Preparing for exams: 5 most effective tips from A students

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances
Exam season can be stressful and take a toll on many students. Source: AFP

We have all experienced it. That jittery feeling you get when you step into the exam room and suddenly doubt whether you’ve studied the right topics.

Your mind races. Each page of the exam paper looks like gibberish. Your mind struggles to find the right answers.

The stress of being unprepared is like a dark cloud hanging over your head.

You can feel the weight of missed study sessions and overlooked concepts on your shoulders.

The fear of disappointing yourself and your parents becomes a heavy burden.

It’s not just the fear of a low grade; it’s the worry about what it might mean for your future and the goals you’ve set. 

To avoid that feeling and the stress, here are five tips on preparing for exams to follow: 

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances

Giving yourself enough time to study will ensure you are prepared for your exams. Source: AFP

5 tips on preparing for exams

1. Give yourself enough time to study

It’s the golden rule you’ve heard your parents tell you for years: don’t leave everything until the last minute.

Although there are some who claim to flourish under the stress of last-minute cramming, most find that it’s not the most effective way to tackle exams.

To ensure a smoother journey to success, create a timetable for your study sessions. Jot down the number of exams you’re facing and the days they’re scheduled.

With this clear picture, you will be able to organise your study sessions.

It would be wise to allocate more time to subjects that require extra attention.

Create a study schedule that aligns with your approach to learning, ensuring that nothing is left for the eleventh hour. 

2. Organise your study space

Make sure you have ample room to spread out your textbooks and notes and consider the lighting in the room. A well-lit space is essential for maintaining focus and reducing eye strain.

The comfort of your chair also contributes significantly to your ability to focus.

Most importantly, remove potential distractions, like computer games or social media.

Then, tailor your study environment to your personal preferences; whether you thrive in silence or prefer music playing, make the necessary adjustments to suit your needs.

Some do well in a tidy, organised setting, while others work best in a bit of clutter. Take the time to understand what works best for you, and set up your study space.

3. Practise on old exams

Working on old exams is one of the most effective ways to prepare for your upcoming tests.

By working on past versions, you not only become familiar with the question format but also gain a practical sense of how to manage your time.

This approach lets you allocate the right amount of time to each section. The more practice sessions you do, the more confident and well-prepared you’ll feel when facing the real test.

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances

Getting enough sleep is essential to ensure you are well-rested and prepared for your exams. Source: AFP

4. Take many breaks

Give your brain the breath it needs by taking regular breaks while studying.

More isn’t better when you’re preparing for exams. Instead, research suggests extended hours of studying are counterproductive. 

Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without breaks, the same principle applies to studying. 

Studies also suggest that taking regular breaks significantly contributes to long-term knowledge retention.

If you find yourself more alert in the morning, kickstart your day with an early study session, pausing for a break around lunchtime.

If you’re a night owl, consider taking a longer break earlier in the day to ensure you’re focused in the evening.

You can also try the Pomodoro technique. Study for 30 minutes and then rest for five minutes before going back to studying for 30 minutes.

Like any muscle, your brain needs moments of rest to perform at its best, so include breaks into your study plan and you will end up being more productive.

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances

Eating the right food will give you the nutrients and energy you need to handle the stress of exams. Source: AFP

5. Snack on brain food

It’s tempting to reach for a quick treat or convenient snack, especially when short on time, but what you eat plays a big role in sustaining energy levels and focus.

Avoid junk food and opt for brain-friendly options that enhance concentration and memory.

Foods like fish, nuts, seeds, yoghurt, and blueberries are not just tasty but have been proven to give your brain the boost it needs. 

On the day of the exam, get a well-balanced meal, focusing on foods that provide a slow and steady release of energy.

While sugary snacks may offer a quick energy spike, they often lead to a crash, leaving you fatigued and unfocused.

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances

To relax before a final exam in college, try listening to some calming music or reading a book. Source: AFP

How to handle exam days

On the day of the exam, focus on staying calm. You have prepared and tried your best so there’s no need to be too anxious. A little anxiety is fine but there’s no need to worry excessively.

Get to the exam venue early and double-check all rules and requirements. 

Research indicates that students who plan their route and journey time experience lower stress levels on exam days.

Consider doing a test run of the trip, if possible, or write down clear directions.

preparing for exams, extenuating circumstances

Extenuating circumstances could lead to you missing an exam. Source: ETX

What if you have to miss an exam?

If you find yourself in a situation where you have to miss an exam, a few options are available. It’s essential to notify your university as soon as possible, explaining your absence and circumstances.

Many universities have established procedures for handling such situations, often referred to as extenuating circumstances. 

What are extenuating circumstances? 

Extenuating circumstances refer to exceptional, unforeseen and uncontrollable situations that significantly impact your ability to take an exam or to submit an assignment on time.

Extenuating circumstances can include a range of situations. These include:

  • death of a family member
  • physical and mental health issues
  • accidents
  • serious medical problems 

These situations are often outside your control, making planning for or preventing them difficult — hence why universities are often understanding and have processes to exempt you from an exam or a deadline.

Minor disruptions like computer errors or oversleeping are not considered extenuating circumstances. 

How do you apply for extenuating circumstances? 

If you find yourself facing extenuating circumstances as a student, act quickly and follow the procedures set by your university.

Whether it’s early on or at the last minute, there are steps you can take to navigate the challenges.

You could start by reaching out to your academic advisor or student support services.

Many universities in the US and UK have established policies to assist students facing unexpected hardships. 

For example, University College London has a set of extenuating circumstances policies to ensure that you are not unfairly disadvantaged by unexpected and disruptive circumstances beyond your control.

Many universities allow for course withdrawals or extensions based on documented extenuating circumstances. Ensure you communicate your situation clearly, providing any necessary documentation.


Examples of extenuating circumstances

Here are examples of scenarios of extenuating circumstances that could result in you missing your exam.

Scenario 1:

Imagine you wake up one morning with a high fever and a pounding headache. Your body aches all over, and you realise you’ve caught the flu.

Although you’ve prepared for months and you’re determined to attend the exam, it’s just physically impossible for you to do.

You could communicate this with your professors, explaining the extenuating circumstances that prevent you from attending the exams on the scheduled date.

Scenario 2:

Picture this: you’re on your way to the exam venue when your car unexpectedly stops. It won’t restart. Despite your best efforts, it’s now too late for you to make it to the test. Not only are you stranded on the roadside, but you’re also desperately trying to find a solution but with no luck.

In this situation, you could request to take the exam later or miss it altogether.

Scenario 3:

While preparing for your exams, you get a call about a sudden death of a family member. It’s a difficult time for them and you feel you must be there for them. 

In this challenging scenario, the need to be present for your family forces you to miss the exam. In this time, you could contact your professor and explain the situation. 

If you find yourself in the situation of having to email your professor to explain your extenuating circumstance and request to take your exam at a later date, here are examples of sentences you could use:

  • “I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to inform you that my grandfather has unexpectedly passed away and I need to attend his funeral. Unfortunately, this means I will not be able to attend the scheduled exam on Tuesday, December 10, 2023.”
  • “It is with regret that due to my high fever and the possibility of it being contagious to other test-takers, I will not be able to attend the exam today. I would like to request to take the exam on a later date when I am healthy again.”
  • “I am so sorry for any inconvenience this may cause, but my car has broken down and I have no other transport option to get to the exam hall in time. I would like to request your consideration in allowing me to take the exam at a later date.”