Wait is over: GCSE students at a Bristol academy pick up their results, August 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on being in education: how to pass your damn exams

You know, and I know, that exams are an awful hazing ritual, but to beat the system you must first learn how to play it.

The most important thing is not to panic. Exam season is upon us again and the stink of panic carries on the spring air as healthy young people lock themselves away in airless libraries rather than having dramatic love affairs or plotting to bring down the government. In a spirit of solidarity, I’m going to share some exam survival secrets gleaned over many years of trial and trauma, the most important part of which is this – in order to pass your exams, you must first understand what exams are really for.

Let’s not be coy: exams are bullshit. On its own merits, a three-hour exam is a pointless waste of your time. Exams are not a test of intelligence, or learning, or recall. Exams are a test of how good you are at passing exams.  If your teachers haven’t been clear enough with you about this, dont be cross with them. Most teachers got into the job because they wanted to educate and inspire young people, not teach them to be fact-regurgitating drones, and it’s not their fault that they have to teach to the test. 

Exams are a measure of how well you can play the system. Some of the smartest people I know get poor grades at crunchtime because as soon as they hear “You may now open your papers and start writing”, they panic. This is because, again, exams are not designed to test cleverness but compliance. I’m not the smartest person I know and I’m also constitutionally nervous, but I’ve managed to ace almost every exam I’ve ever taken by training myself to go through the motions, until it came naturally, like playing an instrument.

If you’re lucky, your school or college will help you with this training. One of the things that gives private school pupils an advantage – last year, British private schools they took home over 30 per cent of the top grades at GCSE and A-level, despite educating only 7 per cent of pupils – is the fact that they teach to exams, because they need those top grades to attract wealthy parents. Private and public schools push pupils hard to sit and resit papers until they get the grades. The other reason is confidence. If you grow up hearing that you’re smart, that you matter, that you can do anything you set your mind to, you’re more likely to walk into your exams with the sense of calm assurance you need to get through them.

It’s that same confidence that carries better-off kids through life with the understanding that they can take risks, reach for their goals, and things will probably be OK.  Which makes it doubly unfair, of course, because growing up with money and connections makes it more likely that mediocre exam results won’t have a big impact on your future.

But here’s the good news. Confidence can be faked. Systems can be learned and beaten. What follows is a brief primer on how to do that. If your paper is next week and you haven’t opened the books yet, this won’t help very much, because you can’t put exam skills into practice without basic learning.  But luckily for us last-minute crammers and scammers out there, the system is so twisted that good exam technique can count as much as years of focused study – and sometimes more. 



1.Prepare your weapons

If you visualise your exams as the physical and mental endurance test they are, it’s easier to train for them. That means no drinking, no drugs, and no staying up late, not even to revise. Whatever you gain in extra knowledge will be counteracted if you turn up to your test sleepy and confused. Pack your bag early and get a good night’s rest. Then on the morning of the exam, get up early and eat breakfast, even if you don’t normally. You don’t want to have a sugar crash halfway through.

Check you’ve got everything you need packed and ready. That includes any superstitious doodahs you may want to take along. Some people have a lucky lipstick, a special pen or a little ritual they do, some of them sacred, some of them extremely profane. This isn’t as silly as it seems. It’s a way of tricking your brain into understanding it’s going to have to do something hard that requires extreme focus. Don’t cheat, or take illicit notes in. Not because it’s immoral but because you’ll probably get caught.

Make sure you know where and when your exam is so you’re not flustered. Have a last-minute read through of your notes before you go in: short-term memory is a powerful tool, and if there’s anything you find particularly hard to remember, you can cram it into your forebrain at the last minute and then scribble it down as soon as you’re allowed to start writing. Obvious as this may sound, you want to arrive on time, with spare pens, and ideally a watch, as you can’t take your phone in, and 80 per cent of practical exam technique is timing.


2.Know Your Enemy

It’s all about timing. No amount of revision is going to help if you don't know exactly how the paper is going to be structured, and how long you’ll have to answer each separate part of it. The number of marks available for each question determines how long you’re going to spend on it. You can spend the whole three hours writing a Booker Prize-worthy contemplation on the nature of kinship, art and death, but if the question was “Discuss the theme of friendship in Of Mice And Men,” and it’s only worth 10 per cent of the marks, you’re going to fail. This is another reason exams are stupid.

