The Ultimate Study Guide to Ace those Exams

Studying. The word alone can either make you excited or feel rather ill, and we’re pretty sure the majority is not falling into the first category. Endless hours of tedious reading and trying to remember all the millions of facts, sums, translations and so forth that form a part of your school and tertiary career. We abhor it, but we cannot do without it. What if there was one heck of a study ‘guide’ that could explain to you exactly how to not only learn, but to learn faster and smarter; and ultimately achieve those results. Look no further, here it is!

When it comes to studying there are key components that make up a successful study session and outcome thereof. Once you can master the following concepts there will be nothing stopping you from getting those ‘A’s and kicking butt in all your subjects.


 Chapter Overviews:


1.     Preparing to Study: We break down the vital steps that prepare you correctly to get the most out of your study sessions.

2.     How You Study: From time management and how to study correctly, how you study makes all the difference.

3.     Master your Memory: Let us teach you how to mind map, visualize and improve your memory.

4.     Dealing with Exam Stress: Dealing with anxiety and stress before, during and after your exams.

5.     Exams and How to Ace them: Putting into practice what you have learnt.


Chapter 1: Preparing to Study

 Being organized and preparing to study is absolutely vital when it comes to studying effectively and smartly. Your objective throughout your studying sessions is to work smarter, not harder, so we need to set you up with a rock solid foundation before we can get into things. This will allow you to procrastinate less and more importantly make every minute in your study session count. Ready to prepare for your exams correctly? Let’s dive in.


1.   Set Goals:

First thing to do is to set your study goals. These are important as it gives you a benchmark and will give your study sessions a sense of direction. Make goals for each and every subject that you need to study for and make sure to write them down and stick them up where you can see them on a daily basis.


2.   Know What You need to Do:

By knowing the specifics of what you want to achieve, it makes it a lot easier for you to understand how you are going to achieve each one. Make sure to outline the work related tasks that will get you to your goal for each subject you are writing an exam on. Pin point the exact chapters, formulas and important facts that you must know in order to succeed. (This is also an easy and effective way to refresh your memory on what is super important for the actual exams.)


3.   Start Early:

Don’t leave study preparation to the last minute. Countless research has shown that giving yourself enough time to study increases mind relaxation, and decreases stress. Time Management and a Study Timeline will allow you to prepare for each subject in-depth with enough time to revise in a relaxed state. Only you will understand what needs to be studied and how long it will take to go over the material in a particular subject. You need to factor in the difficulty of the material as well in order to give yourself extra time to cover everything thoroughly.


4.   Study Space:

It is super important to find a space where you can focus and not get distracted by all sorts of nonsense while trying to take in all that vital information. However, the same study area day in and day out can have you feeling stifled and confined and that does bode well for motivation or positivity levels.

Find at least three different spaces in which you can concentrate, relax and do what you need in order to feel ready for your exams. Switch up your learning area every few days and you will stay motivated, interested and ready to work.

We often force ourselves to sit and work while we are uncomfortable and battling to focus. Your progress and study methods will ultimately take a beating when you are not truly happy with where you are. We are not encouraging you to study in front of the TV, wonderful as that may be, but ensure that you not only prioritize your study time, but your study space as well. You will have to endure a lot of hours while preparing for your exams and you need to feel relaxed and free to read in silence and repeat out aloud what you have just learnt.


5.   Turn Up the Volume:

To add even more value to your study space, research has shown that listening to music while working enhances your concentration and helps you to relax. Whether you prefer classical music, nature sounds, or some of the more modern styles, prepare some music for when you have to study so that you have background noise while studying. Be careful not to blast your speakers and the house down, but let the music flow as you ease into your work with a few less worries on your mind.


6.   Munch down on Superfoods:

Resist the temptation to chow down on unhealthy, greasy foods during the exam period, however comforting they may be. Choose to snack on healthy alternatives that will improve your cognitive functioning and won’t do damage to your waistline. Eat nuts, oats, biltong, citrus fruits, avocados and fill up on fish and lean proteins for dinner, with green leafy vegetables on the side. Opting for a healthier diet is the smarter choice during the term and test periods as these foods will keep you full, feeling great and will not cause your sugar levels to fluctuate.

