Exam success 101

Career & Education

Exam success 101


Sunday, May 14, 2017

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It's exam season again!!! Whether you are planning to continue studies locally or overseas, exam success is absolutely critical. Contrary to popular belief, US universities do consider performance on internal exams, CSEC/CAPE /IB, as well as SAT/ACT when evaluating the academic profile. European and Canadian universities look at performance on external exams and don't require the SAT, while college students hoping to get into graduate school at some point must pay close attention to exam performance to boost or preserve that ever important GPA.

That said, so many students struggle with passing exams. Here are some tips that can help:

Overcoming Test Anxiety

Anxiety sometimes results from a lack of confidence in one's preparation and can therefore be reduced by increased organisation, smart prep, and deliberate obstacle removal. But first, some tips on test anxiety from the Educational Testing Service in the US. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. This particular tips speaks to my heart. Some of us are defeated in our minds before we even start, so write down your negative thoughts then write positive counter-arguments to those. For example, write: “I always do poorly on tests”. Then counter it with: “I have the best study plan I've ever had before.” Then try: “I don't know all the topics well”. Counter it with: “I don't need to know everything about every single topic and if I start now, I can get better at the topics I am currently weakest in! Also, practice tension releasing activities. Take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. Close your eyes, imagine a peaceful scene. This will bring your heart rate down. When you feel your body tensing up, focus on a particular area of your body (for example, your shoulder), contract them for 10 seconds then let them go. Focus on the difference between the tense and relaxed states and repeat.

Organisation: Clarity, Micro Goals and Scheduling

Anxiety often results from being overwhelmed and that comes when the tasks seems so HUGE that it feels impossible. So we worry instead of actually doing anything. But worrying makes everything worse; an anxious mind will think 2+2 = 5 and will spend precious minutes agonising over why! Organisation starts with clarity around your goals. Make a list of your big goal for each subject/course/area, then micro-goal your macro-goal. Let's say your goal is earn a 1 in CAPE Caribbean Studies. Figure out every single micro-goal under that macro goal that is necessary to make it happen. What are all the things you need to do to make it happen? First of all you must put in your mind that it is possible because other students have done it. Once that is established, go talk to a few people who got 1 in the subject and get specific tips from them, then put a plan in motion as to how you can do those same things. Assign timelines/deadlines to each micro-goal. When an entire objective is laid out step by step in black and white with realistic deadlines, organisation around them is possible!

What's in your way?

Achieving goals means thinking about your perceived obstacles and how to overcome them. Start with you! Be ready to drop ALL excuses and understand that it IS all possible. Everyone in the world gets the same 24 hours in a day, so perhaps you need to go on a social media hiatus or schedule the specific times of the day that you allow yourself phone/computer time. Plan your breaks — 45 minutes of studying, then a 15-minute break, etc. It could be too, that you need a change of scenery since every time you study in your bed you fall asleep. Perhaps you need to replace the rice and peas and chicken lunch with some high-energy food if it is that everything was going well until after lunchtime when all you wanted to do was sleep. Your brain is only as good as what you feed it. Involve your parents or siblings so they know how they can support your success. Make a plan to overcome your obstacles.


Know the test. How many questions are on it? What is the format of the questions? How will the test be scored (for example, are all questions weighted the same, or do some questions value more than others?). Get your hands on past papers and practise taking the test under proctored test-like conditions to increase familiarity and comfort.

Prepare strategically, for example, how do you remember material best? Many students have to write it down, and re-write it, to commit it to memory. Others remember best by talking out loud, engaging others in a discussion on the topic perhaps. It is absolutely key for students to prepare in the way that suits them best.


When it's not test time and you are relaxed, make a plan to improve key areas, for example, students lose marks for failure to express an idea clearly or elaborate sufficiently. It's not that they don't know and understand, it is that they need to improve their writing ability. Engage a tutor or online course this summer to work on that!

Nicole McLaren Campbell, MSc, is the founder and CEO of Aim Educational Services, an independent college admissions counsellor, and public speaker. Contact her at nicole@aimeduservices.com..

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