I’ve been there and let me tell you, writing exams is no one’s favourite thing to do…at least for most of us. Final exam periods are known to be one of the most stressful times throughout one’s undergraduate career. In a previous study that focused on what causes college students to stress, 31% of students say that finals and exams are the biggest stressors, followed by worries over entering the workforce (24%), and mountains of coursework (23%) (Jacimovic, 2020). Moreover, university/college students are affected by exam-related stress in a variety of negative consequences such as:
- Low self-esteem
- Reduced sleep quality
- and depression (Zhang & Walton, 2018).
But exams don’t have to cause these negative reactions. Generally speaking, most students strive for greatness by setting goals for themselves such as landing on the dean’s list or getting a 4.0 GPA, for example. Yet again, that doesn’t happen overnight. One has to be fully determined and possess the right attitude when approaching these types of goals.
Hi there, I’m Nader Nassereddine, an Honours BComm and Top 200 graduate from the Toronto Metropolitan University, where I majored in International Business and minored in Marketing. Additionally, I’ve been a Lead Teaching Assistant for the course Entrepreneurial Behaviour and Strategy with Dr. Sean Wise at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Having spent five years studying in my undergrad, I’d like to think that I’ve cracked the code on how to ace any of my exams. As I part ways from my university life, a gift I’d like to pass down to everyone are my tips and tricks on how to ace your next exam!
TIP #1: Create Exam Packages
Combine all your lecture notes and highlight all the major definitions, concepts, theories, and prepare examples corresponding to each one. What you’ll notice as you write more tests throughout university, many exam questions will be structured in a hypothetical or situational scenario. The best way to approach these types of questions is to apply examples when studying the course material and referencing your own personal/professional experience to it. By applying relevant examples to any multiple-choice or short-answer examination, you’ll be able to understand just more of that concept rather than memorizing its definition.
TIP #2: Limit Your Caffeine Intake
Many people ask whether caffeine can treat or cause a headache. The answer is that caffeine can do both. A recent article stated that caffeine can make people feel lightheaded, and produce anxiety attacks as well as headaches that make students feel tremulous (Lee, 2014). It’s the main reason why I always recommend my students and colleagues to avoid caffeine before an exam as much as possible. Caffeine will not only make you super jittery in your seat as you write that three-hour exam in a gymnasium, but can cause you to divert your attention from the subject. Consequently, this can affect your ability to perform well.
A healthier alternative that I strongly recommend sticking to is decaffeinated green tea or any decaf tea. Besides its major health benefits, green tea (decaf) is also proven to enhance one's memory and attention (Ohwovoriole, 2021). Anytime I had an upcoming exam, I always drank decaffeinated tea to restore my body’s level of stress and keep me grounded. Apart from just caffeine, avoid any sugary drinks since an unhealthy balance can be detrimental during your studying sessions.
TIP #3: Try To Attend All Your Lectures
In becoming an honours student, I always kept myself accountable in attending all of my lectures. Even on days when I was unable to attend, I was very fortunate enough to have peers from my class who would be kind enough to share their in-class notes. As a side note, always be a reaching hand for others.
I have also noticed in my experience that when professors tend to place a ton of emphasis on a certain topic or theory in class, it tends to show up on a test. Instructors here are inexplicitly hinting to you to explore that particular concept in-depth within your studying since chances are — it will likely appear on your exam. Take note of that!
TIP #4: DON’T OVER DO IT!
Chances are that if you’re over-studying, you may burn out at some point and potentially have a hard time restoring all that course material. Organize your studying schedule in advance using resources like Google Calendar, a weekly planner, a whiteboard, or an agenda to plan an appropriate amount of time to study for a specific course.
As a result, not only will you be in control of how much effort you're putting into your course load, but also managing when to take those well-deserved breaks in between. Taking frequent breaks prevents the brain from burning out too quickly and resets cognitive functions, increasing motor skills, retaining information, and being more able to spot patterns and draw conclusions.
TIP #5: Get At Least 7–8 Hours of Sleep
Recent studies have shown that adequate sleep is essential to feeling awake and alert, maintaining good health and working at peak performance. That said, students who get at least 7–8 hours of sleep perform better cognitively than those who sleep less or more than this amount. Not getting enough sleep weakens your memory in retaining everything you’ve studied. Also, getting enough sleep daily helps re-energize one's body and mindset. This is where you can again design a whole schedule and stay committed to it. Going back to Tip #4, during your well-deserved breaks, instead of going out with your friends the night before an exam, take a nap for at least 10–20 minutes in between or watch an episode of Friends.
TIP #6: Attempt Recommended Practice Problems
For those of you taking any intense math courses (e.g., finance, calculus, accounting, statistics, etc.), for starters, my prayers are with you. Math is generally not everyone’s favourite subject. I remember in my first-year accounting exam, I had to solve a problem where someone named Clemintine needed help completing her income sheet and wondered… well why can’t Clemintine just do it herself or Google how to do one!
Jokes aside…you should know that most professors in those specific courses will provide you with a list of practice questions, possibly from a textbook or resource links to help you solve those complex math problems. Not saying that you should do all of them, but attempt those that look very familiar to what may have been introduced in class. When professors provide you with a list of resources and questions, they are giving it to you for a reason. Additionally, reach out to your professors or TAs during their office hours and gain insight into which practice problems you should pay more attention to.
TIP #7: Exercising
Not only will exercising improve your physical health, but it will also have a huge impact on other areas of your life. Staying fit can lift your mood, relieve stress, and boost your brainpower — helping you make the most of your time at university and prepare for finals.
TIP #8: Keep A Positive Attitude
As cliché as it may sound, it’s honestly so true. Keeping a positive mindset and attitude about exams will actually in turn favour your outcome. Continuously doubting yourself doesn’t do justice and it only tears you down further. Relax. Breathe. And tell yourself: YOU GOT THIS!
I must digress for a bit on the aforementioned tips and tricks. Regardless of how much you actually leverage these tips into your studying plan, you will come across questions that you may not know the answer to. As humans, we can’t possibly remember everything. Nevertheless, at least try and attempt the question. I always tell my students, do not leave questions blank because at least they’ve tried and attempted to think about the answer versus giving up on themselves mid-way through the test. No matter the outcome, just remember you can only do your best and that’s the biggest reward you can give yourself.
Now back on track! I really hope these tips and tricks resonate with you and if they don’t, that’s completely okay. Everyone has different learning styles and techniques they’re comfortable with. Stick to those. But if you realize maybe that method isn’t working out so great, shake things up a bit and try something new. Otherwise, if you are reading this article, it tells me you have a test coming up. So with that, I wish you the best of luck. You got this!
Jacimovic, D. (2020, March 19). 18 eye-opening college student stress statistics. WhatToBecome.
Lee, S. (2014, October 11). Why you need to ease up on the coffee during exams: Doctor says caffeine overload can lead to decline in student performance, including memory loss. Daily Mail.
Ohwovoriole, T. (2021, April 30). 5 major benefits of green tea for your memory, skin, and heart health. Insider.com
Zhang, N., & Walton, D. M. (2018). Why So Stressed? A Descriptive Thematic Analysis of Physical Therapy Students’ Descriptions of Causes of Anxiety during Objective Structured Clinical Exams. Physiotherapy Canada. Physiotherapie Canada, 70(4), 356–362. https://doi.org/10.3138/ptc.2016-102.e