Another worthy improvement to make is to switch to tea rather than coffee. Too many students tend to inhale cup after cup after cup of caffeine to keep them going. An overload of coffee can cause you to feel edgy and really mess with your sleep patterns if you’ve had too much. Make a cup of tea and sip on that while hitting the books, as tea is full of antioxidants and great for boosting both your mood and your brain functioning. If you really don’t want to give up your caffeine you can always switch to Decaf during exam time.

Need something sweet? Opt for a few blocks of good quality dark chocolate or dried cranberries as this also provides your body with antioxidants and tastes great too.


Chapter 2: How You Study


1. Time Management: 

Your ability to set out an established routine for your study sessions is one step closer to achieving your goals. Your time spent studying is precious and you need to make every minute count so you can relax and unwind in your spare time. By developing sound time management skills you will allow yourself enough time to prepare for each subject as well as have time to revise.


Some Time Management Tips to help you:

1.   Use a Calendar:

You can set up a calendar on your phone, laptop or on paper. Try and create blocks of study time for each subject. Each block should be around 30 to 50 minutes, depending on your attention span. You need to be productive in the time you set for yourself. This will allow you to keep to your study slots for certain subject material, and ultimately stick to a routine. We suggest writing dates in red as this colour creates a sense of urgency. Ensure that you afford yourself ample time per subject to avoid any unnecessary stress as the actual exams draw closer.


2.   Tasks and Checklists:

Checklists are a great way to get things done on time and in order. It also allows you to stay focused with the task at hand instead of jumping from one thing to another. Try to cross the most important items off first and soon you will find how productive you can be in a short space of time. Research has shown that marking small projects or tasks off of a list improves overall mood and creates a sense of pride in the knowledge that you are on track and making progress.


3.   Time Yourself:

If you want to really prepare yourself for those exams and how to manage your time, you can set a stopwatch and do previous exam papers for practice. In this way, you can pinpoint which sections take you longer to answer and where you need to allow yourself some extra time at the end. There are countless studies reporting that students who did this felt more at ease entering the exam room and were better able to answer their papers, thus improving their overall results.


Study Techniques:

The following techniques have been proven to decrease study time as you learn faster and smarter.


1.   Try Out New Technologies & Methods:

Modern technology offers us a vast array of study tools such as the use of I-pads, online information and study forums, video and mobile apps as well as social media blogs. Using various technologies to learn your work makes things a lot more interesting, colourful and stimulating and can help you retain more information in a shorter space of time. Missed something important in one of your classes? No problem. Simply research the topic on You Tube and viola! You can pick up what you missed and even watch it as many times as you need.


2.   Test Yourself & Your Friends:

Set test questions on the material you are learning and after a study break see how well you have retained your work. Or, spend time with a group of friends and turn preparing for your Biology final into a team contest with questions about the work and a prize at the end. It makes for great fun and the goal of winning is a fantastic motivator to help you study hard.


3.   Use Active Recall:

Rather than re-reading your chapters over and over, as this is time consuming, read through a specific chapter or two, close the book and recite out aloud everything that you can remember. What you cannot recall, you simply go over a second time until you’ve got it. This method forces you to take your work seriously and to concentrate on getting in all the info that you can, as the intention is not to have to do it again and again.


4.   Do Previous Exam Papers:

Perhaps the most trusted method of all, working through previous exam papers and memo’s has proven its effectiveness time and again. Going through and physically working out old exam questions may appear to be a tedious waste of time, however we have seen time and again just how many questions are similar to or lifted from papers that were set up a few years ago. The ability to check your answers against those in the memorandum will also show you in an in depth manner how to answer your questions and where you could be going wrong.


