What to do right now to prepare for your summer exams

by a University Lecturer and published author of various books and academic papers
Posted May 2023

This post considers some tips to think about at the start of the revision period and how you can plan your time well before your exams.

Blog Contents

Revision timetable

Step 1 in planning for revision is that you need to know when and where your exams are! Do you have that information? How long is each exam? What sort of questions are there for each one? Are you confident that any adjustments you need for things like dyslexia have been taken into account? If not, talk to your teachers as soon as you can and get that information. Once you know when your exams are, make sure you don’t schedule over them (that would be very bad), but also think about what else you’re doing around exam time: you don’t want to be exhausted from travelling or partying when you’re trying to do algebra or remember Jane Austen quotes. As well as getting plenty of good quality sleep, try to think about all the usual things to keep you healthy: eat healthy food, exercise, and make time for things you enjoy, too.

You might think you don’t need a detailed revision timetable, but it will help ensure you don’t accidentally forget to revise a particular subject. It’s also harder to plan your time during long periods of exam revision, because usually you have a class timetable telling you where to go and when to study. Depending on your school and teachers, you might not have that during revision, so you have to figure it out for yourself. This is also good practice for later in life: at university or in work, you will have to manage your own time and tasks this way, too.

It’s a good idea to plan your time in a way that means you revise things more than once: short term and long-term memory work differently, and by revising a topic, doing something else, then revising again, you can help fix things in your brain better than last-minute cramming ever will.

One way to plan your revision time is to ‘sandwich’ your calendar. So if your exam timetable looks like this:

Maths examEnglish exam Geography exam 

Your revision overall timetable might look like this:

Revise MathsRevise EnglishRevise GeographyRevise EnglishRevise Maths
Maths examEnglish examRevise GeographyGeography examRest!

This way, when you come to revise Geography, you’re not looking at anything for the first time: you’re just refining and remembering what you already learned. You can take this approach over a longer time period of several weeks of revision, too.

That’s an idea of a general timetable, but when it comes to individual days, you should also think about breaking up your time to look at different subjects and topics. We’ll come back to ideas of how to do that in a moment.

Do you know what you’re being marked against?

At some point in your courses, your teachers have probably given you ‘mark schemes’ or guides to what exactly the examiners are looking for when they’re marking your exams. Have you ever looked at it? Go, do it now! (If you can’t find it, because you’re preparing for exams well in advance of the real thing, you have time to email your teacher and ask for it, too).

Why is it a good idea to look at the mark scheme? Well, how often have you done a test or exam and wondered ‘what do they want me to do here?’, or ‘I don’t know how to answer this question and get the marks’. Marking schemes are designed to tell you exactly what the examiner is looking for. So, for instance, for Maths, how much of the grade is about getting the right answer, and how much is about showing your working? Are you showing the examiner all the steps you used to get to the answer? If not, even if you get the right answer, you might not be able to get the highest grades. For essay subjects, the marking scheme will usually focus on things like clear structure, making references to relevant materials, and critical evaluation. Does your writing do these things? The classic ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ model of writing can be very helpful here: when you write an essay, does each paragraph make a point that answers the question you were asked, backed up with evidence, and supported by your own explanation of the idea you are discussing? A lot of what gets you exam marks is basic skills in following the mark scheme like this. Exams test both knowledge and technique – and it’s the technique part that most people struggle with.

It’s even better if you have access to what are called ‘examiners’ reports’. These are reports that examiners write each year after they’ve done all the marking for the year group. The reports will highlight things that most people, on average, did well, and the big problems that came up again and again. If you know what those problems are, hopefully you will be able to train yourself to avoid them. They often even break down individual questions and tell you what parts people mostly did well, and what parts confused people. For example, if you know lots of people messed up applying the quadratic formula last year, you can make sure you don’t do it by making a point of that in your revision. Examiners’ reports are not too hard to find online if you know your exam board and paper name, but if you are struggling your teachers should be able to help. They may have even given you those documents already.

