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Exam success guide

The Exam Success Guide below will help you perform at the best of your ability on the day of your exam and get the best possible results.

The examination period is an understandably stressful time, and few of us can honestly say that we don't get at least a little nervous before sitting an exam. As much as we might sometimes dislike them, exams are in most cases an essential means of assessment, and there is plenty we can do to tackle our stress and achieve our best.

On this page:

This guide was updated 3 September 2019. 


Organisation 

Where to study

It’s best to separate your working space from your relaxing space. If you only have one room, create a tidy workspace on a desk or table and clear away clutter and distractions.

Try a change of scenery, such as going to the library. There are thousands of study spaces across UCL's 18 libraries and other managed learning sites, including the Student Centre. Some sites even allow you to check online for real-time availability of study seats.

If you're a postgraduate student, there are dedicated spaces available to you in the Main Library, Science Library and Graduate Hub.

If you're setting up a group revision session, you might want to book a study room.

You can find 20 different computer workrooms around campus, alongside large open-access computer areas, such as the 200 PCs located on the ground floor and mezzanine of the Science Library. Use the handy UCL Go! app to find a free PC on campus. You can borrow one of several hundred laptops free of charge if you need one.

The UCL libraries have extended opening hours through the exam period. This includes the 24/7 opening of the Main, Science and Cruciform Hub Libraries, the Graduate Hub and the Student Centre, but remember that late-night revision can have a damaging impact on your health.

Plan ahead 

Plan ahead and make sure you are clear on the exam venue and time.

Take some time to read through the examinations regulations available on the Exams and Assessments pages of this website before you sit your first exam. 

Useful tools 

The following iOS or Google Play apps could help you to organise your revision (these are recommendations only – we do not endorse any particular app):

  • iStudiez Pro - a comprehensive schedule planner for desktop and mobile
  • Timetable - a simple and intuitive app for managing university life (Android only)
  • MyStudyLife - organise classes, tasks, revision and exams with this free desktop and mobile app
  • Passion Planner - a planner (download here for free as a PDF) that has personal and professional to-do lists, with different priority settings and goal periods
  • Remember The Milk - a to-do app that lets you organise your tasks with priorities, due dates and tags, that integrates with a range of popular apps and that can even be used to delegate sub-tasks of a project to other people
  • GoalsOnTrack - an app that allows you to record the goal, its purpose, start and end dates, metrics, sub-goals, habits and action plans

Effective revision 

A review conducted of over 1,000 studies in effective revision techniques by Professor John Dunlosky of Kent State University found that there are two key indicators of successful revision, as follows: 

Indicator 1 - Planning ahead 

Dunlosky found that cramming is not effective. Instead, spread out your revision and do a bit at a time.

This is called distributive practice and it was found to work for everyone who took part.

Some suggestions on how to make this work in practice include the following:

  • create a calendar showing all your exams, and prioritise each one based on when it is and how much revision it needs 
  • timetable your revision to spread it out across the time you have
  • set realistic, specific and measurable goals for each revision session
  • study in short, concentrated bursts of 30 minutes or an hour, with short breaks in between to keep you motivated

Indicator 2 - Testing yourself

Dunlosky also found that testing yourself was a predictor of exam success. Testing requires us to retrieve the information from our memory, which leads to better learning in the long term. He said, "Testing yourself when you get the correct answers appears to produce a more elaborative memory trace connected with your prior knowledge, so you're building on what you know."

You could try testing yourself in the following ways: 

  • speak to your lecturer to get hold of some example questions or past papers for practice - going through past paper questions and then marking them is key to preparing for what you’ll need to do on the day
  • quiz yourself frequently, but with breaks in between, which gives your brain time to store and reinforce the material (although it helps to test yourself in the format of your exam, you can test your knowledge of the material simply by teaching it to someone else or talking about it)

What else can I do?

If you're more of a passive reader, then try searching for the SQ3R technique, where you Skim, Question, Read, Recite and Review your material for better comprehension.

Try connecting your learning with other familiar topics, to make the key associations necessary for better recall. You can get quite creative if you want, by making up songs, drawing doodles and creating stories.

Try working with peers from your course. You might also decide to put together revision booklets, give each other short talks on different topics or swap mnemonics, essay plans and questions.

Read more about Professor Dunlosky's research.

