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Preparing for Exams

Exams at university are a totally different experience from exams at school. For a start, at school your teachers probably trained you for the exam situation with mock exams, revision sheets, homework exercises and so on. At university that doesn’t happen. You have to take responsibility for your own learning and preparation.

Secondly, exams at university generally aim to test how well you understand your subject area. Lecturers are often more interested in whether you can apply the knowledge you have gained rather than in how many facts you have learned. So you need to be able to think analytically rather than simply regurgitate facts.

Developing a positive attitude

Like sport, exams require knowledge, skills, practice and a positive attitude. Having the right attitude towards your study is very important. Your goal is to perform at your peak on exam day.

Being well prepared boosts confidence. Preparing well means starting early in the semester, having clear goals and organising your time. All this will help you to develop a positive attitude and to perform at your best.

Part of having the right attitude also means coming to terms with the fear of not doing so well. Negative self-talk, such as, ‘My life will be ruined if I fail’ will not help you. Instead, try to imagine that you are in the exam situation and feeling confident and terrific. Success!

If you want more information about developing a positive attitude, and strategies for relaxing and controlling anxiety, have a look at the resource called .

On this page, we give you some tips about how to approach exams in the university context.

When to prepare

University exams are supposed to test how well you UNDERSTAND your subject, not necessarily how much you know. That’s why cramming in the last week before the exam may help you to pass, but if you want to do well, you should be preparing for the exam from Day One of the semester. If you are reading, thinking and understanding as as you go along through the semester, your need to revise (and to rote learn) will be minimal, your stress level will be minimal, and your pleasure in studying will be maximised. So, the earlier you start the better.

How to prepare

From day one …

Be organised right from the beginning. Get into the habit of reviewing your lecture notes, taking notes from your reading, discussing the topics with fellow-students, making a note of questions you need to ask in tutorials, reorganising your notes and so on. In short, be an active student.

Later …

Find out what the exam entails. You need to know:

  • what topics will be covered
  • what types of questions to expect
  • how many questions you have to answer
  • how the marks will be distributed
  • how long the exam will be
  • what equipment to take.

Sometimes it is possible to predict questions from the subject guide or from the lecturer’s particular emphasis. NB Lecturers often give tips on the exam in the later lectures of the course—so make sure you don’t miss any classes.

Make a plan

Schedule times for revising your various topics:

  1. How many topics do you need to cover?
  2. Will some of them take more time to revise?
  3. How many days have you got for revision?
  4. So how many topics will you need to cover each day?

Make sure you allow time to come back to each topic before the exam. (Revise your revision!)

Be active!

Your learning needs to be highly interactive. Revision does not mean just reading through your notes (or worse ‘looking’ through your notes). It means using your highlighter (not in library books!), making notes of your notes, drawing diagrams, testing yourself. You can try writing summaries of the main points; covering up the diagrams and charts and trying to reproduce them; making your own visual cues and concept maps (sometimes it’s easier to remember the way something looks). In the stressful situation of the exam it will help you to have as many memory cues as possible. So reconstructing your notes into lists, charts and diagrams will really help.

Being active also means practising questions from former papers—not just looking at them, but actually planning your answers and even writing them out. You can make up your own questions too, and practise on those.

Be analytical!

University exams are usually designed to test more than how much you know. Your lecturer wants to know how well you can apply your knowledge—how well you can think. So, above all, revising means thinking analytically. That means thinking around and about your topic and asking yourself questions like:

  • How does this topic relate to others in this subject?
  • What are the similarities and differences between this topic (or theory, or point of view, or …) and others?
  • What examples can I think of to illustrate this?
  • What if … happened, how would that affect the topic?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of … ?
  • What are the problems involved, and how could they be solved?
  • Why does … happen? (What are the causes and effects?)
  • Where can … be applied, and where not?

The more you think analytically, the more you will understand your topic and the more easily you will be able to answer the questions.


Use questions from past exam papers, discussion questions from your textbook, or make up your own mock exam questions. Practise answering these questions in the same timeframe that you will have to stick to in the exam. Practising getting the timing right is really important. Actually practise WRITING in the limited time. It will give you a much better idea of what you can or cannot attempt in the time allowed.

You could show your practise answers to your tutor, or to a study skills adviser to get feedback on whether your answers are appropriate or not.


University of Canberra. 2006. Exams. Retrieved July 25th, 2009 from  http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/learning/exams

Deakin University. 2009. Exams. Retrieved July 25th, 2009 from  http://www.deakin.edu.au/current-students/study-support/study-skills/handouts/exams.php

Australian National University. 2009. Being streetwise for exams. Retrieved July 25th, 2009 from https://academicskills.anu.edu.au/resources/handouts/being-streetwise-exams

  1. សុវុឌ្ឍី
    27/07/2009 at 10:32 am

    thanks for all these tips. They are really useful for me as well as the other learners. 😀 Like now i am lack of capability in organizing my schedule for study. Hey gonna try to tips starting from now. 😀

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