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Exam Hacks: How to Set Yourself up for a Good Grade at the Start of the Semester - 5 min read

“I’ve uploaded the old exams sets, and I strongly advise you not to look at them unless you want a heart attack!”

That’s one of the first things my algorithms professors told our class at the start of this semester. I laughed, as did the rest of my class. While he was trying to make a joke about the difficulty level of the course, it actually got me thinking: “Why doesn’t he encourage us to look at the old exams?” That’s always been the very first thing I’ve done in every course I’ve had.

The thing about exams is they only measure a certain percentage of your entire course learning. Sure, exams are designed to show how well you’ve acquired knowledge throughout your course. And while they do a decent job at it, exams are far from perfect. Have you ever gone to your exam and got that one question you’d never seen before? You had no idea how to answer it because you didn’t even understand it.  

That’s why some people compare exams to tossing a coin. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and all the questions are about things you know, while other times, you’ll get questions you have no idea how to answer. And, the problem is: there’s no way to know what’s going to happen beforehand!

It could be argued that students who say things like this haven’t prepared as efficiently as they could have. That’s not to say they aren’t smart or haven’t spent enough time preparing for the exam. They just haven’t focused a lot on the things they’re going to get measured on.

Let’s take a look at this example: if someone asked you to read a text and then, upon reading it, asked you to name all the adjectives in the text, it would be a nearly impossible task. Why? You weren’t prepared beforehand. Imagine how easy it would have been to find all the adjectives if you had gotten the question before reading the text?

Obviously, most courses require a bit more than finding adjectives, but the same principle applies: if you know what you’re supposed to master, it’s much easier to score high!

So, you need to spend time understanding the exam before your course begins, or, at least, when your course starts. The sooner you know what you need to master, the better you can start applying it during the semester. There are a million different types of exams, and going through them all would be more than just a quick read. Instead, I’ll share with you some tips on how you should proceed, depending on whether it’s a written or oral exam.

Written exam hacks

If your exam is written, this usually means it’s fairly easy to know what’s going to be on it, especially since a lot of the questions were most likely on last year’s exams.

Before your first lecture, look through your old exams. You may be asking: What if they’re not available? Ask your lecturer. But what if my lecture doesn’t want to give me access to them? Ask a student who’s had that course before. Most lecturers upload old exam sets at some point during the course, and most former students would be happy to share them with you if you can’t access them yourself.

After you’ve reviewed the exam sets, you should try to sit down and think about how to solve them. If they mainly consists of multiple choice questions or short Q&As, you should try to answer them and see if you can understand any of the solutions. Most likely, you won’t understand anything. However, the important part here is that you start preparing your mind for what you don’t know…yet!

After each and every lecture, it’s important to think about what you’ve learned and what parts of the old exam sets relate to the current lecture. Consider creating flashcards, or adding answers from your notes to the exam section. This way, you can save time by reviewing material much more quickly. You may actually find that you are able to solve part of the exam fairly easily, and over time (hopefully) you’ll be able to solve all of it.

Oral exam hacks

For an oral exam, you cannot rely as much on old exam sets, especially since they’re less  predictable—you’ll have no idea what you’re going to talk about. This doesn’t mean you can’t streamline your efforts to focus mainly on the material most relevant for your exam.

Even though it may not be as intuitive as for the written exams, looking at old exams still makes sense. Oral examinations differ a lot from other forms of exams, but sometimes you’ll still be able to get a general overview of how the exam will go, and what areas are important. To do this, look through old exam questions and talk to other students who’ve taken the course before.

One thing that applies for all of them is to show up for every lecture. Since it’s usually the professor who is going to examine you, it’s a good idea to listen to how he or she talks about the topic. Usually, the professor will come with a few exam tips, or give you practical information you may not have discovered yourself.  

Oral exams are usually less in-depth in regards to course material. During oral exams, your time is fairly limited. This means you don’t have time to elaborate on every detail about the course. Instead, your knowledge needs to be more “surface” and more reflective. It’s more about considering the course as a whole and how the different concepts fit together.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if your course contains theoretical models, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be on your exam. So, make sure you not only learn about theories during your semester, but understand how to apply them. Ask yourself: Can I connect this specific theory to a concrete example? If so, you’ll have an easier time demonstrating your mastery of applying said theory or model to real-world situations.

A good idea for courses ending in oral exams is to watch YouTube videos of experts explaining the topic. This way, you’ll most likely get a fresh perspective of how it fits into a broader context, and you’ll also learn how to use and pronounce technical terms.

Watch out for tunnel vision!

No matter whether your exam is oral or written, it’s important not to get tunnel vision. There’s a reason why your professor has designed the course the way he or she did—they want you to learn as much as possible. The thing is, the way they measure your performance is not a perfect process. That’s why streamlining your efforts is important—save time while performing well at your exams.  

Of course, if you have an endless amount of time, energy and focus, then I would advise you to show up for all your lectures, do all your reading, and complete all your exercises until you understand every single concept. However, most of us don’t have that luxury, so we have to make due with what we have.

Final thoughts

A lot of people tend to go through the semester surviving week-to-week, not thinking much about how they are going to get graded at the end of it. So, hopefully this article can get you thinking on whether you’re actually prioritizing your time correctly. And, if you need more help in this area, here’s how Lix can help you stay organized and save time while studying for your exams.

Do you have any tips on how to start the semester? Share them in the comments below!

Markus studies at Copenhagen Business School, and as a student forced to process endless amounts of textbook babble, he has had to adapt or die. He very quickly realized that there are smart ways to study and not-so-smart ways, and as a self-proclaimed “study hacker”, he is eager to share with you what works, and more importantly, what definitely doesn’t work.

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