Motivation 

Everyone struggles with procrastination and a lack of motivation every now and again. Read our articles on motivation and procrastination such as '10 ways to generate study motivation' on the UCL Student Support and Wellbeing Blog for full details.

Here are three key steps you should follow if motivation is running low:

Step 1 - Acknowledge the resistance

When you’re not feeling motivated, it's important to acknowledge your resistance to the task at hand and any difficult feelings you might have. Remember that studying is meant to take you out of your comfort zone, and avoiding work does not improve the situation.

Know that the initial unpleasant feeling will quickly fade once you get going. You might find it helpful to quickly write down your thoughts and any feelings of resistance to get them off your chest, and then leave them to one side so you can get down to studying.

Step 2 - Challenge the resistance

If you're having negative thoughts about failing, it's vital that you create a positive narrative to think about the exam. You can do this by visualising a positive exam experience. For example, imagine calmly walking into the exam room and turning over the paper, preparing and beginning to write. Similarly, visualise yourself starting to study, and this should help you to get going.

You can also challenge your resistance by rephrasing any limiting beliefs into positive goals in action. For example, you may believe that you'll do badly in your exams, but instead try rephrasing that belief into "I am working towards doing well in my exams". A positive goal in action like this can help you overcome your resistance to studying.

Step 3 - Overcome the resistance 

Learning how to overcome procrastination and improve motivation is a long-term journey that will benefit you long after your exams and graduation.

Try talking to others about your plans and the difficulties you've been having; they may help you identify where you've been going wrong. You could also try putting some reward structures in place to encourage studying, and to give you something to look forward to.

You might find it unhelpful to get too caught up with targets, so focus on the benefits of the process itself as well. Remember that revision and sitting exams are hard tasks that require considerable focus, an important skill for the rest of life. 

Most importantly, don't blame yourself for procrastinating, but work on identifying what triggers it. Once you've worked out the root cause or contributing factors, you can figure out how best to combat them and get back to studying.

Concentration 

People vary significantly in how long they can concentrate, so you should be aware of your own limitations and take them into account when you plan your study. However, there are several things you can do to make sure you focus and stick to your study plan. 

5 steps to better concentration 

  1. Break up your revision schedule into manageable chunks. You might even want to use an online app to help you with this, such as Focus Booster.
  2. Make a promise to yourself that you will spend the next 25 minutes on a task without interrupting yourself. This is called the 'pomodoro technique'. 
  3. Make your revision interactive. Use the SQ3R technique for reading, make flashcards or other visuals, speak out loud, and keep your goals in mind.
  4. Alternate easy and difficult topics, and interesting and dull topics.
  5. Take control of technology by using apps and plug-ins, such as ForestLeechblockOfftime and SelfControl to prevent you from getting distracted.

Video resources

Getting things done

Join author and world-renowned productivity and time management expert David Allen as he walks you through his five-step process for getting things done. A free video course available to all UCL students on LinkedIn Learning. 1 hour 32 minutes, UCL login required.

Access the course.

Learning speed reading

Paul Nowak, the founder of Iris Reading, first asks you to measure your current reading rate, and explores the reading habits that slow people down. Then he introduces simple techniques for boosting your reading speed and practice drills to reinforce your new skill. A free video course available to all UCL students on LinkedIn Learning. 58 minutes, UCL login required.

Access the course.

Improving your memory

Memory is not a finite resource, and with techniques like repetition, association, and visualisation, you can improve your memory before it starts to fade. This fascinating course shows viewers of all ages how to improve their recall. A free video course available to all UCL students on LinkedIn Learning. 1 hour 29 minutes, UCL login required.

Access the course.

Overcoming procrastination

Author and Kelley School of Business lecturer Brenda Bailey-Hughes shows you how to separate procrastination from other behaviors, identify your stalls, and address your procrastination head on with strategies that will help you get more done. A free video course available to all UCL students on LinkedIn Learning. 19 minutes, UCL login required.

Access the course.

A healthy mind 

A study published in the Lancet Public Health in December 2017, conducted at the University of Cambridge (Galante, J et al.), found that mindfulness is effective at tackling exam stress.

616 students took part in the study, and all were receiving support from the counselling service. 309 of those students also took part in an additional mindfulness programme. They measured the students’ stress levels using the CORE-OM measure during the exam period.