5.    Get Active:

Having the ability to sit down and work for three to four hours on end and actually remember all that work is pretty amazing and not something that many of us can master. However, studies have shown that small breaks need to be taken in order for your brain to recharge itself and get back to it. Fresh air and a few minutes outdoors will do wonders for your energy levels as well as your state of mind. Sitting at a desk surrounded by the same four walls can become very tiresome and leave you feeling stifled. Take the dog for a walk or go grab a quick coffee with a friend or sit outside in the sun while eating your lunch, whatever you choose to do on your break, ensure that you leave your study spot and open up those lungs.


6.   Treat Time:

When setting up your study plan for each day or week, ensure that there are little rewards along the way. As you conquer a particularly difficult chapter treat yourself to that piece of chocolate or coffee out or quick 20min of TV time as you relax and know that you’ve earned it.


Chapter 3:  Master Your Memory


1.   The Use of Mind Maps:

Remember in your earlier school days when your teacher showed you how to make a mind map? Well, you can thank her now. It has been proven that the human brain recalls images and visual information far easier than text, making mind maps one of the quickest and most effective ways to remember all you have learnt.


Some of the benefits of using Mind Maps:

-    Better understand your learning material

-    Make the connections between concepts

-    Able to plan answering of examinations

-    Ability to explore concepts in greater detail

-    Retain more information at a faster rate


By sitting down and drawing up your own mind map detailing the material you have just learnt you are able to ensure that you know your work. Stick these mind mapping master pieces up on your walls or on your cupboard doors and you have some pretty handy notes to cast your eyes over each time you walk past.


2.   Visualize Your Exam Success:

Exams are stressful and keeping yourself motivated and calm is not an easy task. The morning of your very first exam is easily the toughest, as this is where all your hard work and preparation needs to start paying off. Making use of techniques such as visualization can be a great way to keep your mind focused and on track as you write each paper.


How To Visualize:

Take a few minutes each night, close your eyes and visualize writing your exam in a relaxed, confident manner. You are able to answer all the questions in the time frame correctly and to the best of your ability. What you have learnt is fresh in your memory and as you fill in each question, the information is flowing. As you do this, breathe deeply and keep your eyes closed.

Begin this process of visualizing every night before you go to sleep and every morning before you start your studying, in the weeks leading up to your exams. This will enable you to grow in confidence knowing you will do well.

While you may want to focus solely on success and the ability to ace those exams, another great idea is to envision a scenario where you may well not know how on Earth to answer a specific question. Let’s face it, exams are unpredictable and more often than not the examiners throw us a curve ball and place one or more really tricky questions in an exam to test our ability to think on our feet. As you visualize yourself in your calm state, take a minute or two to consider a surprise question that throws you off balance. How do you react? What do you do? Picture clearly in your mind how you take a deep breath and handle the situation with ease and poise, as you do your best to answer the question correctly and confidently.

Once you have mentally prepared yourself for both scenarios, picture yourself walking out of the exam hall feeling elated and proud of the work you put in. See yourself smiling and relaxed, as you pack up your stationary and head out of the door into the sunshine.

All of this only takes a few minutes each day, but will have a powerful impact on your results. When we actively visualize the outcome we want, we are creating our future success.


Chapter 4: Dealing with Exam Stress.

 We all feel a certain amount of anxiety during exam periods. This is completely normal. These next few tips will help you deal with those overwhelming moments.


1.   Breathe:

When you feel yourself getting nervous and anxious, stop what you are doing and take a few deep breaths. Practice breathing in and out for a few moments, as this will release oxygen to the brain and help you to re-group. Remind yourself that you can only do your best and tackle your work at a steady pace.


2.   Get Enough Sleep:

Pulling an ‘all-nighter’ may seem to be the only way to get yourself ready for the following days’ paper, but studies have shown that this is not the way to go. Cramming all that work in may help you to pass on the day of your exam, however, the lack of sleep will have a knock on effect afterwards, resulting in a serious drop in energy, mood, concentration and will take more than 2 -3 days for you to fully recover and return to working at an optimal pace.


