It’s the final countdown: 50 days to go to the start of the Leaving Cert

Top tips and tricks: our experts show how to make the most of the study days ahead

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 08:41

50 days to go to the exams. It seems like nothing but it’s still a long time when it comes to study. We in The Irish Times know people who know a lot about how to prepare for exams and we asked them to give their advice about how best to use the time that’s left. There is a Leaving Cert focus to some of the advice but most is just as applicable to Junior Cert students.

So first off, whether you are facing into the Leaving or Junior Cert, don’t panic. It’s not too late. If you are panicking anyway, there is advice here for you. If you’re well organised there are tips here for you too. Most people are in a better state than they think and the biggest battle, apart from maintaining focus, is a psychological one. Simply trying to stay calm, and by extension, healthy and well rested, can be a battle.

So here are our expert tips for how to make the most of the next 50 days.

Tips if you’re panicking:

Breathe. Giving in to that sinking feeling will get you nowhere. You can make things significantly better than they are now.

Begin now. Just open a text book and start. Focus on the words in front of you and forget about everything else you have to do.

Do not look at everything you have to do. You’ll just get overwhelmed. Break things up. Only focus on what you’re doing today. Do that well and move on.

No idea where to start? Well ask yourself: are there any guaranteed questions or topics on your chosen exams? Those sound like a good place to begin.

You’ll be tempted to read through mountains of text and call that study because it will feel like you’re doing more.

English teacher Evelyn O’Connor advises:

Reading a book isn’t studying. (It’s reading a book.)

To study:

- set a target (I will revise this topic for 45minutes);

- take notes as you go.

- put away the books. Do an exam question. Now that’s study!

Do you have subject notes? Or very kind and wonderful friends who might allow you to copy theirs? Use them to minimise the amount of text you need to get through.

For quotes and definitions you need to know by heart, record them on your phone and listen back while you’re on the bus or getting ready for school. Leave a gap in the recording so you can repeat the information back to yourself.

If you’re stuck on a topic, ask your teacher about it. You’ll understand something far quicker if it’s explained to you.

If you’re really having trouble focusing on your own, think about whether it would help to study with a friend. This can work really well – you can bounce off one another, quiz and explain things you don’t understand. The ideal way to do it is to split the work, each do your bit and then share notes and knowledge before attempting some exam questions. However, if you’re not serious about focusing do not waste a friend’s time. Likewise, if your study partner is distracting you, forget it.

Remember, even if you’re completely unable to retrieve the situation, high points are not the only route to college, if college is where you want to be. People do post-Leaving Cert courses and enter college through alternative routes all the time. The system is a ladder and you can generally get as far as you want with a bit of hard work. If college isn’t for you, you have that in common with all manner of successful people like Simon Cowell, Seth Rogen, Eminiem and Richard Branson.

Tips if you’re okay but wishing you had done more by now:

You probably know more than you think. Now is the time to focus, not to throw in the towel.

Clare Grealy, Irish teacher in the Institute of Education advises: Don’t prioritise any one subject. All subjects that a student intends using for their calculation of points should get equal time. This being the case I would allow two hours each weekend for each subject and around 30 to 40 minutes per night in studying what was covered on that day in the classroom.

Learn from the mock exams. Examine your answers. Where did you go wrong? How could you have done better? Any obvious mistakes? After the actual exams, post mortems are a terrible idea. Right now, they can be very helpful.

Summarise your notes. Use key words to see what you remember about a topic. One idea will spark off another. If you get stuck, go back to the books. Don’t give up. The more you relearn, the more you will recall. advises: Write down key concepts you have to learn on small sheets of paper followed by examples of how they are used. Post these sheets around your house - by your bed, on the toilet door, in front of the CD collection. This kind of immersion helps with remembering things like equations, quotes and foreign languages.

