Time to get real for the Leaving

Tue, Jan 17, 2012, 00:00

I got 600 points in my Leaving by doing all study and schoolwork to exam standard and now is the time to establish the routines to maximise your results, writes RORY CREAN

I COULDN’T quite believe it when I woke up this time last year and the alarm clock advertised the Year of our Leaving. Now it’s your turn. You can no longer say “Oh that exam? Sure, that’s not till next year.” The honeymoon period of the first term has passed and it’s time to take stock of what you’ve covered, and what more you have to do.

And there’s also the little matter of the pre-exams, which will provide you with a snapshot of where you stand in each subject. Many of you will have had tests just before the Christmas break which will serve as a good indicator already. How do you make the best of the pre-exams, and more importantly, the next five months?

NEVER TAKE A DAY FOR GRANTED

The key to getting the most out of the next few months is to never take a day for granted. That means starting with the basics. If you hit the ground running back in September, you will already have devised a timetable that you’ve been sticking to. Now that the new term is upon us, it would be wise to revise this timetable, reallocating time to your weaker subjects. If you haven’t already set out a plan, it’s simple. I worked in hour blocks: English, French and maths on a Monday. Irish, chemistry and geography on a Tuesday, and so on until you’ve filled your weekdays with roughly equal amounts of time given to each subject. Once you have the outline of a timetable, try adding an hour each night, giving special attention to those subjects that need extra attention. The same applies to your weekend.

The key thing to remember when you are setting out your timetable is leave time for breaks. You have to deal with the fact that study will be taking up more of your time, but that’s not to say that you should be chained to your desk whenever you’re at home.

TEST YOURSELF

The mocks or pre-exams are a useful mid-year assessment of where you’re at, but you should be testing yourself throughout the year.

If you don’t have test results to indicate your weaker subjects, then break down each course into broad chapters. From January onward, I would write out checklists for each subject, and tick off each chapter as you do them. Then I’d find some past paper questions that synched up with the chapter and test myself. If I wasn’t able to answer questions on a section, I’d allot another hour of my nightly timetable.

It may seem arduous and repetitive to keep testing yourself, just to adjust your timetable, but stick with it and you’ll bring all your subjects up to the same level. The take-home message is: identify your weak points now and take action. You do not want to be dealing with these problems after getting your mock results when you have a hundred other things to be dealing with.

DON’T PANIC – YOU’RE IN A GOOD PLACE

With the new term beginning, it may feel like time is running short. But it is still January and while that doesn’t mean complacency is in order, it does allow time to really get into the swing of things.

Stress can get to a lot of people around this time as the reality of the year starts to sink in. You may feel like the year is half over, but it’s not. You may also feel like your way of studying is different and inferior to classmates. The likelihood is that it’s not.

Sixth year is all about habits, and drastic changes will only work against you. There are the obvious exceptions for people who have been sitting back. But, if you’ve been doing consistent work, you know that, while you still need to kick everything up a gear, you’re in a rhythm that works and this will see you through to June.

MAKING THE MOST OF THE MOCKS

The mocks, despite what you may have heard, were not created to wreck your head. Instead, they were introduced to give you the closest thing to the real exam you’re likely to experience. That is a gift, trust me. In-class tests on Hamlet quotes will never have the same beneficial effect as writing an essay on Gertrude under time constraints. The mocks are an invaluable tool, but only if you use them correctly. You know the information. You can prove that in any class test. But the point of the mocks is to hone your exam technique.

TOP FIVE FOR THE MOCKS

1. Stress: it’s okay to feel a little stressed about the mocks. They’re your one chance to show yourself how much you remember under exam conditions. As a result, some people are afraid of making a mess of the thing. But when you stop and think about it, that’s why the mocks are there. Make all your mistakes now and learn from them. Better to misread a question now and know to be careful in the future than to make that mistake when it really counts.

2. Time management: this is huge in exam preparation, and the mocks are the best way to get a feel for your own capabilities. You might come out of the maths exam thinking, “I can blitz the (a) and (b) parts, but I get bogged down in (c)”. If you can walk away from the exam with something as small, yet important as that, then the mocks were worth the effort.

3. Control your answers: this is likely to be the first exam you’ll have where you answer almost everything on the paper. That means you have to be very aware and analytical of your answers while you’re writing them. Capping yourself and focusing evenly on each section is the key. If you’ve got down 17 good SRPs (significant relevant points, the building block of every geography answer), you stand nothing to gain by adding another. Start a new question instead and get the benefit of each SRP you add. It’s the same for every subject. Don’t write two extra pages on a poet just because you learnt more poems than you needed to answer. If you’ve dealt with the question, move on and start banking more marks.