3.   Eat well the morning of:

How you start the day of an exam is vital. From the moment you wake up to what you put into your body as well as the exam itself all ties together. Start your day right with a glass of water, tea or Decaf coffee if you prefer and a healthy breakfast. Try to avoid processed foods such as cereals and cereal bars, as they will raise your sugar levels quickly and only keep you full for a short while; which will ultimately leave you hungry or worse ‘hangry’ in the middle of your exam paper.


Opt for a nutritious breakfast of brown or whole-wheat toast, eggs, fresh fruit, Bulgarian yoghurt or a bowl of warm oats with some sliced bananas. These types of foods are high in energy but low in sugars and unhealthy fats and carbohydrates. A proper meal before an exam will have you performing at your optimum level for the remainder of the morning and carry you through until lunchtime.

 Need a snack during or right after your exam paper? Pack some dried fruit, nuts or biltong pieces for a quick bite to keep you going.


4.   Cut out the Chaos:

No matter how hard you study and the amount of hours you put in, if you work in a disaster zone, you are selling yourself short. Your study space by no means has to resemble a room fit for the army, however old food, sweet wrappers, dirty laundry and piles of notes are not the way to go either. You may feel that a few pairs of dirty socks or half eaten sandwiches will not make a difference, but various research have shown that a neat and tidy work space provides a far better setting for productive work. 

Maintain your study area by throwing away any unwanted papers or rubbish at the end of the day. Make sure your private space is clean and tidy for the next days’ work, as this will have you starting your next session on a clean slate.


5.    Be Good to Yourself:  

This is a pretty important one. Remember, you have planned, worked hard, and taken good care of yourself both physically and mentally leading up to your exam. All you can do on the day is your best. If you have truly put in all your effort then that should more than pay off, however there are those few times where examiners really throw a spanner into the works and manage to trip us up on a question or two. This is life. The unexpected happens. Remind yourself that you’ve done what you could and that that one crazy question will not make you fail or deem you a failure in any way. Chances are more than likely that your classmates won’t be too happy about that particular question either, which should prove to you again that you did your best and that is good enough. Try not to measure yourself against your friends standards either, set your own goals and go after them with all you’ve got. That is more than enough.


6.    Talk to Someone:

For many students out there exam time is a bit more than stressful. For some, exams can cause a serious amount of anxiety, stress and even panic attacks before, during and after the exams themselves. Should you or someone you know of experience feelings of fear and worry to the extent that you cannot concentrate on your studies, lose sleep, feel anxious and tearful, lose your appetite or struggle to even write an exam, help must be sought. If you are not comfortable talking to your friends or family members about these emotions, schools offer guidance counseling and yours should too. A school counselor will be able to provide you with tools to manage your stress and will also ensure that your teacher is made aware of the situation (in confidence of course).


For those who really do not want to open up about their anxiety around exams, there are helpful resources out there such as YouTube videos, blog posts and forums dealing with exam stress and how to handle the pressure. Do not leave these emotions untreated, as this will affect your results and self-confidence, as well as your future studies.



Chapter.5: Practice What You’ve Learnt

Now that we know how to study, what do we do with all of this knowledge? We make a list. The following list is an example of how to put everything you have just read into practice. So, here goes:


1.     Carefully look at and high-lite your exam dates.

2.     Mark down the dates of each and every exam, each subject in a different colour.

3.     Whip out or make yourself a calendar and open it up to exactly 6 weeks before your first exam.

4.     Allow yourself at least 2 weeks study time before each subject.

5.     Make a Mind Map for each subject and list the chapters and topics you need to focus on for the exam itself, noting down the areas you know you struggle with.

6.     Clear out and prep your study space.

7.     Stock up on healthy snacks and drinks.

8.     Enlist the help of a friend or professional tutor if you know you require extra help on specific topics to achieve your desired results.


We hope this study guide has provided you with helpful ideas and tips to make your end year exams a huge success. Now, get to work and ace those exams