December 21, 2015

How I approached exams. And how you should approach exams

In my graduation college's semester exams, I always stood first. Always. I was the first one to stand up and leave the exam hall. In internal exams, I was in and out of the hall within 10 minutes, since I didn't have the stomach to write anything more than my name and roll number in the answer sheet. I had chosen my journalism college because its website said no exams (regular assessment instead). Yet, today I've been asked to write an article advising school-goers how to approach their exam. Talk of irony!

The only practical advice I'd give is this: know the important questions, jot down the answers neatly on small chits and plan extremely carefully where to hide them. In class XII, I failed in physics in all the three pre-boards and three unit tests, except the 40-mark test in which prism formula's derivation was bound to come. It helped that I was seated in the last row, but even otherwise I'd have copied, like I did in first semester exams. Why bother memorising Henry Fayol's 14 principles of management when you can scribble them all on a piece of paper and 'refer' to it! During this exam, I had the two most feared invigilators in my exam hall. Yet I copied coolly. (Copying tip: Play it cool. Don't act suspicious.)

Please note that I do not endorse all of the following 21 points. They were written merely for the blog. I stand by only point no. 17, which is about last-minute preparation. The last time I prepared for an exam was in class XII; it was only on the day before the board exam that I actually ever studied. 

How I passed class XII boards
If you're a science student in class XII, CBSE course, have failed all three pre-boards and don't know a thing even two days before the exams are set to begin, you're in trouble. You know how science books are: bulky like telephone directories. That's how much syllabus one needs to cover. Now, in my first pre-board exams, I had failed in four out of five subjects, English being the only subject in which I passed. With 88 numbers, I was the top-scorer in this subject in my class. The sum total of my four other subjects' marks was 44 or 45. (I rue misplacing my class XII report card.)

By the third pre-board, I did manage to pass all subjects. Except physics. Had my paper been evaluated fair and square, I'd have cleared that subject too, but our physics teacher was known for being biased and insensible. He was pissed off with me for being a pain in the a** and thus was stingy in awarding marks, which is why I failed in the third pre-board. (I know it's not logical to fail a student who's barely managed to pass because you were pissed that he failed previous exams, but people are weird. Aren't they?)

So, the principal refused to give the admit card to me. He asked me, and the likes of me, to get a 'clearance' from the physics teacher. So, two-three days before the board exam, we had a small test. The syllabus was only the first two (or three?) chapters. Everyone knows, these first chapters are elementary level. I failed even that. The principal had to give the admit card, as he does not have the authority to withhold it. The 'clearance' in weak subject was of course a gimmick. We all knew that.

So, a day (or two?) before the board exam, I get my admit card. I was kind of relieved until I got the admit card in hand. Though I knew the principal would have to give the card, a part of me was wishing he didn't. That way, I won't have had to appear for the exam and I could have proclaimed: "I'd get good marks, only if I were allowed to write the exam!" But fate was cruel to me and didn't offer me that luxury.

So, you have less than 48 hours before a board exam and you know absolutely nothing about that subject. The book is like telephone directory in size, alien concepts on each page. How do you prepare? You do it my way.

Thankfully, those days, CBSE would allot a certain marks to each chapter. The question paper more or less stuck to that weightage. I had the math done. Total marks 70, passing marks 24 (it was in the 20s, I can't recall what exactly, but let's say it was 24). I'm safe if I prepare for 27-28 marks well. Prepare only this much, but prepare thoroughly.

Ok. Now how do we pick which topics to cover? There are certain factors to be considered: Which chapter has the most weightage? Which chapter will take the least amount of time to prepare? Which chapter/topic carries enough weightage and does not require any prior knowledge of related concepts? 

As part of my preparation, the first thing I studied intently was the chapter-wise allocation of marks. Next was the syllabus. I went through the index to identify topics I was confident I would grasp. This took some time. Once I zeroed in on the topics I'd study, I was good to start my preparation. As they say, well begun is half done. 

