9 Exam Preparation Tips to Keep Your Sanity and Get Better Results

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Time management: it may sound like one of the biggest clichés in the book, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s of paramount importance as you juggle four or five different A-level subjects.

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Naturally, you’ll want to get top grades in all your subjects; but achieving these is no mean feat, simply because of the sheer volume of information you’re going to have to learn in order to do well. The answer to this problem is effective use of your time, but the advice differs as to the best way of doing this.
There are two major schools of thought as to what constitutes ‘best practice’ when it comes to time management. The first is that sticking to a very strict routine makes you more efficient, and keeps you focused. The second is that varying your routine – or ditching your routine entirely – keeps things fresh and makes you more interested in what you’re doing, because your studying feels less like work and more like something you’re doing because you enjoy it. As with many sets of opposing views, the ideal approach lies in creating a balance between the two, and in this article, we’re going to show you how to achieve this balance to maximise your chances of success.

1. A regular study space

Image shows a teenage girl reading a textbook on a kerb.
It helps to have a proper study space.

You may find it helpful to get into the habit of studying in a particular place. This then becomes your ‘work space’ and enables you to get into a studying frame of mind as soon as you sit down, cutting down on the time it takes for your brain to warm up. If you associate a particular environment with studying, this becomes the zone in which you can achieve maximum efficiency. This could be your room, the school library, the town library, or anywhere else you find you can concentrate. There may be other things that help you get ‘in the zone’, too, such as particular music you like to listen to while studying. Identifying what things help you get into a productive mood will help you get into this mood more quickly and easily, saving time and maximising your productivity.

2. Being organised and tidy

As with many practical aspects of A-level study, one of the fundamental aspects of effective time management and maximum efficiency is to be tidy and organised. You’ll waste lots of time if you can’t find anything, so make sure your notes are neatly organised into folders with clearly labelled dividers, and books are organised by subject on your bookshelves. You need to be able to locate notes or textbooks in seconds to reduce time wasting, and a tidy workspace is vital to achieving this.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Study Skills articles."Getting into a routine

Image shows an alarm clock next to a bed, in black and white.
Resist the temptation to hit snooze.

No matter how nice it might sound to choose the latter of the two aforementioned time management ideas, ditching your routine altogether is simply not a viable option in the face of the huge amount of material you’re going to need to cover for your GCSEs or A-levels. It’s also not viable when you consider the fact that you will have multiple different homework deadlines each week; not bothering with any kind of routine will spell disaster and inevitably lead to missed deadlines, or at the very least last-minute panic. Furthermore, while it is possible to vary your routine, you’re still going to need to formulate one in the first place before you can feel confident about mixing it up.
Start by identifying all the study periods you have available each week. This could be free periods at school, time before or after school, lunchtimes, evenings and weekends. Divide all these up into periods of no more than an hour at a time, because it’s hard to concentrate on something if you work on it for more than an hour. After an hour studying one thing, switch to another subject to give yourself a break. Once you’ve figured out what time you have available, count how many hour-long slots you have for each day of the week. These will form the basis of a daily and weekly planner, into which you can schedule chunks of work or homework assignments. Don’t forget to allow enough time in your schedule for travelling between home and school!

3. Weekly and daily planners

A weekly planner lets you plan work for the whole week around when your deadlines are (more on those a little later), while a daily planner goes into more detail about what exactly you need to achieve, exact essay titles, pages you need to read of books, and so on. Your daily planner can include a prioritised ‘To Do’ list with items for you to tick off as you go along. If you have any big chunks of work, break them down into more manageable pieces of work and itemise them on your To Do list. For example, if you have a big essay due, with lots of reading to do before you’re able to write it, your To Do list could have the essay as the main task, with ‘sub-tasks’ such as reading chapters of different books, writing an essay plan, and so on.
The format you choose for your weekly and daily planners is up to you; some people like to use an online version, such as Google Calendars, while others prefer a printed page-a-day diary. Either way, being able to see a whole week at a time may prove useful in weighing up what your schedule is like for the week ahead and adding in extra tasks (or social engagements).

4. Managing workflow

Image shows a woman at a desk using Trello software on her computer.
A Trello board in use.

