The Essential Year-Round Exam Countdown Checklist

Image shows a clock in a window with a seagull flying by.When it comes to exams, planning and organisation can make as much difference to your final grade as native intelligence.

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The best students know that exam preparation doesn’t start in the weeks leading up to the exam. It starts as soon as you begin your course – or even before that, with the careful selection of topics you know you can excel in (if you have the luxury of choice, that is), and it lasts right up to the moment you enter the exam hall. Thorough preparation requires a lot of discipline and the vision to look ahead and get things done now, rather than putting them off. So, without further ado, here’s our exam countdown checklist that takes you through how to prepare from the outset and gives you all the time you need to prepare for your exam as thoroughly as possible.

Two years or more before

Image shows the study desks in a library.
Choose the subject that will make you want to go to the library.

The decision to do well in an exam begins as soon as you decide what that exam is going to be in. The process starts with careful subject selection, so if you have the ability to choose your subjects, choose them carefully. This means being realistic with yourself about how well you think you can do in a certain subject. For example, choosing Further Maths purely because you think it will look good on your university application is all very well, but if you’re not proficient at maths, you’re simply creating extra work and stress for yourself by taking on a subject that’s beyond your capabilities. If you instead choose a subject you enjoy and that you’re good at, you’ll find studying it much easier and you’re bound to do better in the exam.

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As soon as your course has started

Here’s how to lay the foundations for your exam revision by getting organised and revising as you go along.

Organising your notes as you go along

Image shows a selection of colourful notebooks.
Get your notes neatly organised.

We’re probably talking two years away from your exam at this point, but exam preparation begins as soon as your course commences. You’ll make it much easier to revise if you start by keeping organised notes right from the word go. Start a meticulous filing system, with a file for each subject and dividers to separate notes on each area, and put a table of contents on the front of each divider so that you always know exactly what information can be found in each section. If you have rough notes you’ve taken in class, it might also be helpful to type them up at the end of the day, while they’re still fresh in your mind. This will help consolidate what you’ve learned that day, as well as making your notes much easier to revise from.

Start a system of index cards

As well as organising your notes in this way, start an alphabetic system of index cards with bullet point summaries of the key points for each topic. Using index cards forces you to be concise in how you summarise topics, as space is limited; you could even substitute bullet point notes with a diagram if that explains a concept more clearly, in a way that you can remember it. It’s also important to test yourself on what you’ve learned as you go along, rather than leaving it to the last minute. That way, you give yourself plenty of time to brush up on areas you’re not so confident in, and develop a deeper, more lasting knowledge in the first place – which will inevitably lighten your load when it comes to revision. You could test yourself by seeing if you can complete mock exams, or simply by giving your index cards to a friend or parent to test you on by seeing how much you can recall of what’s on the card.

A year before

Image shows a student working in his bedroom while sun streams in through the window.
You can catch up on studying over the summer.

Whether you’re taking GCSEs or A-levels, a year before your final exams marks the halfway point and the end of part one. This is the time to take stock of what you’ve learned over the past year, making sure you’ve thoroughly absorbed everything and you’ve got a solid foundation of knowledge to build on in the second year. Don’t forget, if you’re doing your exams for a particular subject right at the end of the two years (which will increasingly be the case with the new-style GCSE exams, for example), it could be nearly two years since you last covered the topics you learned right at the beginning of the course. So keep them relatively fresh by spending some time over the summer revising what you’ve covered in the last year, and perhaps doing some past papers to highlight gaps in your knowledge where there’s room for improvement. It may sound a trial to do this in the summer, when you should be having fun, but you don’t need to spend the entire summer holiday doing this and it’ll make your final revision sessions easier, so you’ll thank yourself in the long run.

Six months before

You’re still learning new things at this point, and you’re probably therefore quite pushed for time, but now’s a good time to start thinking about revising as well. Think about which subjects or topics you find trickiest, and start to schedule snippets of revision time for these areas around your normal school work. This gives you a comfortable amount of time to get to grips with these trickier areas, and if need be you can also go to your teacher for some guidance without the worry that they’ll be too busy with exams nearly upon them (when everyone else will be going to them for help).

Three months before

Image shows a young woman working in a library.
Three months before the exam is when you should start studying properly.

Revision should begin more earnestly around three months before your exams – and certainly from at least the Easter holidays, as this is the ideal opportunity to knuckle down to some hardcore revision sessions. Before you begin, draw up a revision timetable for the next three months so that you know how much time you have to get through everything. If you’re doing multiple subjects, use a colour-coding system to make your timetable easier to read. Try to schedule in some time at the end by making sure that you cover everything with a couple of weeks to spare. This gives you a ‘buffer’ so that you’re able to cope with the unexpected, such as being ill and having to take some time off sick. When you revise, don’t just go over what you’ve already learned – learn new things about your subject. For example, see if there have been any new discoveries recently that relate to your subject, so that you could refer to them in your exam where relevant. This keeps your brain engaged and ensures you’re adding to your knowledge all the time, and you’ll give a favourable impression of yourself to the examiner by showing how switched on you are.

