MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: How to pass exams

Fresh qualifications could give you a leg-up in the job market. Here's how to make exams count...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In today’s tough job market, exam results are a way of selecting – or de-selecting – people from the list of applicants. Many middle/senior managers are therefore venturing back to the classroom in an attempt to enhance their career prospects. But exams are not easy to pass (or the ones that are valued aren’t), particularly if you haven’t studied for some time. So MT asked Stuart Pedley-Smith, author of a new book on passing exams, for his top tips:

1. Get motivated
Although your motives for returning to the classroom may not be as idealistic as ‘wanting to learn because it will make you a better person’, it really does help if you keep reminding yourself why you are studying and what it will give you. Write down a list of the reasons.

2. Be exam-focused
You will not have time to learn everything, so don’t try. Go to the website of the institution that will award your qualification and download the last three or four past exam papers. Analyse them and find out what the most examinable topics were. Start by studying these areas first.

3. Practice past exam questions
Having identified the most examinable areas, you need to practice questions on those topics. Don’t be afraid to look at the answers. They will not only help you learn but will give you a better understanding of what the examiner is looking for.

4. Understand how YOU learn
Although the jury is still out on the benefits of learning styles, understanding a little more about how you learn - be it with pictures, sounds or by trial and error - will bring some variety to your learning and make it feel a whole lot easier.

5. Don’t doubt yourself
At some time during your studies, you may begin to doubt your own intelligence and abilities. It may help to remember that you don’t need to be a genius to succeed. Exams are not intelligence tests, they’re tests of competence. Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick - who found the structure for DNA - had an IQ of 115, which is only a little above average.

6. Make great notes
Going through a text and highlighting sections without writing anything down is a very ineffective way of learning. How you record what you learn matters. Write things down, use colours and learn how to mind map.

7. Use memory techniques
What colour is your front door? Chances are you answered that using your visual memory. You did not know the answer by reading it in a book. Find out more about memory techniques: almost every exam has marks just for recalling facts.   

8. Create a revision time table
When you get to the revision phase of your studies, prepare a time table showing when the exam is, when you will practice questions and when you will sit your mock exam. Knowing what to do, and when, is half the battle.

9.  Make your answer easy to mark  
Not only do you need to write neatly, but you need to think about how you structure your answer and break it up into sections using white space. Examiners can’t mark what they can’t read or understand.

10. Manage your time in the exam
Don't fall at the final hurdle. Look at the mark allocation for each question and stick to it. A ten-mark question means you have eighteen minutes. Also take your watch off and put it on the desk, look at it just before you start a question and again when you’ve finished. It will help you to be more aware of time in the exam.

- Stuart Pedley-Smith is the author of ‘The E Word: Kaplan’s guide to passing exams’, which shows how to revise more effectively, how to improve your motivation and how to overcome exam stress.

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MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: How to pass exams

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