study for exams
Record yourself giving a lecture on the topic you're trying to remember. Source: AFP

Let’s talk about the necessary evil in our academic lives — exams. 

Exams have been around forever, dating back to the time of ancient Chinese imperial examinations

Fast forward to now, and we still have to study for exams. And we get it — exams suck. 

Don’t worry, though. We’ve been through these before and survived.

We’ve got you covered with some effective yet easy ways to study for exams, all of which are tried and tested by the writers of Study International. 

But before we get into it, let’s take a look at the backstory of how exams came to exist. 

A history of competitive exams

The history of competitive exams began in China.

It was the first country to come up with the concept of examinations during the Sui Dynasty in 605 AD, holding the title of organising the first exam in the world. 

Back then, the Chinese government required all civil servants who wished to be employed to sit for the exam, or the imperial examination, as the Chinese called it. 

While China did invent the idea of examination, various sources have stated that the person who introduced the idea of exams into education is American-German professor Henry Fischel. 

However, there seems to be no proper evidence or historical background detailing that Henry did, in fact, come up with the idea. 

Instead, evidence shows that countries all over the world have slowly incorporated the concept of examination into their education system. 

In medieval Europe, for example, universities slowly began holding oral exams for students to test their knowledge of religious texts and philosophy. 

They simply needed to figure out who had the brains.

A few centuries later, the world would discover many have the smarts, leading to exams getting tougher and tougher.

study for exams

It is normal to feel some stress about upcoming tests, exams, papers or presentations. Source: AFP

The easiest and toughest exams in the world

Exams have gone through so many changes over the millennia, becoming a necessity in the education system, especially now that there are more students, everyone is brighter and competition is tougher. 

In fact, China requires students in their third and final year of high school to sit for the Gaokao (pronounced gow know) exam — one of the hardest exams in the world — to enter an undergraduate programme at its prestigious first-tier and second-tier universities.

Also known as the National College Entrance Examination, it lasts nine hours over a stressful period of two to three days.

Less than 0.25% of test takers achieve the qualifying score for admission to some of China’s most elite colleges, according to Erudera

That’s because the questions in the Gaokao exam are designed to be challenging — they go beyond simple memorisation and require a deep understanding of the subject matter. 

What about the easiest exam in the world, you wonder? 

We’re sorry to break it to you, but no one exam is particularly easy, as that just beats the purpose of having it in the first place. 

Recently, however, a bunch of 15 and 16-year-old GCSE students claimed that their Physical Education (PE) exam paper left them feeling “like world-class footballers,” according to MyLondon

One teacher even took to Twitter to share her thoughts on the paper, saying: “The Edexcel GCSE PE paper 1 was by far the easiest paper I have seen in all my years teaching and examining! #PE #gcse #gcsepe #edutwitter.”

How hard or easy an exam is, ultimately, boils down to how prepared you are for it. And some ways are more effective than others.

Study for exams: The secret to doing well

Before getting into our top tips to study for exams, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the practices you’ve been incorporating into your study routine. 

One of them is putting in more hours of study. Trust us, this alone won’t get you far.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality, not the quantity. 

Your brain needs breaks to process info, and having marathon study sessions, fueled by sugar and caffeine, will not help you retain your study materials.

In fact, it will end up backfiring instead. 

Think about it. Have you ever gone through a six-hour study session only to learn that you could not remember a single thing you studied? 

That’s just crushing.

The quantity of time and material you work through is less important than the quality of your study habits. 

By focusing on quality, you will naturally learn the content.

study for exams

Active recall is a key study method that allows you to repeatedly test your brain to answer questions or learn the topic. Source: AFP

Smart exam hacks: 10 fast, effective ways to study for exams

Now, let’s get down to business with 10 exam hacks that have been tried and tested by the team at Study International, which includes several law graduates who passed some of the world’s notoriously difficult exams (in one try!).

1. Active recall

Many of us struggle to remember our study materials, despite having just read them. 

An effective way to combat this problem is by using the active recall method. 

Scientifically proven, active recall is a study method where you actively engage with the material you are trying to learn rather than passively reviewing it.

One popular method for active recall is using flashcards. 

Write a question on one side of the card and the answer on the other. 

As you go through your study session, quiz yourself by looking at the question side and trying to recall the answer before checking.

It’s essentially like your brain’s workout routine! 

Other forms of active recalling you can try out include self-quizzing, concept mapping, active reading and teaching your peers what you’ve just studied.

2. Mind mapping

Struggling to connect the dots? Then try connecting them visually.

