Study: Staying on top of the exam workload

Just in college a wet weekend and the end of semester exams are nearly here. How can freshers keep up with the workload? We asked some final-year students for advice.

 

Midterms in college can be a very sudden reminder for students that end of semester exams are approaching much faster than you imagined. This applies to first years more than any other year group, as freshers’ fun can spill long past Freshers’ Week, or the odd missed lecture becomes less and less odd.

As workloads mount and the first inklings of worry start to seep in about upcoming exams, we got advice from some final year students about their approach to exams and what to do to get ahead when you’re feeling behind.

Aine O’Connell, final year English and history, TCD

How do you approach exams?

I do my best to work consistently throughout the year. I study English, so much of our assessment is essay based, which I much prefer. However, my college is the sort of place where exam fever hits hard when term finishes. So for the last three years, despite working fairly consistently, I’ve ended up cramming in April, too. Definitely wouldn’t recommend the latter, as you’ll exhaust yourself.

How did you feel about your first year exams?

First year exams were probably the most stressful period in my life. I thought they were absolutely impossible to study for, largely because college work is so different to school.

There’s no textbook to highlight, only loads of books older than your parents to sift through, which is the worst. I ended up crying a lot to my parents and getting emergency tutoring from a lecturer friend of the family. But the most important part is that I did alright - I didn’t fail a thing. The study period is the worst part and it’s actually easier than you expect when you finally sit down in the RDS with the paper.

Have you had any exam horror stories?

When I was in my first year, I got very into competitive studying and would end up spending 13+ hours in the library. The crowd I hung out with at the time and I all spent our time trying to out-do one another, which was far worse than the exams themselves.

How would you advise first years to manage their workload?

I can only advise arts students, so I’ll recommend doing your assignments earlier than you think is necessary, as it’ll save a load of hassle in the long run. Try not to get involved in EVERYTHING because it’s harder to juggle writing, debating, socialising and college work. If you’re worried, find out what support your college has to offer - no one likes doing it but it’s really worthwhile.

Do you have any tips for students finding themselves behind?

If you find yourself way behind, don’t be afraid to ask lecturers for extensions - they’re generally sound about it, and this is coming from someone who got eight last year. With an arts subject, it’s better to know the material you have covered well rather than learning new stuff on your own - so if you’ve been to 4 of 10 tutorials, try to focus on the material from those four, rather than the six you missed. Help is there if you need it, and try not to get too stressed because your mental health should always come before your degree.

Michael O’Sullivan, final year medicinal chemistry, UCD

How do you approach exams?

I used to be a ferocious crammer so I would put everything on the long finger until the very last minute and then cram and not sleep properly for exams. I’ve since learned that’s not the way to do it so I try to keep on top of lecture notes in the meantime, and rather than just looking through them, I tend to write them out and summarise them and at least then you’re taking it in whether you realise it or not.

How did you feel about your first year exams?

First year exams weren’t too bad. I think people freaked out about them more than they needed to. They don’t set out to try to make you fail; they’re usually quite fair in the way they set the exams. If you put in a decent amount of work, you’ll get decent grades out of it.

Have you had any exam horror stories?

Not going to half the lectures for a particular module and then realising when it came to two days before the exam that I didn’t know anything. I had an exam at 6pm the night before and I spent the entire night up studying for this one test. It was a disaster.

How would you advise first years to manage their workload?

Keep on top of any continuous assessment you’re getting, and do them on time because it’s an easy way of picking up extra marks. If you have lab classes or seminars, you might not feel like going but they are easy and it takes the pressure off when it comes to final exams. If you keep on top of them, you shouldn’t find final exams too hard because you’ve covered the material already. You can still enjoy yourself but you have to balance it.

Do you have any tips for students finding themselves behind?

Go through your lecture notes and make bullet points of the very, very important points and then you can fluff out the rest. If you can get down the important points, then at least you’ve written something that’s relevant to the topic and they’ll immediately give you marks for that. Sometimes it won’t make sense but at least if you have the main bullet points down then they’ll realise you’ve gone over the material and know what they’re asking, and you’re just struggling to make it coherent.