Do not cut corners. Almost every year in The Irish Times, we hear about what’s tipped to come up in the poetry section of the English paper. Many, many times, the tipped poet hasn’t come up and there is outrage, devastation and plenty of upset, but honestly, who’s to blame for that? Don’t rely on tips. Have a back up plan.

Finding it hard to fit in all the work? How much time do you spend on the internet? Half an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening? It all adds up. Two hours a day is 14 per week – 56 per month. Imagine if you were to spend just half of that revising.

Tips if you’re happy with your study to date.

Don’t relax now! If you got good results in the mocks do not believe for a second that your work is done.

Practise exam questions. Time yourself and be ruthless about it.

Have a look at examination marking schemes and how marks are distributed. If you’re having trouble, ask a teacher to explain it to you. Understanding how to maximise your marks can give you that extra few per cent.

Be fair to the people around you. It’s neither big nor clever to lie or indeed brag about how much you have done. Your results will hopefully reflect the work you have put in and then everyone will know all about it.

If you have been working really hard, you’ll be engaged in a real battle to keep yourself on an even keel in the run up to the exam. Stay calm, stay focused. Make sure you are well fed, healthy and well rested. You will be fine.

Make a pact with yourself not to do post-mortems during the exams. If something does go wrong, you can only focus on what’s coming next. Once an exam is over there is nothing you can do about it.

Tips for everyone

Write out a daily timetable for revision from now till the end of your exams. Allocate half hour slots for each subject, allowing more time for the nearer exams. Do not ignore any subject. Variety helps maintain interest. Write summaries of each topic. Include exercise and regular breaks –

Do not spend lots of time colour coding and laminating said timetable. A couple of notes on a foolscap page is fine. advises, “Sometimes reading through notes doesn’t result in learning or understanding. Include the following in revising each topic:

- vocabulary, technical terms definitions

- summaries of points

- formulae, rules, diagrams, charts

- ability to understand relationships

- if you’re answering essay questions, make quick plans for how you’d structure answers on each topic

Don’t talk about what study you’re doing and don’t listen to other people about what they’re doing. Lots of people lie about what they’re doing or not doing. The naturally brilliant friend who did nothing but somehow managed a B1 in the mocks is probably telling fibs about how hard he or she is working.

Keep an eye out for revision opportunities if you’re near a college or university. NUI Galway is holding a university taster day including revision sessions in key subject areas as well as tasters of various college courses on the 23rd of April. No charge for attendance but you must book. See for details.

Evelyn O’Connor writes: Understand what you’re studying (or at least try...). Re-phrase in your own words whenever possible. Students who do well in exams don’t just vomit up facts, they demonstrate real understanding.

Get familiar with the layout of the exam paper now. Some papers are tricky (e.g. you must answer sections 1, 2 and 5. Answer two other sections from 3, 4, 6, and 7) and complicated instructions could throw you on the day.

Remember, examiners want to give you marks. Get used to showing your rough work such as calculations and essay plans. Make that rough work easy to read.

Keep the exams in perspective - none of the following things will be dictated by how you do in the Leaving Cert: where you live, who you marry, how often you marry, how many ice-creams you eat in your lifetime; your overall health and well-being; the number of stones that work their way into your shoes resulting in you repeatedly hopping about on one foot to remove them; the amount of love in your life.

Expert advice on core subjects

Tips and tricks for English – Evelyn O’Connor, English teacher and founder of (which also has a section for Junior Certs).

75 per cent of Junior Cert and 55 per cent of Leaving Cert English is completely unseen until you open the paper. That does NOT mean you can’t study for the exam. You are learning skills rather than rote learning information.

Read, read, read, read, read. If you don’t read widely you’ll never become a good writer.

Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Choose a genre (article, speech, report, personal essay, proposal) and write on a topic that interests you. Pay attention to layout and style.

Judging a character is complex - examine what they say, what they do, how they look, what they think and feel and other people’s opinions of them. Don’t take them at their word - characters often lie, to themselves and others.