Mind mapping has been a popular, science-backed method to study for exams, and for good reasons: 

  • It helps you remember and recall information
  • It helps you learn new concepts
  • It makes it easier to understand and process complex and heavy information
  • It’s a fun way of learning
  • It boosts productivity
  • It boosts creativity 

So, go ahead and doodle your way to success!

3. Rewriting everything 

Rewriting your notes is a tried and tested method by this writer — it’s scientifically proven to help too!

All you essentially need to do is rewrite your notes, giving your mind another chance to consume information and process it, rather than just glancing through the material.

Make sure, however, that you’re not writing too fast, as this will cause you to simply copy and paste your notes without actually grasping any information. 

The key is to read through your notes and see if you can summarise the information into bite-sized statements or sentences. This way, you’re also actively engaging your brain in remembering your study materials. 

4. Practice past papers

Working on past papers helps you not only know what to expect in your exams but also sharpens your skills and recall what you’ve been learning in class. 

The best part is it familiarises you with what the upcoming exam, especially its structure, will be like. Even if the questions are different, you’ll not be thrown off guard in the exam hall because you’ve experienced this before.

As you work on an exam paper, make sure to also time yourself, as this will help you gauge how long you will need to complete the exam. 

study for exams

Did you know chicken essence is an effective solution to mental and physical fatigue? Source: ETX

5. Load yourself up on chicken essence

Can’t recall your study materials at all? Consuming chicken essence might just do the trick. 

A household staple for many families, especially those in Southeast Asia, chicken essence is a liquid nutritional supplement made using selected extracts from high-quality chicken.

It’s been proven to help improve short-term memory for those who are under a lot of stress, as reported by the National Library of Medicine

While chicken essence is typically consumed by students during exam periods, it works just the same if you drink it during a study session, as it helps to improve your focus and concentration. 

Chicken essence can be easily found in pharmacies and supermarkets. In case you need alternatives, there are other brain-boosting foods you can eat, too, like walnuts, dark chocolate, avocados, fish, dates and kale. 

They’re really good stuff for the brain. 

6. Record yourself 

If you’re often easily distracted, try listening to replays of your lectures, Then, try to record yourself giving the lecture as if you’re the lecturer. 

By forcing yourself to do this, you’re taking charge of your learning. When you give lecturers instead of consuming them, you’ll remember much more.

study for exams

Study groups are particularly effective for completing projects, developing presentations and preparing for exams. Source: ETX

7. Form study groups 

Don’t underestimate the benefits of studying in groups — it can do wonders and, overall, boost your progress. 

That’s because you’ll be busy explaining concepts to others, as well as engaging in discussions that can deepen your understanding and provide different perspectives on the material. 

Take this opportunity to quiz each other too.

But of course, you should form a study group with like-minded peers. Doing otherwise will just result in an unproductive and futile study group session. 

study for exams

Remember that Helen Hunt loves Betty Boop. Source: AFP

8. Use mnemonics 

Another tried and tested method of studying for exams, mnemonic devices or acronyms work great in helping you remember lists or sequences. 

Turning information into a memorable phrase, acronym, or even your favourite song can make it easier to recall them during the exam. 

For example, if you want to memorise the first five elements on the chemistry periodic table: hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, try remembering the first alphabet of each — HHLBB.

HHLBB can also be remembered as Helen Hunt Loves Betty Boop.

study for exams

Drinking sufficient water can help reduce the negative psychological and physiological impacts of stress. Source: AFP

9. Stay hydrated and sleep well 

There’s a good reason why your Apple Watch keeps reminding you to drink water. 

Most of us don’t drink enough water — and this refers to just plain water, with no added sugar, colouring or additives.

When we’re not hydrated properly, we can feel fatigue and dizziness. Our mood shifts, out thinking is muddled, we can’t pay attention and our memory is poor.

Lack of sleep can also result in a decrease in concentration as you sit for your exam. 

If you want to ace your exams, manage your time well to ensure that you can get enough sleep, as it is essential for memory consolidation and cognitive function. 

In fact, Professor David Cresswell, a professor in psychology and neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a study that revealed that poor sleep can result in bad grades

“These college students are going to class with a ton of sleep debt, and they’re having trouble staying focused and learning in college classrooms. 

“Those things can really harm your ability to really engage with the material,” he said. 


10. Practice mindful review

This is an obvious exam hack, but we can’t stress it enough. 

Many of us still overlook this method because we view mistakes as failures, hence, chucking them aside. Out of sight, out of mind, right? 

Reviewing past mistakes with mindfulness helps you understand why you made them and how to avoid similar errors in the future.

Every time you receive your scores and marked sheets from your lecturers, make sure to review each mistake carefully. 

Learning from your mistakes will really help boost those grades!