UCL Accommodation


Exam Tips

2 March 2023

History student, Louis, shares their best exam tips!

Notebook and laptop

It’s almost that time of year again.

Deadlines, exams.

For some, the dreaded journeys from Camden and Kentish Town to far-flung places like the Excel Centre. For others, the commitment to sitting at a desk and tapping away at a keyboard for hours on end. It’s a stressful time of year, but there are ways to alleviate that stress. The same techniques won’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. Ultimately, only you know what works well for you; it’s a case of working out what will motivate you personally, and what will help you get through what is a challenging term.

First, a little bit about me. I’m Louis, a fourth-year history student, having taken a year abroad in Texas. My experience of exams has been different from what you’d expect. My first year saw exams cancelled, while my second-year exam period was reduced to exams which lasted five days. I sat a few in-person exams in Texas, but the exam culture is not the same at UCL. This year I’ll have more take-home exams, but I expect that they will last a much shorter 48 hours.

In this blog post, I’m going to set the scene for how I prepare for exams; some techniques might not seem great for you, but they’ll fit into some general themes that you can take away, and hopefully inspire your own exam practices. Please note that this is how I prepare and revise for open-book exams!

The single most important thing in exam preparation is organisation. If you can get into a habit of organising your notes as the year goes on, then you’ll have less to do come exam season, but if you haven’t been doing that, do not fret! For me, organisation looks like two main things: notes, and timetabling.

First, notes.

OneNote is my best friend. You can make to-do lists, create notebooks, add hyperlinks, and so much more. I have one big notebook with all my readings for the year, then individual chapters for each module. From there, I have a page for each reading, as well as a contents page which gives me a quick overview of the themes discussed in each reading. All my reading and work throughout the year is easily accessible, and ready to use in my exam. In my opinion, in an open book exam, it’s less about knowing every detail from memory, and rather about having every detail at the push of a button. From there, I can also access the original readings, or any other notes I might have taken, and use a variety of sources to inform my exam answers. I also like to read from the extended reading list in advance of the exam, and this enables me to be able to have a better foundation of knowledge when the paper is released. 

Timetabling is equally important in organisation.

You’d be silly if you didn’t know when your exam is due, or, even sillier, what day your exam is on. But in seriousness, it’s good to work out a roadmap for yourself. Plan how long you’re going to spend working on a specific question. Let’s take this as an example. 

“My exam starts at 12pm on Wednesday and is due at 12pm on Friday. The exam has 2 sections. 1500 words on source analysis, and a 2500-word essay.
12pm-4pm – plan source analysis, gather notes, start writing.
4pm-6pm – cook, eat
6pm-10pm – write source analysis, and if I finish early, start planning essay.
10pm-11pm – relax, bedtime at 11pm

Next day…
7am-8am –shower, tidy, breakfast
8am-12pm – plan essay.
12pm-1pm – lunch
1pm-5pm – write essay.
5pm-7pm – cook, eat
7pm-10pm – finish writing essay, extend to 11pm if needed
11pm – go to bed

Next day…
7am-8am – shower, tidy, breakfast
8am-11am – format work, add finishing touches and submit

For me, I love to know how my day looks.

It gives me something to work towards. During those four-hour exam blocks, my phone is away and I’m distraction free, but I usually let myself check it every 1.5 to 2 hours, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything important, and to give myself a breather – I can also use that time to grab a snack, or just take a 10-minute walk around the block.

I also always plan to submit at least an hour early – remember, technical difficulties don’t always count as excuses for late submissions.

You don’t know what could happen that morning, so I always think it’s better to be early than to submit with 30 seconds on the clock – you’d also kick yourself if the online system crashed while everyone else is panicking and submitting their exam at 11:45am!

But this talk of time-tabling fits into the other single-most important part of exam season: wellbeing. We all have different ways of safeguarding our well-being. I like to get my sleep schedule in check in the run-up to exams, so that I’m not on “owl-time” on the day. I also plan some good meals during the exams, because I find cooking to be a good break from working, and eating a full and healthy meal is obviously going to be better for you than a rushed pot noodle and toast. I get in some nice herbal teas, coffees, and snacks too, which all have this strange effect of calming me whenever I’m working on essays or exams.

I avoid scrolling as much as possible, and ensure I avoid conflict with anyone and everyone to keep my mind calm. I plan things for the days after the exams (if possible), to give me something to look forward for. And above all, I try and get a full night of sleep during the exam: I know for a fact that my writing isn’t as good if I’ve just pulled an all-nighter.

You will likely have your own ways of coping with stress, but ultimately, it’s not easy for everyone, and UCL does offer help if you need it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to members of staff and UCL’s support network if things are getting too overwhelming.