Learn to spell the word character (there’s only one ‘h’ and it’s at the beginning).

Practice describing and interpreting visual texts (photos, book covers, cartoons, advertising campaigns).

Structure your answers. Stream-of-consciousness style answers rarely achieve a good grade, particularly if the student gets stuck exploring one point in excessive detail and/or fails to use paragraphs effectively.

Creative writing needs to be vivid and entertaining. Show don’t tell. The reader should have specific sights, sounds and smells in their minds eye as they read your writing.

Essays on studied texts must use a formal style. Points must be supported with relevant (and accurate) quotes.

Be opinionated.

Tips and tricks for maths - Eamonn Toland, founder of

Practice the basics of each area of maths - it makes the more advanced material much easier! If you are shaky on basic probability, then Bernoulli Trials are going to be a bit of a stretch.

Make sure you understand basic algebra and are fluent in applying it to solving problems. If you are making mistakes in algebra, go back and revise it, it will make other topics easier.

Having said that, you should spend time revising all topics, not just your favourites! It’s much better to be average in all topics than to be excellent in one or two and weak in the others.

Get help if you are stuck on something. It might be easier than you think, and can be the key to other areas, so don’t suffer in silence! Ask your teacher, parents, friends or go online, there’s lots of help available.

Face up to the “wordiness” of problems associated with Project Maths. For some people, the biggest challenge is in extracting the relevant information and numbers from a long “story”. Practice these now and get used to interpreting them.

For Leaving Cert, get used to doing the Context and Applications questions which are found in Section B of each paper. This way, you will become comfortable with questions on real-world applications that you may not have seen before the day of the exam. If you can deal with an arbelos, a robotic arm or a jigsaw puzzle, then it will help you to deal with whatever unusual object or situation comes in 2014.

Make sure you know the structure of the papers - how many questions, how many marks for each, and the time allocation. Test yourself based on those timings, and use printouts of real exam papers to get used to writing in the booklet. You can find all past papers in one place on, and the marking schemes are there too.

Practicing past papers also helps to get a feel for the level required - but remember Project Maths is not intended to be predictable in terms of specific topics being examined. All items from the syllabus are examinable. All questions are mandatory for Junior Cert students, and there is only a small element of choice in one question for Leaving Cert.

Start practicing exam technique now, not the day of the exam. Get into good habits from now on, such as attempting all parts of all questions, showing your work, and checking your answers. If you do this, it will be second nature to you on the day of the exam, and it will make a big difference in your grade.

Tips and Tricks for languages – Natasha Lynch Director of Essential French Cork. See

Vocabulary is key: Vocab learning is often ignored by students yet is essential at this point of the year. For example, it accounts for half of the total marks of the Leaving Cert honours French paper – reading comprehensions (30 per cent) and listening exam (20 per cent).

What to do :

Start making a list of vocab that you are stuck on and start learning it daily. Short spurts of learning: max three minutes at a time - TV ad breaks are a perfect time to learn vocab.

To make vocab learning more fun why not write a new word on the back of each hand daily – you will have the two new words learnt off by lunchtime every day!

Listening technique can help all areas of a language paper:

The key to effective listening study is listening with a purpose.

What to do :

Choose a short section of text and make sure you understand it thoroughly. Listen to the section on the CD over and over (15 mins ) by listening and reading along with the text; listening and repeating what you hear on the CD; and finally listening and writing what you hear on a page. By using this three R study method you are appealing to all senses, you are more interactive with your study and this will improve all areas of the exam (vocab, grammar, listening) if performed daily.

Irish tips - Éabha O Leary Fitzpatrick Essential Irish tutor

Written Expression:

Build a thesaurus of words and expressions. For example, when asked to describe something, instead of using cur síos all the time, incorporate other words such as léargas, léiriú, cuireann sé ar ár súile for example. For interesting and enjoyable use suimiúil, spreagúil, spéisiúil, taitneamhach. Use different words that mean the same thing when referring back to the answer to highlight your level of vocab. If the structure of your sentence is grammatically correct, you are onto a winner.


