three hours at a time. When the big day arrives, some proceed to regurgitate a year’s worth of information aimlessly on the booklet pages. I have seen others freeze, lose focus, and answer a few questions only to skip several others. Both approaches will net you mediocre results that may easily be avoided. Whether you aimlessly regurgitate information on several booklets or leave whole pages absolutely blank, the end result is the same: a poor grade.
To avoid these all-too-common traps, I have three very important tips to get you on the path to success.
First, remember to breathe. Know that the course instructor has budgeted more than enough time for students to successfully complete the exam and your professor is not trying to trick you. Take a breath, give yourself a few minutes and read the questions carefully. Most exam questions have at least two parts. One part will be a what question: what happened and what is its significance? The other part will be a how or why question. Here you are expected to arrange and explicate evidence from the course in a thoughtful manner. The answer will never be a mere yes or no. Therefore, take some time and ask yourself: What is this question asking of me? What is the most effective way to answer it? What readings would work best in my answer? Collect your thoughts, take your time, and aim to supply an in-depth and analytically meaningful response that makes use of the knowledge you’ve gained all term. You are more than capable of the task.
Second, make a plan. You’ve no-doubt studied, made notes, prepared for the exam. Now, take a few minutes in the room and plan out your answers to the questions before you jump in. List your proposed argument in point-form alongside a few key points that you will use as supporting evidence in the margins, or on a scrap piece of paper. Outline what examples fit best to support your argument and what conclusions you hope to reach. This brief moment before you start writing will keep your essay focused and on track, from introduction to conclusion. It may seem scary to use five minutes of your precious exam time on an outline. However, let me tell you that those students who take the time to plan have far stronger answers as a result and need less time to review and make changes at the end. Contrary to what you may think, this approach will in fact save you time in the long run.
Third, write clearly. You’ve taken your time, read the questions and written focused answers on the exam. Yet what good is all that hard work if your instructor can’t understand the words on the page? So, remember the basics: double space, write legibly, use large handwriting, and never feel that you have to cram your answers onto a single page. Ask for as many booklets as you need. All of this will ensure that your instructor is able to follow along and understand your writing. Communication is the key to success. Your instructor has to mark many, many exams and writing clearly ensures that your ideas are properly conveyed and easily understood.
Breathe deeply. Plan thoughtfully. Write clearly. Don’t regurgitate and never leave a question unanswered. I want you to know that most instructors look to reward effort, so make the most of your time in the room. You have spent an entire term working on this material. The day of the exam is an opportunity for you to show your instructor how much you’ve invested in the course.
Michael Akladios PhD (ABD)
Michael Akladios is a doctoral candidate at York University and holder of the 2018 Avie Bennett Dissertation Scholarship in Canadian History. Michael’s dissertation examines the transnational, pluricultural, and ecumenical history of Coptic Orthodox Christian immigrants, first in Egypt and then later in the first and largest immigrant communities in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. In addition to his doctoral research, Michael is the founder and project manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP), a not-for-profit public history and community outreach organization affiliated with the Department of History and the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries.