The final countdown: how to maximise success in the Junior and Leaving Cert

There is still time to use the coming weeks effectively for the exams. Photograph: iStock

There is still time to use the coming weeks effectively for the exams. Photograph: iStock

 

It's just a few weeks until the Junior and Leaving Cert exams get underway. The routines of school life are coming to an end. Students, and their parents, can find this period difficult to manage.

The good news? It’s still possible to get some critical work done in the coming weeks. It’s a chance to pull your learning together, to practise presenting your knowledge to an examiner and to strengthen your weak spots. It’s also possible to keep the head.

Here are ten tips to help students and their parents remain calm and focused on the task ahead.

1. Deal with stress

You are probably feeling a growing level of stress – that’s normal. Stress is not a bad thing in itself as it heightens our sense of preparedness for the task ahead, but allowing the stress to get out of hand can severely disrupt preparation for the exam.

Regular breaks, exercise and a good diet all help to alleviate stress. So does a focused, planned approach to study (see the tips to follow). If exam stress becomes a real problem for you over the coming weeks, consult your family doctor, who will be able to help you deal effectively with this matter.

2. Stay focused

For Leaving Cert students, the rituals of leaving school, the centre of your world for the past 14 years, can be emotionally and physically draining.

Final prize days, farewell parties with school friends – these are important rites of passage, but they have their place. Plan for the time you can give to these events and be ready to get back to business quickly after they are over.

3. Plan your final five weeks of study

By now you’ve probably written and discarded enough study plans to fill a warehouse. The one you write this month should be your best, though, because the coming weeks are a great opportunity to consolidate what you have learned.

4. Retain your rituals

The place to spend the final weeks before the examination is in school maintaining a routine of work, under the direction of your teachers.

You will probably find that your subject classes in school will finish up at least a week before the beginning of the exams, with most schools giving Leaving Certificate students the last two weeks to work at home, with the option of coming into school for support from their teachers if they so wish.

My advice? Stay in school until the end of normal class teaching.

5. Practise for the task

Doing well in examinations is 50 per cent technique and 50 per cent knowledge of your subject matter.

You have absorbed many times more information over the past two years than you could ever present in your Leaving or Junior Certificate.

The next five weeks should be about fine-tuning your answers, in line with the marking schemes, published by the State Examinations Commission on their website, examinations.ie

These marking schemes are a vital resource for you, as they show you exactly what the teacher correcting your paper will be looking for when they open it on their dining room table on a hot afternoon in July.

Two students with the same amount of information on a topic may get radically different grades, depending on how they both present the information to the correcting teacher.

6. Presentation is key

Use the next five weeks to practise presenting the information you currently have, in the most examiner-friendly manner, so that you will get the best grade you are capable of achieving in the examinations in June.

Resist the temptation to drown yourself in an avalanche of additional information which you will not be able to process effectively in the three short hours of any examination paper.

This does not mean that you should not revise the work you have been building up over recent months, as it is vital that you refresh your memory on all the questions you hope to answer in the examination.

7. Study smart

You should by now have a master study timetable on their bedroom wall, on sheets of poster paper, showing all major themes in every subject to be studied. As you draft summary revision sheets on each possible question, you can then delete this topic from your to-do list.

Then you can see at a glance the progress you are making in your preparations. Individual periods of study should not exceed 40 minutes per subject, with a five- to 10-minute break in between. Periods of study lasting more than four hours are counterproductive.

Your brain cannot absorb information if it becomes over-tired, undernourished, or confused by anxiety or stress. To subject your body and mind to any more than eight hours study a day will result in rapidly diminishing returns.

8. Trust the experts

If you find that you are confused on any point, or are fearful about your ability to successfully answer a question on a particular topic, or a section of a subject, talk to the teacher.

They will be more than willing to give you the time to answer your question fully. They know your standard, having taught you for at least two years and are the best support you could possibly have over the next four weeks.

If they are fearful of your ability to take their subject at higher level, they will very quickly advise you to consider moving to ordinary level, or foundation level if appropriate.

Do not be panicked into changing levels yourself, if you have not been advised to do so by your subject teacher. It is too late to consider formal grinds with a new tutor – talk to the people who know you.

9. Parents can help

The best support a parent can give at this stage is to listen.

The one piece of advice I would give to any parent of an examination student is not to set yourself up as the expert, doling out advice and attempting to console your son or daughter with words of comfort and lists of dos and don’ts. What they need is someone to listen to them without criticism.

If you show your child trust and unconditional acceptance, they may tell you what they are really feeling. Having given them your listening ear, you can then ask them whether there is anything that you could do to help them to improve their performance in their examinations. It may be as simple as being at home more often to ensure a calm, quiet atmosphere in which they can study.

10. What not to do

You must remember that performance on the day of the examination is determined by physical, psychological and emotional well-being, as well as preparedness in the subject material.

Physical well-being is determined by diet and exercise. Those facing into the stressful conditions of examinations need regular physical exercise through sport, walking, jogging or swimming.

As always, you need to avoid alcohol and drugs, not an easy task given the peer pressures on your age group. You also need to maintain a healthy well-balanced diet, avoiding excessive sugar and junk food.

Preparation, rest and relaxation: Getting the balance right in the final few weeks

A well structured plan will help you keep your head when all about you are losing theirs

  • Start with a diary of the examinations ahead of you. Times, dates, papers, orals, practicals, or portfolios; map them all out. This process will help you to draft a study plan to cover the remaining time available.
  • Measure the remaining time available to you, excluding time spent in school, eating, sleeping, relaxing or taking exercise (don’t cut corners on these). At the end of this simple process, you will have a diary of all aspects of the examination process, and a body of time to prepare for them.
  • Honestly evaluate your level of preparedness for each paper. Identify the areas of weakness that you need to address in the time remaining.
  • Make a to-to list detailing the areas of work within each subject that need to be addressed.
  • If a particular subject or paper represents a number of identified items on your to-do list, you might consider seeking particular support in that subject from your teacher, or through an intensive grind, given the short period of time remaining.
  • Before deciding on seeking a grind, remember that you only have a fixed amount of time. Do not get panicked into concentrating all your efforts on an area of identified weakness, while letting other areas slide.
  • Give yourself time to pull all aspects of a subject together, so that you will be able to give time in the day before the exam to read over all your revision cards and mind maps that you have created.
  • Outline verbally how you would approach a particular topic. This process consolidates your understanding of the question. This can be done among a group of fellow students, with each person taking a different topic.
  • Finally, plan a balanced approach to nutrition, exercise, sleep and relaxation over the coming weeks, so that you will be in the best shape possible when the day of each aspect of the exam arrives.

    * This article has been selected from our archives and first appeared in May 2010