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The 7 secrets to acing your exams

Feeling the burn? These tips will keep you on track
October 14, 2020
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By Christian Durand

The 7 secrets to acing your exams

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: exams can be stressful.

A lot depends on the time you devote to your studies, how much effort you put into reviewing it all — and, of course, on those few key hours in which you draw on your newfound knowledge.

But with the right game plan, exams can be a smooth and relatively painless process. Juliet Dunphy, interim associate director of the Student Success Centre, and learning specialist Jennifer Banton have shared some of their tips to make this a reality.

7 exam-taking essentials 

1. Get information from your professor

Find out early on as much as you can about what your exam will be like (open book, proctored, etc.) and how you will be evaluated. Check with your instructor and ask what tools are and are not allowed and whether you need to provide citations.

2. Map out your study time

Forget cramming: it takes many hours to study effectively for a major exam. Schedule one or two three-hour study blocks every day for two weeks before the main event. Studying with someone else can be motivating, too.

If you have several exams in a week, clearly define the study blocks in your schedule. Cut down on socializing and, if possible, cut back on non-related work hours.

At this point, you should be reviewing what you already know — but you still have time to improve in any weaker areas. 

3. Test your knowledge

An exam calls for you to bring out information on cue, so practice doing that in advance.

Don’t just go over and over your books and online materials: reading is passive and doesn’t measure how well you know something. Instead, break course material down into major concepts and sections. From there, test yourself to find out what you’ve already mastered and what you need to return to.

When reviewing items you aren’t retaining as well, look for how the ideas connect. Make charts, concept maps and diagrams. Do practice problems and summarize your problem-solving steps.

All of this is active reviewing. Aim to understand concepts rather than memorize material; concentrate on learning ideas well enough to be able to explain them to someone else.

Once you’ve learned something, schedule time later in the week to test yourself on it again. That way, you’ll be sure you really know it. And be sure to revisit material you don’t know as well as you’d like to.

4. Schedule in a final review

It’s the day before the exam. The time to learn the information has passed!

Focus on what you already understand. Review your summary sheets and concept maps, adding to them where necessary; this will help you recall key details. Do more self-testing and talk yourself through the material.

5. Be mindful of your environment

Not everyone can have an ideal home setup. Having said this, ensure that you are in a comfortable, clutter-free space and that you turn off phones, tablets and other distractions.

Reduce ambient noise as much as possible and ensure that your roommates or family members know you are taking an exam so that they keep quiet.

Gather resources such as the power cable, notes, textbooks, summary notes, paper, pencils and a glass of water.

6. Create brain space

On exam day, take some time to collect yourself. Don’t study right up until the last moment: information overload might cause you to blank out at the worst possible moment.

Show up to the exam at least 15 minutes early with all the required materials, even if the exam is online, and test your computer to ensure all is working well.

Also, don’t forget to eat well beforehand. Stick to healthy food — nothing greasy or heavy. Eggs and fruit are ideal.

7. Move on

When the exam’s over, congratulate yourself for having done your best, and then forget about it for the time being. If you are worried about the result, keep things in perspective: a poor mark on any exam will not stop the world from turning.

When your exam has been corrected, get it back, or at least ask to see it. This might teach you something for next time.


If you have had serious or chronic problems with exams in the past, book an appointment with one of the learning specialists at
Student Learning Services, part of Concordia’s Student Success Centre. They’ll be able to provide you with strategies and suggestions.



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