Allow ten minutes at the beginning of the time to read over the whole paper and plan your answers. Allow another five minutes at the end to check through and correct your spelling. You need to get used to doing this whole routine, from start to finish, and that, I’m afraid, means past papers. 

Setting yourself past papers to do is the number one way to prepare for an exam you’re worried about. No matter how fit and healthy you are, you can’t run a marathon without practice, and the same principle applies. It’s also vital, in this age of universal word-processing, to master the obscure ancient art of actually sitting down for three hours and writing with an actual pen. 


3.Beat them at their own game.

The final trick is the most important, not just for your exams but for the life you intend to lead after time’s up and results are in. Once you have learned how to pass exams, you must learn how not to pass exams. Exams are a pernicious, awful hazing ritual designed to produce compliant drones who can give answers on cue, but not doing your best at them only hurts you, so if you really want to beat the system, you have to remember that your real education takes place outside the exam hall. It’s about reading widely, thinking deeply, asking hard questions rather than simply giving the right answers with a smile. If you truly understand that exams are pointless, you can beat them not just in practice but also in principle. Good luck.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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“I hate censorship”: Larry King on his journey from prime time TV to Russia Today

The talk show host opens up about interview technique, his unique method of tweeting, and his experience of working with the state-backed channel now known as RT.

The first celebrity interview Larry King did was by chance, in a Miami Beach restaurant. He was a 26-year-old local radio presenter, and had set up his mid-morning show to broadcast from the popular Pumpernik's deli. In walked the singer Bobby Darin, famous for his hit version of “Mack the Knifereleased that year, 1959, and gave the young journalist his first showbiz interview. King has been asking questions ever since.

The 83-year-old US talk show host and household name estimates that he has done around 60,000 interviews in his time. And he’s still going. After 58 years of presenting radio and TV programmes – he hosted the nightly interview show Larry King Live on CNN for 25 years – he now hosts Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King on RT America (the US output of the channel originally known as Russia Today).

That’s why he has been in London – to publicise his two shows as part of the Russian state-funded network’s tenth anniversary publicity drive.

“I haven’t been here in a long time, and I’m sorry I haven’t been here more because it’s a terrific city,” he says, when I sit down with him at the Mayfair Hotel restaurant. It echoes with light jazz and pristine corporate chatter.

Like a society tortoise, cheeky but reflective, King sits low on a plush leather bench with his head hunched forward. His right hand is planted beside him as an anchor, and his left is reserved for banging the table and gesticulating. He wears stylish black thick-rimmed glasses, and the rest of his outfit is every bit the smart-casual elderly hack: jeans and a blazer, stripy tie clashing with the stripes on his shirt.

“The only thing – you cannot find a good cawffee. Maybe it’s the wadda?”

An almost stereotypical born-and-bred New Yorker’s response to being away from home – his Brooklyn roots brought even closer with his assertion that he loves the “Bridish sensa yumour”, in spite of our nasty water.

Known for his laidback, non-confrontational interview style and array of high-profile subjects – Donald Trump, Morrissey, Muammar Gaddafi, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Michelle Obama, Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando, the Dalai Lama, Frank Sinatra and Vladimir Putin are just a few – King left Larry King Live in 2010.

It was the preening tabloid troublemaker Piers Morgan who replaced him on the prime time slot in January 2011. But Piers Morgan Tonight was a doomed venture, axed in March 2014 after plummeting ratings. King and Morgan’s relationship has been fraught, with the former calling his successor “oversold” and accusing him of making the show “all about him. He used the word ‘I’ a lot.”

In a characteristically classy response, Morgan tweeted: “I made my CNN show all about gun control & saving lives. You made yours about blowing smoke up celebrity backsides.”

He also called King an “old goat”.

King doesn’t want to discuss this spat, but warns against talk show hosts who make interviews about themselves.

