You will have a limited amount of time to revise for your exams. You should, at the start of the period you have available for revision, sit down and make a revision plan.
Think about how many papers you have to revise for, which ones you need to spend slightly more time on, and so on. Then, perhaps dividing the day into three time slots (e.g. 9-12, 2-5, 6-9), make a schedule that allocates an appropriate number of slots to each paper. You might decide that some days you would work all three slots, other days only two. It is important not to be over-ambitious. Most people can't do productive intellectual work for much more than 8 or 9 hours in a day, at the maximum. Doing more than that will probably be counter¬productive, increasing your levels of stress, anxiety, and tiredness. Work all this out and make a schedule that allocates all your revision time to specific papers and tasks.
Having this plan will make the task of revision much easier, more structured and more efficient.
Do practice papers
To be good at anything takes practice. Taking examinations is no exception.
Some people go into exams without having practised writing essays in exam conditions first. These people are badly-prepared people.
In the weeks running up to your exams you should do at least one, but, preferably, more than one practice paper in exam conditions for each paper you are about to sit (e.g. do a previous year's exam paper, in a library, with no notes, allowing yourself the same amount of time you will have in the exam itself). You could decide to do one or two timed essays per day during your revision period, and occasionally to do an entire practice paper to give to your supervisor.
Your supervisor will normally be happy to mark a practice exam paper and give you feedback on ways to improve your performance for the real thing.
Like doing practice papers, question-spotting is crucial preparation for taking an exam.
Look at the exam papers that have been set over, say, the last five years. It will soon become clear that there are certain topics that come up very frequently, some may come up every single year. Of course it might be that this year will be the first time in five years that a certain topic is left out of the exam, so past papers are not an infallible guide. But they are very good guides to what topics to expect questions on.
You should also look at the `Supplementary Regulations' and `Form of Examination' for your paper – these are available in the Faculty Office.
If you have to write four essays in the exam, it is probably a good idea to revise six topics on which questions come up very frequently or always. It is a very bad idea to go into the exam having prepared only for precisely the number of questions that you have to answer; if one or more of them fails to come up, you are in real trouble.
Memorising Essay Themes, Examples and Quotations
Like it or not, to do well in exams you have to use your memory. Some people are better at memorising things than others, but we are all capable of remembering a surprisingly large amount of information. This skill is one that is very useful to develop when taking exams.
There are three sorts of thing that you can usefully commit to memory before sitting your exam paper: main themes for each topic, examples, and quotations.
Once you have picked the, say, six topics that you are going to revise for the exam, and you have done the appropriate amount of 'vision' and revision, a final step you could take is to produce a list of major themes that could be the main points you wanted to make in an exam essay. Such a list of themes for an essay on Darwinism and religion (see sample introduction in the "Beginnings" section of the Faculty of Divinity Essay Writing package) might look like this:
- Natural theology
- Imago Dei
- Man's place in nature
- New religion?
One trick you could try to help remember your major points is to take the first letter of each point (in this case B, N, I, M, N) and then make a memorable sentence using words starting with the same letters. E.g. 'Big nose is my nose', or whatever! Then when you get into the exam, if there is a question similar to the one you prepared for on Darwin you will immediately think, 'Big nose is my nose', and can then, hopefully, remember your list of main themes. If you do try to do something like this, it is important that you think of it more as a checklist of important themes and points rather than as an essay 'plan' (see further under the heading 'Answer the Question').
You might also try to remember a particularly good example or two for each of your major points on a topic. Examples can be people, books, dates, events, etc. Referring to names of individuals, the names of their books, the year in which a book was published, the year a significant event took place - all of these things are impressive if not essential. They are the sort of thing that can differentiate an essay with very good content from an essay with adequate content.
Finally, for the real memory wizards, you might try to memorise a few particularly good quotations for each topic. Good quotations, as noted above, might be particularly well-expressed ideas, or memorable or famous phrases from important primary or secondary texts that you have read for the paper.
You may find it useful to condense each essay topic you are revising on to a single 'crib sheet' : a single page of notes that lists the key points, themes, dates, arguments, examples, or quotations that you need to commit to memory.