When I finally picked up the book (it had been lying safe and protected in the plastic cover ever since I had bought it a year ago, had opened it only a couple of times in between when I wanted to whiff in the smell of a new book), I was intimidated for a moment. I was scared. Even in class XI, I had never studied physics. In class IX and X too, I'd never touch physics questions in exams. But now I had no choice. 

I didn't have the luxury of time to worry. For the first time since the eve of class X social science exam, I started studying sincerely. As I was turning page after page, I was beginning to understand the concepts that had eluded me so far. So easy! I was happy and excited. Confidence continued to grow as I finished one topic after another. 

What do you think happened in the board exam? Ha! I knew that I knew my 28-mark portion well. When I got the question paper, I went through it calmly, taking my time. As I had to attempt only half of the questions anyway, I had all the time in the world. After I scanned the question paper completely, a confident smile was sitting pretty on my face. Whatever I had prepared in the past day and a half was enough to see me through. And pass I did. 

This is how I approached the other subjects too. Chemistry, maths, informatics practices. My approach works. I got 59.8% in the board exams, falling one mark short of 60%. Just one bloody mark. Huh! I did improve my performance in graduation, though, securing 59.9%. (No kidding, no exaggerating, no adjusting figures to facilitate storytelling. I can show you my marksheets.)

I've narrated this anecdote so that the so-called 'weak' students can take a leaf out of the book of someone who has been there, done that. Got an exam tomorrow and haven't prepared? Worry not. Prepare like I did, basic minimum studying. Oh, enough advice for insincere students. I'm enjoying gloating, so let me gloat some more.

My college days and (no) studies
During my graduation, I had stopped taking notes in the classroom after third semester. (Or after second sem?) I won't even take a notebook and pen to the college. I'd always remember to take my music-edition phone, its headset and my guitar. At the beginning of every semester, teachers would send my friends and I out of the classroom for not having a notebook, but as if I cared! My friends and I were only too happy to get the freedom to roam around and not miss out on attendance. Alas, the teachers shunted us out only the first few days.

That was my college life. No studying, no notes, no doing assignments, no taking exams seriously. That's how it was throughout, after the second semester. Till second semester, I had tried sincerely. But if despite writing so much, you get ho-hum marks, one's set to lose morale, right? Right.

Plus, the subjects in BBA are so repetitive. What you study in consumer behaviour is taught in organisational behaviour again. What's taught in business communication is taught in marketing again. What's taught in human resource management is taught in other subjects all over again. It was like old wine in new bottle. Plus, it was just stupid having to memorise things like '5 steps of problem-solving'. If a fly is bugging me, I'll shoo it away. Problem solved in one step. But for a simple thing like this BBA has five steps. Likewise, there are eight steps of communication. Eight stupid steps. I was disenchanted with BBA education and knew for sure I won't be going for an MBA. So there was no need for me to waste my college days over pointless things like studying.

The genuine slacker
But exams are a necessary evil. Cometh the exam time, even the 'coolest' of guys would run around, getting notes photocopied from the sincere ones. Ahead of semester exams, you could see these 'dyoods' with their nose buried in the photostats. Rest of the year they'd act tough, act (over)smart, but the heat of exam would always melt their cool quotient. That's what sets me apart from the lesser mortals. I never studied a thing for any exam after the second semester. Even my friends with whom I'd hang out throughout the day would stop wasting time with me a few days before the exam. 

I never studied. Didn't need to. I knew drawing wide margins on the answer sheet and generic bluffing would see me through. Even when I had to sit at home with books ahead of exams (parents, you see), it was always a book of quotable quotes or a novel that I've read a dozen times. I was never bothered, never afraid. What a cool life I had! This devil-may-care attitude... Wow! I'm ... I'm great. I love myself. I've always held that my college life was awesome, despite our waiter-like uniform. Thank you for that, God!

Hmmm... Originally, I intended to write only a couple of lines, to introduce the following blogpost, but look at just how much I've written! So full of myself! Haha.. Sign of healthy self-esteem ;-) So, getting down to brass tacks, here are the tips I thought up for students who are appearing for their board exam:

21 ways to approach your exam
Exams need not be the nerve-wracking experience a student goes through with bated breath. Follow these tips and breeze through this yearly event. Because while exams are important, they are no big deal.

