Prelims. Exams. Results. Three of the scariest words in the English language, and yet year after year teenagers across the globe must confront this reality. It’s often a terrifying rite of passage.
No matter what anybody says there’s no magic key to success, or some amazing trick to help you memorise the whole textbook. If there was, I would’ve spent far fewer nights in my life clambering over a mountain of equations.
More than once, I’ve had people ask me for advice on studying, seeing my fair amount of success as an indication that I hold some golden knowledge. I don’t. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what not to do. I definitely speak from experience.
- Under no circumstances should you try and study for 8 hours straight everyday
An ill-conceived idea that often circulates is that you should treat studying as a normal school day. Start at 9am and power on through till 3 or 4pm. So, how long should you study for? At the risk of parroting those ‘study tips’ flyers, break it up.
Organise your studying into morning, afternoon and evening. There is no magic number but I try to aim for four or five hours a day during study leave (and that’s of actual studying, not sitting on your phone near a textbook).
Another efficient way of studying is the Pomodoro Technique. This is becoming an increasingly popular method, because of its relative simplicity:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set a timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
- Work on the task without any distractions.
- End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.
2. Studying’s a marathon, not a sprint
Yes, I know I just said not to study for too long in one go but the title might have been a bit misleading. What I mean is, it isn’t going to come easy.
To properly understand the material, you might have to go over it upwards of ten times. And I know this might make you want to scream just thinking about, but I find it reassuring to remember this when I’m struggling with a particularly tricky bit.
Nothing is going to come overnight, so keep going.
If you get completely stuck at something don’t just keep hammering at it. Put it down. Breathe. Come back to it later or go ask the teacher for help. Preparing for exams is a long process, give it the time it needs.
- Don’t compare yourself to others
Okay, I know how cheesy this sounds but hear me out. I’ll use Maths as a personal example. In Higher Maths I struggled all the way through the first six months. I probably would’ve failed the first couple of tests if it hadn’t been for the girl sitting next to me helping me out. And by that I 100% mean she talked me through the material, not that she had neat hand-writing and I can read upside down in test situations.
I would go home at night and get out my Maths homework well aware that in ten to fifteen minutes I’d be condemning myself to fail. For the first time I was genuinely convinced I was going to fail a subject. Everybody saw me as this straight-A mega student incapable of struggling with anything and kept telling me how easy school must be for me.
But at home, I was struggling with past paper after past paper, question after question. And the next day I would go see my Maths teacher every break, lunchtime and after school I possibly could.
That went on for months. Until finally, after all that time and effort, I started to improve. When you find yourself getting discouraged by other people’s apparent success, try and think about how they got there.
Fortunately, I ended up with an A in Maths, and it would be very easy for somebody to look at that and say ‘oh but she’s just better at Maths than me’. Trust me, I’m probably not. It’s not about natural aptitude or intelligence, it’s about hard-work.
- Make a plan and stick to it
It pains me to say that this may once again coincide with the generic advice spouted by the offence year after year, but my version actually works.
If you’ve sat exams at any point I’m sure you’ve attempted to make up a study timetable. I’m here to tell you to rip it up. I know this sounds, drastic but hear me out.
No real, human teenager has ever actually stuck to their study timetable because of how overly optimistic and ridiculously inflexible it is. Newsflash, you’re not really going to leap out of bed at 8am and be hitting the books by 9am. Well, not for more than three days in a row at least. We’re a weak species.
I try to aim to have started by 10am or 10:30am because that’s a realistic goal to achieve. And, ignore the assigned dinner slots. I’m sure for most of you dinner is cooked by a parent or guardian, and so doesn’t come at the same time every day.
Thus, I don’t break my day up into slots from one time to another. I break it up into slots of say 2 or 3 hours. I decide how many is achievable for that day and fit them in when I can. For me, that’s what’s sustainable.
- Study smart, not long
This may seem like a largely redundant statement but it has merit, I promise. In essence, I’m saying that doing 2 hours of smart studying is better than 6 hours of wasted studying.
If you do one timed past paper in two hours you’ve achieved a lot.
If you spend six hours making your notes look pretty instead of actually memorising them, you’ve achieved very little.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love having nice notes. Colour coding and bullet points and structure is key for me. But doodling stars and underlining the headings in gel pen isn’t going to get you an A.
Part of studying smart is also prioritising. In fourth year this can mean spending the most time on the subject you find hardest, not the one you most enjoy. As difficult as this is, it’s a crucial thing to accept.
But for fifth and sixth year (teachers look away now) you have to be realistic. Look at the requirements for whatever apprenticeship, course or job you have your sights set on and adjust your studying accordingly.
If you need an A in English and a C in Geography, don’t spend the majority of your time on the latter. Be realistic.
- Prelims aren’t the end of the world
Obviously, a bad mark in the final exam isn’t the end of the world either, but prelims are just a big check-up.
Think of the prelims as a practice run, an attempt at the exam with a massive safety net.
Take the pressure off yourself and you’ll see what you can really do.
Prelims aren’t going to determine your future, they’re just practice.
If you are finding the stresses of preparing for prelims overwhelming, speak to a teacher or your guidance teacher for advice.
- By Eleanor Service, Editor-In-Chief