Look at your past work and feedback from teachers 

Students very often make the same mistakes again and again in their exams and assessments, and then wonder why their grade isn’t getting better! If you have marked work from a subject where you are sitting an exam which you can look at – use it! It might be useful even if the format is different to the exam, for example if you have done coursework in an essay format, but the exam is a written response to sources, because the skills are often transferable. The same is true across similar subjects: you might be making the same mistakes in how you present your answers in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry, for instance.

Remember that your real exam grades are not necessarily going to be the same as your mock exam grades. That can work both ways: hopefully, your real exam grades will be at least as good as any mocks you have done because you have continued to learn and build on your skills. On the other hand, sometimes things can go a bit wrong on the day: you get a hard question, you have a bad day, or the examiner has different ideas compared to your teachers, and you do less well. So, try not to assume anything about the real exams from your mocks: they’re a piece of information, but only one piece of a bigger picture.

Instead, make those mocks work for you and be as useful as possible: look at your feedback and think about what you are good at, and what you have done less well in the past. If you can, talk to your teachers about what they think you could improve based on what they have seen. Then use that information in your revision: don’t just think ‘I need to learn all the facts about the Weimar Republic’, think ‘I need to make sure I am talking about the Weimar Republic by reference to the sources I have been given, because I lost marks for that last time’.

If you struggle to concentrate, try the Pomodoro Technique

You can find lots of information online about the Pomodoro Technique, which tends to be very helpful if you’re the sort of person who can easily end up on TikTok when they should be revising. The idea is that you spend 25 minutes – which isn’t very long at all – concentrating on your revision, and then you take a 5-minute break. You do this 4 times – which takes 2 hours in total – and then you take a longer break.

Why might you do this? 25 minutes is long enough to concentrate and get something done, but not long enough to get very bored or tired and lose focus. You don’t look at your phone, or email, or let yourself be interrupted if you can help it (you might need to put your phone in ‘do not disturb mode’ instead of just silent). Knowing that the break is coming can also help with the anxiety and stress you feel from knowing that you have lots of work to do and not very much time in which to do it – which is definitely true with exam revision! The inventor of this technique, Francesco Cirillo, said that his method turned time into a friend, instead of a source of anxiety. By the way, ‘pomodoro’ means ‘tomato’ in Italian: Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato when he was working, but you can use the timer on your phone or an ordinary clock if you don’t have a novelty timer nearby!

In those 25 minutes of work, don’t try to multitask. Set yourself one, achievable, goal. It might be to work through one maths problem, or plan one essay question. It might be to re-watch one video or make one set of flashcards from a longer set of notes. By breaking your revision down into tasks like this, you know you are getting something done in each timeslot, and chipping away at the bigger task of preparing for an exam. It can also help you make sure you get through different topics within your courses: you could do one pomodoro per topic, for instance, and then you know you have at least thought about lots of topics in one day – which can be great for identifying the places where you feel more or less confident in your understanding. If 25 minutes of thinking about quadratic equations makes you think you’ve got it, you can be more confident. If 25 minutes on probability fills you with confusion, you know you need to set some more time aside for it. On another day, you might focus on one particular topic which you found hard, and break that up into individual tasks, to get more depth of understanding.

Reading the textbook is not revising 

It’s tempting to think that when you’re revising you need to go back to the beginning and read through everything again, from the start of the textbook. Don’t do that! It’s not a good use of your time, and it won’t be realistically achievable during your revision period anyway. A much better way to revise is to use past exam papers. These not only help you get familiar with what to expect in the real thing and work on your exam technique, they’re also a great way to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

