Exam time is drawing closer, but from how long to spend revising to tactics to perform well on the crucial day, it can be tough for students to figure out the best strategy.
Joe Norman from London, author of a new book The Super Tutor, won an assisted place at Winchester College, and studied at Oxford University.
He’s had over ten years of experience tutoring students and specialises in training children for entrance and scholarships to top schools such as Eton, Winchester and Westminster.
From what you need to think about when revising, what rules you shouldn’t adhere to or ignore and how to ace essays, Norman shares his best advice with Femail.
With exam time nearing for many students most of us hear contradicting advice on how long you need to revise for and what you should do to perform well on the day (stock image)
Throw out the rule book
Revise your favourite bits of your favourite subjects first. It should make your brain more open to the stuff you didn’t love first time round, but which you’ll hopefully get around to.
No revision timetables, or at least don’t spend more than 10 minutes on one.
A greater authority than me has suggested spending seven hours a day revising over the holidays. But I reckon three hours of practising past papers is worth more.
Working 40 hours a week is not likely to hurt your chances. But if you don’t want to treat your academic career as a job – I didn’t – then follow Jerry Seinfeld’s advice and work every day for however long your curiosity holds out, whether it’s one hour or twelve. The key thing is to work intensely when you do work.
Write on paper
Joe Norman is author of new book The Super Tutor
Print loads of exam past papers, to be scribbled on and annotated and essay-planned on – especially do this in the exam itself.
Working on and from paper, rather than on/ from screens, is better in lots of ways. For one thing, it’s what you’ll be doing in the actual exam. And for another thing, without any screens in your working space, you won’t be so obviously haunted by the spectre of something more interesting possibly happening on the internet.
When practising writing essay-based exams, give yourself 50 per cent more time than you’ll actually get, and in your answers try to say everything worth saying about the exam question, in a clear structure and in flawless English.
You can also revise from these essays – and think about how you’d improve them.
Also, spend 15 minutes planning an essay without actually writing it.
Sometimes this is just six words, in the right order, to summarise the six paragraphs you would write in the exam (hint: put your two best paragraphs first and last then work out where the other four go).
Reread your best essays. It’ll cheer you up. But read them critically too. What are your strongest paragraphs? Why?
Get others to test you – it keeps you honest and lets people help, which they’ll want to.
Make up stupid mnemonics to remember the things you can’t make stick naturally.
Googling your subject plus exam board will probably turn up an Examiner’s Report, so you can see what they liked and didn’t about last year’s candidates.
You can see the kinds of things most candidates write about, and make sure you can deliver that material brilliantly. But you can also see what’s neglected, and what kind of things you could do to make yourself stand out.
However, the guidelines that exam boards publish to show students what they want from them in order to achieve certain grades – the Assessment Objectives – you can ignore. Obviously read them through once, but it’s like trying to describe a brilliant song, or the person you’ll fall in love with in 2029.
Norman recommends to parents that if you’re asked to read a piece of work try to make two positive comments for every negative one. (Stock picture)
Read The Question 10 times. Circle a couple of key words to focus your mind when you look back at the exam paper mid-flow. You might want to argue over the significance of those key words in your essay if their meaning is ambiguous or contentious – you’ll seem thoughtful, and you might get a whole paragraph out of it.
Answer The Question. Every paragraph you write, look up at the exam script. Does what you just wrote answer the question they’re asking you? If not, don’t cross it out. Get back on track with the next paragraph.
What makes a good answer?
Joe Norman shares with Femail his best advice
It boils down to three questions. Does this candidate understand the material? Have they clearly spent time thinking about it in interesting ways? And can they prove both these things in writing?
For Maths and Science and some other knowledge-based subjects, you can download model answers along with past papers. These are invaluable.
Spend half an hour attempting part of the exam, then up to an hour working through the tricky questions with the answers beside you.
The classic structure for an exam essay paragraph is PEA – Point Evidence Analysis, one sentence of each.
Facts come first, first of all because you can only write about stuff (quotes and story in English, events in History) that you actually remember. So get the Facts down first when you’re scribbling an essay plan in the margin of the exam paper.
The point and the analysis will flow naturally – if not always easily – from those Facts you’ve just plonked down on the page.
How to help if you’re a parent
Snacks and drinks
There are three levels of revision snack, to be deployed depending on severity of need – Fruit, nuts and biscuits. Have all three snack types to hand.
Never pure sugar, though – so sweets are out – because you’ll crash after twenty minutes.
Caffeinated/ non/ herbal drinks. No sugary/ fizzy drinks though Also, give them water. Your brain is mostly water and its performance goes off a cliff when you get dehydrated.
This period is not about you. It’s about someone in the process of building their intellect, who’s wrestling with a lot of difficult newish material.
Enjoy the fact that it’s not you sitting the exam. I never worry about how my students are going to do. It doesn’t help them. They don’t need my worry – or yours – piled up on theirs; and anyway, in the end it’s up to them.
Create a tranquil atmosphere
Ensure there’s a room – and ideally an entire home – that is free of visible screens. Maybe give up the kitchen or dining room table for a few weeks. Drape a cloth over the TV for the duration.
Tricky if your student prefers to study in their room, because making that sanctuary screen-free could feel punitive, which is not the look you’re going for.
Maybe revision season could coincide with a family digital detox, out of sympathy or solidarity with the condemned.
At the very least everyone can keep their phones out of sight in shared spaces. Because while computers are good for looking stuff up and printing it out, visible screens – and phones especially – are Kryptonite for the human attention span.
If you’re asked to read a piece of work (gently offer this help, and only once), try to make two (well thought through) positive comments for every negative one.
I probably ignore 30-40% of my students’ mistakes, if they’re not important ones, because I want them to focus on the more serious linguistic blunders.
If you’re giving general comments on a piece of writing, stick to the two most important ones and leave the rest.
If your student believes the number of bum notes in their writing isn’t too unmanageable, they’ll be more likely to fix the ones that really need fixing.
Joe Norman is author of The Super Tutor: The best education money can buy in seven short chapters, Short Books £12.99