Two weeks before

You’re down to the final fortnight, and by this time, if you’re organised, you’ll already have covered much of the material you learned first time round.

Study leave

You may be put on study leave a couple of weeks before your exams start, but be warned: this is not a holiday! This final two weeks is about doing some past papers to find out which areas still need work and getting up to speed on areas you’ve highlighted as needing improvement. You can also test yourself on your ability to recall facts – or get a friend or parent to test you – using your index cards, as outlined earlier.

Learn new things

Image shows the Montagues and Capulets reconciling over Romeo and Juliet's dead bodies.
For instance, if you were studying Romeo and Juliet, you could swot up on 16th century religious practices.

If you’ve already covered everything, and done well with your past papers, you could even start learning new things, as we mentioned earlier. It sounds counterintuitive, but learning new things is actually a good way of consolidating what you already know – and it gives you the edge over other candidates by giving you superior knowledge. By “new things”, we don’t mean entire topics – just little snippets of interesting, less well-trodden information that you could drop into an exam answer to show how well you know the topic, make your answers more interesting and impress the examiner.

Help a friend

Another way of making absolutely sure you’re fully prepared is to help someone who isn’t so well prepared. If you have a friend who’s struggling, offer to talk them through some of the topics they’re finding tricky. The act of explaining something to someone else is ideal for getting the facts straight in your own mind, and having to break down complex concepts into simple explanations will be invaluable practice for the exam.

One day before

You’re not alone if nerves are starting to get to you, so the 24 hours before your exam is about trying to remain calm and using these last few hours as productively as possible.

Create a cheat sheet

Image shows someone looking at a small scrap of paper to cheat in an exam.
This is not the sort of cheat sheet that we recommend!

Don’t worry: a cheat sheet isn’t a way of cheating in your exam! It’s basically a page of paper on which you can write important fast facts about anything you think you might struggle to remember tomorrow. This might include particular dates you’ve had problems remembering for history, for example, or a key formula that you’ll almost certainly need in tomorrow’s mathematics or chemistry exam. Try to memorise what’s on it, using memory aids if necessary.


Remind yourself of the scope of the topics you might be asked questions about by skim-reading your notes for the exam. Check that you’re familiar with everything, and read in more depth if there are certain areas you’re still not quite clear on. You won’t have time for much in-depth reading, so choose which topics you devote a little more time to carefully. If you get time, you could also have a read of our article on how to maximise your number of marks by avoiding easy exam mistakes.

Prepare your materials for the exam

Image shows a colourful pencil case.
You’ll need to take your things out of your usual pencil case.

Find out what equipment you’re allowed to take into the exam and what’s forbidden (for example, some maths papers allow you to use a calculator but others don’t). Prepare a transparent bag containing writing equipment and anything else you’ll need, and don’t forget to ensure that your pens have enough ink and your pencils, if you need them, are sharpened. Buy a bottle of water to take in with you and remove the label.

Eat and sleep

While you should have been looking after yourself anyway, it’s especially important the day before an exam. Get a good night’s sleep, so that you wake up feeling refreshed: you’re not going to perform at your best if you’re tired and groggy because you stayed up all night doing last-minute revision. Try to eat well, no matter how nervous you are, as your body needs fuel for all that thinking!

One hour before

Image shows a delicious serving of Eggs Benedict.
Have an indulgent breakfast if you can – the energy will keep you going.

The day you’ve been preparing for has finally arrived, and it’s time to put into action all that knowledge you’ve skilfully acquired over the past couple of years. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself, as this will only make an already stressful situation more difficult to cope with. Instead, try to relax (easier said than done, we know) and remind yourself that this is what you’ve been preparing for, and that you’re as ready as you’ll ever be. Here’s a final checklist for the hour or so before your exam:

  • Have a last-minute read of the cribsheet you prepared yesterday if it makes you feel better, and try to recall what’s on it without looking.
  • Eat a meal before going into the exam – breakfast for a morning exam and lunch for an afternoon one – and try to eat foods that release their energy slowly (such as porridge), so that you don’t get hungry during the exam.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the exam to avoid the last-minute panic of you get caught in traffic or missing the bus.
  • Go to the toilet before the exam, so that you’re not distracted by needing to go during the exam (and losing out on valuable minutes in the process).

All that remains now is for you to go into that exam hall and dazzle the examiner with all that you’ve learned through two years of diligent study and revision. Once you’ve given it your all, try to forget about what you’ve written and don’t spend ages agonising over what you wish you’d said. It’s too late to change anything, and your energy would be more usefully devoted to preparing for your next exam – or, if this was your last, to giving yourself a well-earned rest!


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