1. Keep calm, it's exam time:
It is necessary to approach the exam with a calm mind. Anxiety and nervousness can mar your ability to answer the question paper. So, be it in the exam hall or while preparing for your all-important subjects, tell yourself that to make the best use of time at hand, you need to be relaxed. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and get your zen mode on.

2. Start easy while preparing:
Which topics seem like a cakewalk? Tend to them first. Feeling good? Good! Increase the difficulty level only progressively. This will help you gain the all-important confidence.

3. Don't miss on sleep:
Everyone sleeps less than usual ahead of exams, but make sure you don't stay up all night. Deprive yourself of sleep, and your mind becomes a lot less efficient in soaking and retaining information.

4. Eat smart:
Deep fried food will make you drowsy. Forgetting to eat will compromise your brain's ability to be alert and active. Eat healthy and make sure you don't miss a single meal during exams.

5. Cut down on social media:
Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp... If you find yourself spending too much time on these platforms, it's better to deactivate your profiles for the time being.

6. Previous question papers:
Try to arrange past five years' question papers. Ensure you know the answer to every question.

7. Solved question papers:
Get books of solved question papers and go through them. Read them. You'll be getting familiar with not only the recurring questions over the past few years, but also how to answer them.

8. Take mock tests at home:
This will help you get familiar with the concept of answering the exam paper in the due time. You'll get used to writing fast enough. If you take enough mock tests at home, exam fear (if any) would have no grip on you.

9. Write. Write. Write:
For many, preparation means merely reading. They don't bother practising by writing. Be it derivation of important formulae in science or maths or subjects like history and languages, practise by writing. The mind tends to race ahead in the flow when you are merely reading. It's when you write that your mind actively takes part in the process of learning. Make notes as you study a subject.

10. Write in detail:
For students of science and maths, it is important they write down all the steps of a question they are answering. Often, marks are awarded not just for the answer but also for the steps. If your answer sheet doesn't bear all the steps, you risk losing marks. Also, if your answer is wrong but some of your steps are right, you get marks for those steps.

11. Mind your handwriting:
Evaluators tend to be more generous in awarding marks if the answer sheet bears neat and beautiful handwriting. Gibberish text, on the other hand, puts them off and stands the risk of drawing fewer marks.

12. Draw diagrams:
If a question can be answered better with diagrams, draw them. Neatly drawn, relevant diagrams are an effective marks bait.

13. Important topics:
Almost every subject has topics teachers stress as important. One or the other topic from this core group is bound to appear in the question paper. So give due time to covering this portion.

14. Group studies:
Group study works when it comes to clearing doubts, but resort to this only when all of you have completed your syllabus and this gathering is not gonna end up in banter..

15. Revision:
The more often you revise, the stronger your grip on the syllabus will be. That's why it makes sense to start preparing early, so that you can allocate sufficient time to revise the syllabus.

16. Plan well in advance:
The sooner you start preparing, the better. With still a couple of months to go before the exams, sit down with the list of your entire syllabus and make a realistic study plan. A few chapters every day will go a long way.

17. Last-minute preparation:
If exams are fast approaching and you've just begun studying, try this approach: Get the breakdown of which chapters contain what weightage. Identify the ones with the most weightage and study them first. That means a better return on investment in terms of time spent and portion covered.

18. Be organised:
Some students choose questions that are easy or carry most marks, proceeding in a random manner. This leaves many flustered towards the end as to which questions are yet to be unanswered. Avoid this by being organised.

19. When you lose motivation:
It's common for a student to get overwhelmed and/or not being able to concentrate. To deal with such situations, look at the bigger picture. What's your aim in life? Sit back and visualise how scoring well will bring you closer to your dreams. Let it sink in. (If you're not clear what you want to be, let your motivation be escaping parents' rebuke. Whatever works!)

20. Don't prepare like this guy:

21. Go easy on yourself:
While your parents and teachers must be breathing under your neck, relax. Don't let the pressure get to you (because point 1). Set a realistic goal for yourself and give your best.

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