You’re likely to have multiple homework assignments on the go at once, so you’ll need to have some way of managing your workflow and keeping track of the progress of each assignment in order to ensure that you meet all your deadlines. When you’re swamped with work, it’s all too easy to forget a piece of work until it’s too late. Be organised about it, though, and you’ll easily keep on top of everything. It may help you to think of yourself as a project manager, delivering homework projects to the highest standard, and always on time; if nothing else, it’s a good mindset to get into for when you begin your career!
In terms of how you keep track of what you’re working on, you may already have your own system of doing this, but if you want to be even more efficient, you can look online for helpful efficiency tools. I’m a big fan of the Trello board, which is a free online project management tool that helps you organise your workflow and keep track of your progress on different assignments. You could create a board with three different columns – one column for ‘pending’, one for ‘in progress’ and one for ‘complete’. As soon as you’re handed a piece of homework, you create a card for it in the ‘pending’ column, with the title including the A-level subject it’s for and a brief description of the task, such as ‘English Lit: Wuthering Heights Heathcliff essay’. You can then mark the deadline on the card and include in the notes details of the title, resources and what you’re expected to discuss. Cards in the ‘pending’ column can be organised with the assignment due soonest at the top, with progressively later deadlines lower down. Once you start working on the essay, you drag and drop the card into the ‘in progress’ column, and when it’s complete, you drag and drop it into the ‘complete’ column. Using a Trello board – or creating a similar system on paper – you’ll easily be able to see what homework assignments you have due and how far you are away from finishing them. You’ll also be able to keep track of all your deadlines on your board.

5. Deadlines

It’s vital that you plan your schedule around when your deadlines are, and that you don’t leave anything until the last minute. Those who manage their time effectively will start planning when to complete their assignment as soon as they get it, and fitting it in around existing deadlines. If it’s going to take longer to complete than another assignment due on the same day or even earlier, you’ll need to ensure that you allow enough time to complete the extra work, even if it means starting it straightaway. We’ve already introduced the idea of a Trello board for keeping track of your deadlines, but you could also do this in your diary and/or weekly planner, or on a separate piece of paper pinned to the wall, providing you don’t inadvertently overlook any (perhaps highlight them in a bright colour so that you can’t miss them).

6. Regular breaks and sleep

Image shows a young woman asleep with a copy of Northanger Abbey open over her face.
Don’t sacrifice sleep for study.

Another important thing to think about in managing your time is to make sure you schedule in regular breaks, and get plenty of sleep. Working yourself too hard – late into the night, for example – will ultimately have the opposite to the desired effect, as it will make you so stressed that you’ll find it hard to cope, and the quality of your work will go down. If you’re managing your time effectively you shouldn’t need to work late into the night, anyway. If you schedule a weekend’s work in, for example, make sure you allow yourself an hour or two off now and then, to give yourself time to relax and as a reward for your hard work. Exercise is also important, as it helps you switch off, keeps you in good health and keeps lethargy at bay.

7. Varying your routine

We mentioned at the start of this article that one of the schools of thought surrounding time management is that ditching your routine keeps things fresh and makes you want to learn. While we wouldn’t advocate doing away with your routine – some sort of structure is vital to ensuring you stay on top of this many subjects – what you can do is apply the principles. For example, as we’ve already advised, you should try not to work for longer than an hour on any particular subject (unless you’re in full flow, of course, in which case it makes sense to take advantage of being ‘in the zone’). You can see switching to a different subject as a kind of break – ‘a change is as good as a rest’, as they say – though do schedule in real breaks as well. However, providing you have enough time before deadlines loom, you can be a little spontaneous in switching subjects around if you’re particularly in the mood for studying a certain topic. Just be careful that you don’t do this so often that you end up losing track of what still needs doing, or neglecting the subjects you least want to study.

8. Doing something completely different

Image shows someone running on a beach in golden sunlight.
Going for a run can be invigorating.

You can also keep your mind excited and interested in what you’re studying by scheduling in something completely different from time to time. This could still be loosely academic – going to a museum that’s relevant to one of your A-level courses, for example – or it could be something totally different, such as going for a run or meeting up with friends. Whatever it is, make sure it gets you away from your desk and ideally getting some fresh air. You’d be amazed at how much this will reinvigorate you, so that you’re able to attack your studies with renewed enthusiasm when you return.

9. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture

When you’re meticulously planning your days and weeks, you may find that you lose the ability to see the wood for the trees. The days and weeks start to fly by in a flurry of work, and before you know it, exam season will be upon you. For this reason, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture as you fill your days with your carefully orchestrated routine. Keep in mind what you’re working towards and make sure you keep reminding yourself that you’re building the foundation for brilliant exam results and then university. This should also help motivate you when times get tough.
The whole idea of time management may sound like a bore, but it’s the secret to being successful when you’re juggling several subjects and a mountain of homework set by different teachers with different deadlines. It’s a skill worth developing now, as it will come in extremely useful when you get to university, and it’ll be something you’ll probably need to be able to demonstrate when you’re applying for jobs after you graduate. It’s an essential life skill, and now’s the perfect time to cultivate it.


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Image credits: banner; studying outside; alarm clock; Trello board; asleep; running