It can be a good idea to *start* your revision with a past paper. That’s right – before you even start looking through your notes or reviewing class material. Why? Because if you look through a past exam paper and try to answer the questions, you will very quickly be able to see which topics you’re more confident with: ‘I could answer that question now, or have a good go at it’, and those which you need to work on: ‘I can’t even remember what that question is about’ or ‘I have no idea how to answer that’. If you like colour, you can highlight using traffic lights: green for easy, yellow for maybe ok, red or pink for ‘I have no idea’. Then those latter questions can form the basis of your revision. Now you have a specific question you want to try and answer, and you can use your notes and other materials to try and find that answer. That’s a much more effective way to test and build your knowledge than just reading the textbook or reading through notes without a particular purpose in mind. This is an example of making your learning ‘active’ – doing things with the information you’re supposed to be learning, instead of ‘passive’ learning, where you just try to remember strings of facts. Active learning works much better!

Similarly, if you don’t know where to start and don’t have enough past papers, or you want to start somewhere more general than a past paper – get the syllabus. The syllabus will list all the things you have ideally learned in your course – so make a list of the topics and ask yourself if you could answer an exam-style question on that topic. If you can’t, that’s a good place to start revising. And break that task down, into specific and achievable goals: not ‘revise Descartes’ (that’s a whole exam paper!) but something like:

a) Revise notes on Descartes’ ontological argument – identifying pros and cons, for 25 minutes.
b) Take a 10 min break.
c) Use flashcards to test that revision.
d) Go back and revisit anything I couldn’t remember for another 25 minutes.

Whenever you start to use them, make sure you have done at least one past paper for every exam you’re sitting so you know what to expect. That means looking at past papers yourself, as well as any teachers set as mock exams for you to practice. Ideally, you should try to do more than that: try to use as many years of past papers as you can so you have lots of practice answering the kind of question you are going to be asked. Then, hopefully, there will be no nasty surprises in the real exam.

Everybody learns differently

Some people will make lots of flashcards, with bright colours, and will use those to condense and test their knowledge as the exam gets closer. That’s a great idea for some people. For other people, though, making the flashcards might turn into a gargantuan task that doesn’t really help them learn. You have been at school for a long time, so you probably have a good idea by now of the kind of learning that works well for you. If it’s the flashcards, great, do it! Ideally, you want to revise using several different styles of learning and remembering, because then it’s more likely to stick.

Other tools to consider include things like mindmaps – great for seeing connections between ideas and developing increasingly detailed and nuanced ideas; and mnemonics – great for remembering formulas and dates. You can even get artistic and make wall posters (if you’re allowed to stick things to the walls in your room!) with mindmaps or more free-form summaries of ideas. For sciences with lots of formulas, you can stick them on post-its in places you walk past a lot (again, with permission of the other people you live with!).

Another hugely underrated tool is explaining an idea to another person. Sometimes, just saying something out loud will make you realise you’ve missed something, or you’re being unclear. Or, if you can’t make another person understand what you want them to understand, you will have to think a bit more about whether you have structured your information well, or whether you need more detail. So, find a willing friend, family member, or pet, and channel your inner teacher. If, however, you find studying with friends or other people around distracting, if you can, try to find a quiet space for your revision time and only talk to other people when it’s going to help and not distract you. Don’t forget that there are places like public libraries and museums as well as the school library, which might be quite full at this time of year. And remember, as well, that you don’t have to compete with your friends or classmates or do things the exact same way as they do. What works for someone else might not work for you. Don’t try to study like a morning person if you are not a morning person – plan your day so you’re studying at the times when you feel most ready for it, if you can.

One that that works for very few people, though, is cramming. The number of hours you spend revising is less important than the way you revise and the chance you give your memory to process information from short- to long-term memory. Our brains have limits to what they can remember and process in a short space of time – so the more time you give yourself overall to revise and prepare for your exams, the better your brain will help you out when the time comes!

Remember there is help and support

If you have read all of this, or even tried some of it, and you’re still feeling overwhelmed or very anxious, remember that there are sources of help and support available. That might include friends and family members, your teachers, or dedicated mental health and support services at school. Exams are important – but they’re definitely not the most important thing in life, so if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.