The mindfulness course led to lower distress scores after the course and during the exam term compared with students who only received the usual support. Distress scores for the mindfulness group during exam time fell below their baseline levels (as measured at the start of the study, before exam time), whereas the students who received the standard support became increasingly stressed as the academic year progressed.

The researchers also looked at other measures, such as self-reported wellbeing. They found that mindfulness training improved wellbeing during the exam period when compared with the usual support.

Here are some mindfulness resources you can access:

What else can I do to reduce stress?

When revising, don't forget to recharge your mind and get outside. London is full of parks, so if the weather is nice, try revising outdoors for a while.

Leisure and hobbies are also very important for maintaining a healthy mind, so factor some 'me time' into your revision plan and try to distance yourself from thoughts of study during these periods.

The Mental Health Foundation’s short podcast, 'Stress and Relaxation: Quick-fix breathing exercise', is less than 5 minutes in length and explains a helpful breathing technique.  

Always remember that you are not in this alone. It could be helpful to talk through any worries you are having with a friend, a family member or Care First, which works in partnership with UCL to offer free, short-term, solution-based counselling sessions over the phone and online out of office hours.

Read full details about evening and weekend support from Care First.

A healthy body 

It’s important to look after our physical health as well as our mental health, especially at stressful times such as the exam period. 

Keep moving

It’s important to remain physically active where possible. Try to make time to visit the gym, play sports or do your usual physical activities.  When time is limited, you could try walking, cycling or running to your destination. 

Exercise can also encourage us to get outdoors, which is good for both the body and the mind. If you need to stay at home, try some home yoga such as Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. These classes are free and range from five-minute stress-busting yoga to hour-long flows. 

Sleep 

While it is recommended that you get between seven and nine hours sleep a night, the occasional 'all-nighter' in order to meet a deadline will do you no harm in the long term. However, staying up all night on a regular basis throughout the revision and exam period can lead to poor concentration, difficulty in problem solving and an inability to retain information. It can also lead to ill health, which in turn can knock your revision timetable off track.

If getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night is difficult, try to find time to have one or more 20-minute 'power naps' throughout the day. This will help replenish your lost sleep.

If getting to sleep is your problem, try stopping work one and a half to two hours before bedtime as this will give you time to unwind. Watching a film, having a chat with a friend or taking a warm bath can also help you unwind. 

If stressful thoughts are keeping you awake, try jotting them down in a notebook and spending 10-15 minutes thinking about what you can do to address these concerns in the future, and then put the notebook away. This can help you relax, as your mind will recognise that there are things you can do about your worries.

Finally, don’t use your bed as a place to study. If you do, your mind will quickly come to associate bed with wakefulness rather than sleepiness.

Nutrition

It can be very tempting to neglect your diet during your revision and exam period. You may find yourself skipping meals, choosing to eat fast food rather than preparing a meal, or topping up with sugary foods such as fizzy drinks and chocolate as a way of boosting your energy. 

If you recognise any of these tendencies, you might want to look after your diet in some of the following ways:

  • allow time in your daily/weekly planning to buy, prepare and eat something nutritious each day
  • if you have a freezer, make enough food for two or three days at a time and freeze what you do not eat - this will mean you have something enjoyable to eat on those days when you are too tired to cook from scratch
  • if you are revising away from home, prepare some snacks and lunch to bring with you - this doesn’t have to be anything elaborate (a sandwich, salad, fruit and a bag of mixed nuts and seeds can see you through the day and save you time shopping or finding a cafe) 
  • find somewhere away from your place of work to eat, as it will give you a break and time to enjoy your food
  • if you live in shared accommodation, you might want to take it in turns to prepare and cook the evening meal for everyone once or twice a week - this means that you will each get time off from cooking to do something relaxing

Support if you're feeling overwhelmed

A moderate degree of stress and nervousness during the revision and exam period is completely natural, and can even be healthy by motivating you to study hard.

Every year, the vast majority of UCL students successfully sit their exams. However, for a small number of students, stress or anxiety can build up to overwhelming levels - if you find yourself in this situation, please seek help from Student Support and Wellbeing.

Drop-in sessions and appointments

The easiest and fastest way to access support is to attend one of SSW's drop-in sessions. These take place adjacent to the Student Enquiries Centre on Floor 1 of the Student Centre every day that UCL is open.