Always make reference to poetry techniques. There is nearly always a question where they refer to or ask about techniques. Recognise the techniques in the poem and then explain how they portray the theme of the poem for example. One technique that a student could talk about is stíl thíosach, which allows the reader to read in-between the lines and gain a better understanding of the deeper meaning a poet is trying to convey.

Tips and Tricks for French – Natasha Lynch, Essential French Cork

Do not learn off chunks of material on different themes under any circumstances. Students are rarely asked a general topic so these general essays in text books are a complete waste of time. Instead create a wordbank – a brainstorming list of vocab on different themes.

All opinion pieces need structure – a start, middle and an end so choose two separate sets of these for the French exam, one for the 90 word opinion piece and one for the 75 word opinion piece. Perfect these as there is no excuse for getting these wrong and your work will look poor.

The 90 word narrative is rarely attempted. It is a beautiful question to answer most of the time. It is practically the same as the diary question but the structure (intro and ending) is different. Emotions and phrases used in diary work can also be used here so you are covering two question possibilities by practising both.

Never complete three opinion pieces if you are aiming for an A1. To be considered an A1 student your work needs to be varied and impressive in every single possible way. Answering three opinion questions shows that you are a one hit wonder – this will rarely impress. What we suggest is to do two opinion pieces and a diary question or a 90 word narrative question. In this way you are showcasing your material beautifully. You are demonstrating two styles of writing.

Surviving on your stomach. Student Clare Reidy has been there and done that when it comes to eating for success during exam time.


If you don’t like coffee, I suggest you begin training yourself to, by throwing syrup or sugar in your mug. Nobody can argue that it doesn’t help alertness, especially if you’re not one for forming logical sentences in the morning.

I’m sure every 18 year-old is appalled at the idea of porridge, but it can be perfectly edible with some minor adjustments. Some good ones are putting chocolate chips, bananas, peanut butter, or even molasses and strawberries on it. It takes all the notion of inedible slop away and keeps you going all morning.


Re-heatable dinners are great if your sixth year lunch room has got a microwave at hand. Just promise me you won’t bring in fish pie or homemade chowder, because you will lose friends and alienate people. Fact.

Great filling carbs to have at lunchtime are wholemeal bagels (with cream cheese, yum), pastas, and brown rice.

Snacks and study treats:

My friends and I started our own nerdy trend of dunking Nature Valley bars into yogurt pots, which I understand sounds revolting to some people, but it got us through.

Peanut Butter cups and chocolate bars with nuts can be very satisfying, and addictive too, for the record.


It’s hard to knock back a big meal when you get home from late night study and you don’t want to be waking up with a lasagne hangover the next morning. If you don’t like oily fish or lean meats, I have a trick – cover them in honey or a sticky glaze. They increase brain power, are low in fat and provide a heaping of nutrients.

Noodles are a light choice at night, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love them? Do you?

And at night, use a relaxer like malted milk to make sure you get adequate sleep. Sleep is equally as important as your diet during this time.

10 signs of study avoidance

Cleaning your room or organising your socks drawer holds an appeal like never before. Well, you know what they say, orderly surroundings, orderly mind? Or something?

You are in the process of colour coding your notes. Organisation is important.

You may not have done any actual revision but your study timetable is a thing of beauty.

You put such effort into the timetable, in fact, that you really deserve to watch a bit of telly. Just one episode of Home and Away, oh and a couple of minutes of Corrie, and there’s that movie you haven’t seen yet...

You sit down to study and find yourself writing up a thorough study plan for the day. Well how else are you going to know where to start?

Your Dad needs someone to help clean out the gutter? Mum wants someone to walk the dog? You’re there! After that you’ll definitely get down to some maths.

