11 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Exam Preparation and Revision

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some students study extremely hard, but don’t seem to be getting the results they desire. Through careful observation and personal trial-and-error, I’ve reached some justifiable conclusions which I would like to share.

1. Starting too late

The first and gravest mistake you can make is to be under the false impression that you still have lots of time. There is never enough time before exams because no matter how prepared you are, you will still make mistakes. Besides, we have to juggle so many subjects and familiarity with each takes TIME. Short-term memory (which is what happens when you start only a few days or a few hours before the paper) is never as effective or as trustworthy as long-term memory.

The first thing to note is that preparation for exams doesn’t only occur in the few weeks leading up to the exam (though that is obviously the most intense period of revision). Studying and revising is a constant process taking place over the months and years you’re in school. If you’re consistent in studying and reviewing lesson materials on a daily and weekly basis, by the time exams roll around, you would already have won half the battle. This relieves the immense burden and stress of having to stuff everything into your brain within a short window of opportunity.

2. Not having a plan

In several of my posts about productivity and studying strategies, I extol the benefits of planning ahead. This is because you don’t want to end up running out of time and cramming the night before your paper. Before exams, I always draw up a revision timetable, usually a digital one so it’s easier to modify as I go along. Ridiculously, I spend about half an hour or more on this colossal undertaking, even adjusting the fonts to make it look more palatable. While this seems like an unreasonably long time to dedicate to filling little coloured boxes with intended actions (without actually accomplishing any of them), it saves me so much more time later, since I don’t have to worry about “should I do this” or “should I do that” because I know that as long as I stick to my plan, I’ll be all set by the big day.

3. Spending too long reading

Some students have a habit of re-reading the entire textbook or lecture book when revising. I am not suggesting that this is useless as I know it helps to refresh your memory and that some people have photographic memory so they can simply imprint the entire book on their minds. BUT if you allocate too much time to this, it can encroach on the time you have to do practice papers (which I’ve repeatedly mentioned is the golden ticket to success in exams).

4. Spending too long writing notes

Yes, I’ve fallen victim to this before. As the perfectionist that I am, I try to make my notes all neat and colour-coded and formatted in the same way as much as possible. Over time, though, I came to realise that writing notes is far from the best revision strategy, given that many of my friends were securing their As without those long hours of meticulous copying. If you spend too much time on this, you risk leaving insufficient time to practise answering questions.

5. Not doing practice papers

Some students feel like they have to finish revising ALL the topics before they can start doing practice papers. That is untrue and will probably cost you dearly. The fact of the matter is that you don’t have enough timeSome information will have to be learned and memorised as you practise. In fact, the memorisation will be much more efficacious since you’re forced to do active recall.

Practise, practise and PRACTISE. This is the best tip I can give to anyone trying to get better at almost anything. Why does it work? Because it’s the closest you’ll ever get to the actual exam, and the more times you put yourself through it, the more acquainted you’ll be with the format, requirements and answering techniques. Still not convinced? Read my previous post to find out why doing practice papers is absolutely the best revision strategy that you need to adopt now!

6. Not targeting your weaknesses

Some students simply go through all their topical practices and assessment books methodically, one by one, according to sequence (and then maybe run out of time for the last few). This tends to be ineffective. The reason is not because they’re not putting in the time and effort, but because they’re not being smart about it.

Studying smart means reflecting on your progress and analysing where you went wrong. It calls for a more targeted approach within the limited time you have, which means identifying the topics that you’re less confident in and bolstering them with repeated practice. Always start from those shaky bits first, then once you’ve fortified them, you can move on to the less depressing topics if you still have time.

7. Not reviewing your mistakes

If you do practice questions without reviewing them, you’ll only complete half the race. Looking back at your mistakes and re-doing challenging questions helps you to remember the correct answers instead of the wrong ones!

8. Passively reading instead of actively testing yourself

This is somewhat related to point 3, but I would like to add this point because you may have this question at the back of your mind: If I don’t devote more time to revising the material, then how can I memorise all that information and keep the knowledge intact? How can I start doing practice papers without a clue about what’s going on?

Besides just drowning yourself in practice papers, another facilitative tool is to test yourself. Some people use flashcards, but I’m too lazy to make them, so I simply take out some rough paper and scribble down everything I can remember, then check my notes to see which points I missed.

9. Leaving everything to the last minute

This is linked to point 2, but not exactly the same. For some students, it seems, even after coming up with a brilliant plan, they can’t seem to keep to it, so they lose motivation. I think procrastination is one of the greatest villains in this game. To tackle its hateful influence, you need to become good friends with its most powerful adversary: discipline. Sounds easier than it actually is, right? Well, I always believe that nothing great comes easy, and my China Studies teacher used to shower us with Chinese proverbs along the lines of “you reap what you sow” and “sweetness comes after bitterness” (not the exact words, which are way more sophisticated).

Please set reasonable targets and deadlines for yourself and resist the temptation to veer off from this path. Personally, I motivate myself by thinking “pain is temporary, victory is forever” and keeping my goals emblazoned across my heart. Not sure if it helps for you, but I’m sure you want to avoid a nervous breakdown the night before your paper, so just keep your studying routine consistent.

10. Not having an exam time plan

My primary school English teacher used to require that we submit our work with “exam handwriting”, which I found such a joke because my exam handwriting was always the most atrocious. This is because I’m rushing furiously, and I NEED TO GET THE ANSWERS ONTO THE PAGE BEFORE THE TIME IS UP.

I would say that JC exams (and even A Levels) are a whole new level (obviously) because there’s simply too much to do within an exiguous span of time. A wonderfully life-saving tactic I developed is to have a time plan for every paper. This is not about revision time management, but rather about exam time management. This means estimating how much time you can afford to spend on each section / question, a strategy which is also covered in my book, in case you’re curious.

11. Not getting enough sleep

We’re back to this point; there’s simply no avoiding it. I have no idea why students find it acceptable, or even necessary, to pull all-nighters before their exams. It hurts your brain and memory. Sleeping early, on the other hand, equips you with the sharpest possible focus, enabling you to perform to your fullest potential.

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