Ciara Ní Ghabhann, final year law in NUIG

How do you approach exams?

I like to tell myself I study all the time, and I kinda do, but realistically, there’s nothing like the pressure of impending exams to make me really focus. During the semester I try and keep on top of readings and take notes but it’s unfocused and I don’t retain much of it. The notes are incredibly useful at exam time though, and keep me from spending a lot of time finding what it is I need to learn.

How did you feel about your first year exams?

I got all firsts, despite having been fully convinced I had failed all of them. My biggest problem was that I had never really sat an exam before. I had no real idea how to study, or whether I was studying the right material, or how to actually sit an exam... Luckily I had made friends with people who had already sat the exams I was taking that year, and they were invaluable.

Have you had any exam horror stories?

I’ve been pretty lucky with my own exams so far, but I have seen people burst into tears in exams, and I’ve seen people get up and leave within the first 30 seconds. I’ve heard of people sleeping through their alarm clock and missing an exam they stayed up all night cramming for... I’ve also heard of people turning up to an exam hall having crammed all night for the wrong exam.

How would you advise first years to manage their workload?

Never panic, or at least, never panic so much it paralyses you, but maybe worry just enough to make you do the work.

I’ve had exams where I’ve lived off coffee and toast, thinking I hadn’t time/energy for anything more and was thoroughly miserable by the end, and didn’t do any better than in the exams where I ate well, took breaks and exercised... If I know I’m spending my Saturday afternoon with friends doing something fun, I’ll work a lot harder during the week to make up for that “lost time” and I’ll be happier while I’m doing it.

Do you have any tips for students finding themselves behind?

Chances are if you’re well behind, your friends are too. One easy way to reduce the work you need to do is to split it up. There’s no point in all your friends reading the same article - let one person read each article, take notes, and share them with the group. That way everyone gets the benefit of the articles or books, and everyone’s workload is reduced.

Your classmates are all in the same boat as you, and are probably all as stressed and worried as you, even if they don’t let on. Also it’s never too late to start. The best time may be at the beginning of the semester, but if you’ve missed that boat, it’s better to start today than tomorrow.

Peter Loughman - 1st year graduate entry medicine, UL, having graduated from neuroscience in UCD

How do you approach exams?

My approach is to make notes in the lecture and then go to the library and try to make further notes and then condense those notes into tiny manageable portions that I can remember. It’s methodical but it takes time. You have to have enough time to do it.

I really got better at studying in the latter half of college. I crammed a lot in first and second year and found I had a more balanced approach, I ended up feeling better and doing better because of it. Working works and doing all nighters doesn’t work because sleep consolidates memory.

How did you feel about your first year exams?

I was panicking because I’d never done college exams before, but once you get the first one done, it does fly from there. You get the first one done and you feel tired, but by the end of the week, you’ve got them all done and you’re like, oh my god, I’ve just sat my first set of college exams and they went fine.

Have you had any exam horror stories?

For one exam in third year, a pharmacology exam, I studied pretty much the entire course and had extensive knowledge on a lot of it, except for four topics, and they were the only topics to come up in the exam. That was rough.

How would you advise first years to manage their workload?

It’s something I’m struggling with now as a postgrad. The one thing I would say is don’t sacrifice sleep for work, and if you enjoy something, keep doing it. If you start putting off everything for study, you’re not going to be performing to your peak. You can’t become a ball of stress over exams, because it’s good to do well but it’s better to not lose your mind.

Do you have any tips for students finding themselves behind?

Review old exam questions and make a little chart of topics covered most often. If you can answer those topics covered most often, you’re going to do fine. You mightn’t get an A, but you definitely won’t fail. Also, go to your lecturers. Most lecturers are fairly approachable. That’s one thing I’ve done here: if I’ve had problems, I go to the lecturers and just say ‘Look, I’m finding it difficult. Do you have any advice for me?’

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