“I don't use the word ‘I’, because I find, in interviewing, for my style, ‘I’ is irrelevant because the subject is not me. The subject is the guest. What I think is immaterial; my role is a conduit from the guest to the audience.”

Perhaps this detachment dispelled any qualms King may have had about hosting two shows on the often laughably biased Kremlin-backed propaganda channel. He doesn’t seem happy about some of his broadcaster’s activities though.

“I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that's absurd to me,” he frowns. “ . . . If they say homosexuality is, like, whatever they say, all I know is, I've asked this question all my life . . . I’m heterosexual. I have no idea why. A homosexual can’t tell me why they’re attracted to people of the same sex, just as the heterosexual. You could tell me I like that skirt, I like high heels, but I don’t know why. I just know that it’s true. So I don’t understand why a state could tell people how to feel about other people.”

But he insists: “They [RT] have never censored me, or told me who to have as a guest, or not have as a guest. They distribute my show. I do the show for Ora TV [an internet network], and I have a wonderful working agreement with RT . . .

“I hate censorship of any kind, abhor it, so I would never approve of you telling me what I can say, or I telling you what you can say. And I've never been censored – in fact, my whole life – by anyone. I've been fortunate. I’ve never been told ‘don’t book this guest’, ‘don’t ask this question’, ‘don’t reveal this’. And it’s never happened to me with RT . . . If they do it, I disagree with it.

He adds: “State ruling against any individual thought is abhorrent to me. I don’t like dictatorships, I don’t like fascism, I don't like communism. I don't like ‘isms’.”

Perhaps King’s thirst for freedom is best expressed through his Twitter feed. His odd one-sentence proverbs about life’s banalities have become something of internet legend – ie articles have been written about them. Here are some examples:

“I like the smell of turpentine.”

“I've been having a hard time finding Nestlé's Crunch bars lately.”

“I don't know why, but I've never enjoyed drinking water.”

“I know about tonsils, but what is an adenoid?”

“The fear of a colonoscopy is unwarranted.”

“The rat is perfectly named.”

“Are there any babies being named Fred these days? #itsmy2cents”

“It seems to me women don't wear ankle bracelets anymore. #itsmy2cents”

“Where exactly is the Internet? #ItsMy2cents”

That final example makes the most sense considering King’s strange relationship with Twitter, and modern technology in general. He doesn’t type any of his tweets himself, preferring – when he has an idea he’d like to impart to his 2.62m followers – to pick up his chunky old black flip-phone, call his producer or assistant, and dictate his thoughts. Sometimes he dictates them directly to his wife. He proudly takes his phone out of his jacket pocket to show me.

“It's a relic, but it's my relic. I don't text, I don't like texting. I like talking . . . I use the internet to my advantage, in that I dictate tweets. But I don't read a lot of tweets. I don't know where to read ‘em! Because this phone doesn't get tweets . . . I just call a number, and the person who answers it sends them out. Why do I have to type them?”

He gestures to the three PRs (yes, three) sitting in on our interview, all of them on their smartphones. “Before I had a heart attack years ago, I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. Cigarettes controlled me. When I woke up in the morning, before I put on glasses, before I got out of bed, I had to reach for that pack of cigarettes. It controlled me. Now, look at this,” he points at them as they sheepishly look up from their phones. “See that? I never want to be a victim again of anything.”

In spite of his one-way use of technology, King is plugged in to internet controversy. He nods when I bring up the recent story of Vanity Fair angering readers with a feature celebrating late-night talk show hosts illustrated with a photograph of ten suited hosts – all of them men.

“I don't know why [there are so few women presenters],” he says, but doesn’t shrug it off. He continues talking about the subject even after our interview is over and I’ve stood up to leave. “It’s also true about radio talk shows . . . If you turn on the radio in the morning, the man is the host. Why? I've never hired people, I don't run a station. I remember this story, it's true, but I don't know why. I've no idea. Why is the man the host of a morning radio show?”

He pauses and then barks: “Why on local TV are all the weathermen women? And they all wear tight dresses. Why is that? I want men weathermen. More men on the weather! Show me a picture of all the male weathermen on local TV.”

That would make a vintage Larry King tweet. He’d better dial it in sharpish.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.