Study tips


Frank Zhou, one of the members of the Macleans News Committee and school Dux for 2013, was the recipient of 2 Top in the Worlds and 1 Top in New Zealand in his 2011 Cambridge exams. He now shares his tips on studying.

Exams can be stressful. Some of us might be at the stage where we’re really starting to panic; we’ve realised that we haven’t put in enough effort the past year and might have less than a month to go until our first exam. It’s time to start cramming!

Here are some tips to make the most of the next few months of preparation time and study leave. While I hope these pieces of advice will be helpful, you must remember that firstly, everyone is different and that some techniques might not be beneficial to everyone, and secondly, that at the end of the day you must be the one to put in the effort to study. People can give you heaps of advice, but no one can study for you.

  1. The best way to prevent procrastination on the computer is to remove yourself physically from the computer. Study without a computer or turn the computer off. Or at the very minimum, close the laptop lid.
  2. For many subjects, past papers are the best thing you can do to prepare for exams. Such subjects would include Science, Maths and Commerce. In these cases, do all of the past papers. In other subjects, for example the humanities and English, you might want to focus on learning your syllabus well.
  3. Set out a table for yourself of all the past papers for each subject, ordered chronologically. As you complete each one, tick it off. You’ll be able to track your progress and it provides you some incentive to complete all the past papers. Try and start from the oldest past papers, but make sure you have completed the most recent past papers before your exam.
  4. You might be tempted to do past papers by viewing them on your computer or tablet. While saving paper is important, your grades are more so, and you would gain much from printing past papers off. You’ve instantly removed so many possible distractions.
  5. Give your Facebook to a trusted friend by telling them the password and asking them to change it. This means that you no longer have access to your Facebook. However, this method has its limitations though. If you ‘swap’ Facebooks with someone else, you will still have access to Facebook, just on another person’s account, defeating the purpose.
  6. Making notes are important but what is more important is actually learning the material. Perhaps not so much right now, but definitely in a few weeks, it might be a more efficient use of your time if you focus on absorbing stuff into your head: you should consolidate your knowledge through repeated reading of the textbook and your notes throughout the year, and doing past papers, rather than making notes which you won’t have the time to read.
  7. Test a friend of similar ability to you. Both of you grab a textbook. One person opens their textbook and asks the other person questions about the first chapter. Then the other person opens their textbook, the first person closes theirs, and the same happens for the next chapter. These questions should be specific and short in answer. Try and cover everything. Make sure to choose a partner who you won’t muck around with.
  8. I find tables incredibly helpful in organising large chunks of data, ready for memorising.
  9. Increase the amount of time that you study continuously and decrease the frequency and lengths of breaks between study sessions. An easy way to do this is to not take a break in the middle of a past paper. Then try and work up to doing two past papers consecutively with no break in the middle.
  10. While breaks are reasonably important, you have many natural study breaks throughout the day already, for example meals, showering etc. Don’t kid yourself that you need more breaks than you actually do.
  11. Aim to decline most invitations to social events, parties, concerts, functions, movies, fundraisers etc. You’ll survive.
  12. As Mr Tsui once said, the holidays are a “period of intensive study without the interruption of classes”. Treat it as such.
  13. For English, you would do well to memorise poems. Also, always do extract questions whenever possible. To prepare for your exam, re-read your texts over and over.
  14. For Maths and science, do all the past papers, but also read through the textbooks fully: once for Maths, at least twice for the sciences. For Maths, do not skip the worked examples. This ensures that you get repeated exposure to the concepts you need to remember.
  15. For Classics and possibly other humanities subjects, read, read, read! This is the best way to memorise everything. Then scan through all the past paper questions and plan your answers mentally as if you were in the exam. You might not need to complete all the past paper questions in a written form.
  16. Since you might be studying hard out for days on end, equip yourself with tea and/or coffee, and consider taking naps to reduce the number of hours of sleep you need in a day. If you usually take a big 8 hour sleep at night, you might be able to switch to a 20 minute power nap just after noon and a 6 hour sleep at night to minimise sleep time. See
  17. Plan what you will do each day. Make this manageable but intensive so that you will be studying most of the day. Set yourself a reward if you complete everything or knew that you did your best. If you do not complete everything or know you slacked off, give yourself a moderate punishment and catch up everything the day after in addition to what you had already planned for the next day.
  18. Ask for help if you don’t understand anything – from friends or teachers. It’s no use kidding yourself that it will somehow all be fine.

The most important thing you should remember is that exams are temporary. They will come and go, and then summer will be here. But the results and consequences of exams will be permanent and lifelong. Some extra pain now in studying for these exams will mean better prospects for the rest of your life.

I won’t say ‘good luck’, because preparing for exams isn’t about luck, it’s about work. So what I will say is: study hard and prepare well.

Best wishes.

(Edited: 06.04.13)

By Frank Zhou

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