At the drop-in, you'll be able to see one of our Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisers, who will have an open conversation with you about how to look after yourself through the exam period and the support available, based entirely on your needs.

You'll typically have up to 20 minutes with an adviser at a drop-in session. If you find that you need more time to discuss the issues affecting you, you can contact SSW through the askUCL student enquiries system or by calling +44 (0)20 7679 0100 to book a longer appointment.

Find out more about drop-in sessions and appointments, including times.

10 tips for sitting an exam 

  1. Try your best to enter the exam room calmly. You may want to use some of the time before you begin to do some simple relaxation and breathing exercises to calm your nerves. 
  2. Begin by very carefully checking the instructions on the exam paper, highlighting or underlining the key points e.g. word limits.
  3. Consider the amount of time you have, decide how best to distribute this to the different sections of the exam and aim to stick to your timings. Three average answers will usually get you more marks overall than two brilliant ones and an unfinished third.
  4. Where there is a choice of questions, take some time to consider the potential of each option before making your decision. If you freeze up, take a few deep breaths, re-read the questions and then do your best to proceed with the exam. Read on for advice on dealing with panic during an exam, if you think this could come in useful.
  5. Once you've made your choice, read the question(s) thoroughly, then re-read to make sure you've understood and haven't made assumptions.
  6. With an essay-based question, plan your answer briefly to ensure a strong, critical argument. Keep this simple, no more than section headings and your basic points and examples. If it’s relevant, you may find it useful to quickly note down any sources or quotes to refer back to.
  7. Remember, you don’t have to answer questions in the order they appear. Some may want to start by getting the more difficult questions out of the way, while others may prefer to build confidence with easier questions first.
  8. Throughout the exam, try to stay hydrated.
  9. If possible, take regular 'micro-breaks', e.g. a brief pause at the end of writing a paragraph. Try putting down your pen and stopping to think for a moment, which can help you assume control and collect your thoughts. 
  10. Towards the end of your exam, try your best to conclude your essays in some way and find a little time to double-check your answers, if you can.

Remember that you can only do your best on the day.

The vast majority of exams in the main exam period are held at ExCeL London. All students sitting exams at the ExCeL are strongly encouraged to read through the information on the Exams website.

Read useful advice on what to expect at the ExCeL. 

Dealing with panic during an exam 

It is not uncommon to feel stressed during your revision and exam periods. Panic attacks, which are less common, are the body’s response to threatening situations.

If you have a panic attack, your mind may go blank, your heart may beat faster, your hands may shake and/or your body may break out in a sweat. Don’t worry - as unpleasant as a panic attack can feel, you will not be harmed by it and it will go away of its own accord. However, here are some things you can do to help yourself if you have a panic attack:

Focus on your body

Stop what you are doing. Sit upright in your chair and close your eyes.

Focus on your body sitting in your chair. Bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the floor, the sensation of your body on your chair and the sensation of your hands resting on your legs or lap. Notice if these sensations are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Consider your thoughts, feelings and sensations 

As tempting as it may feel, you should neither engage with nor avoid your thoughts or feelings of panic. 

Try to be aware of them, accept them and let them come and go. To do this, imagine placing each thought, feeling and/or sensation on a cloud and watch the wind take it away and out of sight.

Focus on your breathing 

Take a deep breath in through your nose and imagine your whole body filling up with air as if it were a balloon. When you cannot breathe in any more air, slowly blow it out through your mouth as if you were blowing through a straw. Do this until all the air is gone out of your body. Repeat this breathing exercise a number of times until you begin to feel calmer.

If you are prone to panic attacks, it is best to practise this several times prior to starting your revision or sitting your exams. Doing so makes it easier to repeat should you have a panic attack in the exam itself.

When the exams are finished 

Whether it was just one exam or all of your exams, follow these steps to reflect on your experiences and help you prepare for the next challenge:

  • firstly, congratulate yourself for taking the exam - it's over and you finished it
  • consider what went well
  • consider what you learnt from the exam
  • think again about your initial goals - did you meet them? 
  • celebrate - if you have other exams coming up, treat yourself a little that evening before you get back to revision
  • if you've finished all of your exams, firstly remind yourself of your achievement and then do something fun to celebrate