Your notes are neon as a result of diligent use of the highlighter pen.

You need to go over your highlighted notes with a different colour to highlight the really important bits.

You’ve turned off your phone and disconnected the internet. But all you can think about is what you’re missing.

After a long hard day of cleaning and organising, you bring your notes downstairs and install yourself on the couch. You can study while the telly is on right

Prepare for the day: Get exam-wise

Susan Leahy, Spanish teacher in the King’s Hospital School, Dublin and blogger at has this advice for exam days.

Breathe – right down to your tummy , that’s where all your nerves are and if the oxygen doesn’t get there, life’s more difficult. Breathe through every moment that you have to listen to someone telling you “Good luck,” or “It’ll be okay,” or “I didn’t do anything” (when you know they did) or when anyone says anything that gets between you and your focus. Breathe.

Wear something comfortable. It might be cold in your particular exam centre, or it might be warm. Wear a hoodie and a few layers, so that you can strip off or put on as you need to. If you have some kind of lucky charm, put it in your pocket. No harm having everything possible on your side.

Bring more than one pen to the exam hall. If possible, bring a few . Don’t forget calculators, protractors, erasers, pencils, coloured pencils and all the things you’re allowed to bring in that will make your life easier and your exam paper better.

Eat. Consider eating some cereal before you go in. Why? The reasoning is that half an hour into the exam, just as you’re getting into the swing of things, you’ll get an extra boost from the sugar rush but it won’t be followed by a sugar low, as it would be if you had a bar of chocolate. I always brought a little bottle of water to the exam too, but drink only enough to keep you from being distracted by thirst and not enough to make you need to go to the loo. If you think you’ll get hungry in there, bring a banana – quiet to open, full of slow-burning sugar.

Be nice to whoever is looking after you during your exams: parents, siblings, relatives, guardians and teachers because they are all worried about you. Very worried! Help them to help you by appreciating what they do for you (even if they’re driving you mad).

Don’t leave early. Anything you remember outside the exam hall will be useless. And besides, what will you be doing with that “extra” half-hour? You might say you’ll be studying, but really, will you? It’s more likely you’ll be standing around outside, either saying or hearing the following:

“I didn’t study for that at all”,

“No way. Oh my God, is that the answer?”, or “Oh no, I didn’t write that”.

Be on time. That way you can have everything laid out in an obsessive manner on your desk. You might also get to know the examinations’ invigilator and even be asked to sign the opening of an exam pack. (Don’t laugh .This may be the high point of your life over the exam fortnight.) Although the exams begin at 9.30am, you need to be there at 9am on the morning of the first exam.

Put each exam behind you as you do it. It’s done; move on. If you must, give yourself half an hour to do a mini post-mortem with your friends, then put it aside and move onto preparing for the next paper. What’s done, is done.

Breathe. Smile. Soon you will be putting all of this behind you. Make sure it’s forever by giving it your all.

Essential Web Resources – free maths video lessons online – online revision courses for a fee. There’s a sale on at the moment with some courses going for half price. – free Leaving Cert notes – Leaving and Junior Cert home economics notes run by Cork based teacher Elma Kent (Pobailscoil Na Trionoide, Youghal). – free Irish resource site run by St Columba’s Irish teachers. – Presentation Wexford’s geography teacher Val Redmond’s site for geography students. – English for Junior and Leaving Cert run by English teacher Evelyn O’Connor. – Leaving and Junior Cert maths resources. The founder Peter Lee requests that users donate €25 to one of two chosen charities. – 300 hours of maths videos, revision notes, online grinds, study tips, exam feedback service and much more. Many resources are free. – free Leaving and Junior Cert notes and resources. – free resources for Junior Cert science as well as Leaving Cert biology, physics and applied maths. have useful tips about the important stuff like how to combat stress and what to do if it’s all becoming too much. for The Irish Times/Institute of Education Exam Times study guides

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