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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.

Wait is over: GCSE students at a Bristol academy pick up their results, August 2013. Photo: Getty
Wait is over: GCSE students at a Bristol academy pick up their results, August 2013. Photo: Getty

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.