4. Read the questions: the questions you find on these papers are going to come with a twist. You won’t get something as simple as “discuss Claudius”, instead there will be another subtopic, or angle you have to take, like “Claudius believes what he is doing to be right and is unjustly villainised”. The same applies to geography, history, religion or any other subject.

5. Environment matters: as important as the papers are, half of what makes the pre-exams such an invaluable experience is the simulation of an exam centre. It will let you know how you cope under exam conditions and will more likely than not take an element of fear out of the “real” exams.

All of these tips will become more relevant as June 6th draws nearer.

TWO PITFALLS FOR THE MOCKS

1. Many people fare far better in the mocks than they expect and become complacent and reduce their workload. While a solid performance in the mocks is excellent, the Exam Commission will never see those results. Instead you have to prove to them how high you can score. The same goes for people who did poorly. You do not want your mock results to be your wake-up call but, if you do worse than you had hoped, don’t go into meltdown mode.

2. With everything else that is going on this term, you may be tempted to focus on the mocks and to start looking back at whatever work you did back in September for the pre-exams. But don’t devote all of your time to it.

TERM TWO

More than any other term, term two is a balancing act. If you take the foot off the pedal now and go in to pure revision mode, you won’t have covered the necessary areas when you come back to revise it all in May.

For the weeks leading up to the mocks, cover whatever you did in class that day, finish the homework and then start looking back on material from fifth year and term one. That’s the only way to move through the syllabus and ensure you don’t miss anything. If you’re not getting enough time to study in the weeks before the mocks, then scale back your work for fieldworks and instrument practice, etc. As soon as the mocks are over, you can focus your attention back on submissions for term three.

THE BIG PICTURE

Mocks are only a part of what makes up term two. You shouldn’t forget the various submissions you have due in between DCG (design and communication graphics) courseworks and science practical write-ups.

Many people complain that the Leaving Cert should shift to a continuous assessment approach, and then ignore the geography fieldworks, history RSRs (research study reports), art portfolios, music practicals and language interviews. While these exams and submissions may not be due until next term, you can do your future self a huge favour and get the groundwork done. Having drafts of your RSR and fieldwork to hand when you’re filling in the final booklet is a huge advantage. You’ll be expected to fill a booklet of roughly 20 pages – no small task – but having the layout in front of you with all the kinks worked out means you can really work on the smallest details of that submission.

The same goes for music, art and languages. Just because your exam isn’t on for a few months doesn’t mean you can’t rack up valuable hours of practice playing, sketching and conversing in preparation for your orals.

SUMMARISE, SUMMARISE, SUMMARISE

Anyone who read my Irish Times article on how to get 600 points in the Leaving Cert last year will know that I swear by summaries. I take every bit of information I learn, from physics to Shakespeare, and I summarise it in my own words.

So, in the spirit of summary . . .

Term two is your chance to consolidate the work you’ve done, or catch up on what you have missed. It’s a great time to get preparations for term three out of the way. The Leaving Cert is still five months away – more than enough time to improve every aspect of your study technique, time management and exam technique.

Sleeping enough and eating correctly are essential. Maintaining a social life and setting aside time for breaks is the best way to alleviate stress and keep you fresh for when you return to the books.

Treat everything as if it were the real thing. Go into the mocks as if they were the Leaving Cert and you’ll get the full benefit of them. Write every draft as if it were the booklet to be submitted. Play every piece as if you were performing to an examiner in the practical. Write every homework essay to the standard you would expect to produce on exam day. Do this and you remove the alien element from the final exams. You strip them of their ominous, unknown factor and expose them for what they are: a chance for you to prove what you know and what you understand.

Rory's resolutions for 2012: The Beatles and books

BOOKS

This year I’ll be reading more. I used to devour books. Then I got an xbox. Since then, I never really got back into the swing of things, but among my circle of friends there has been a revival, of sorts, to go back and read the classics we didn’t “get” the first time round.

HBO

I’m a slave to ritual and habit which is why hour-long drama series suit me down to the ground. If you want to relax and suspend your worries for 60 minutes, you could do a lot worse than enter the universe of pretty much any HBO series.

COMEDY GIG

I’m looking forward to seeing Dara Ó Briain in 2012. Last year, I had the honour of seeing Dylan Moran play Vicar Street and it was the best gig I’ve ever been to.

MUSIC

I don’t really keep up with modern music. I’m hoping that 2012 is the year that the rest of my friends start listening to The Beatles too.

THE OLYMPICS

Can’t go wrong with the Olympics. Between the spectacle of the ceremony and transient interest in sports you’ll never see again, the Olympics is a nice change of pace.

EXAMS

It doesn’t end with the Leaving, you know . . .