TLDRoff
Exams can be very scary but they really don't have to be. You can take control of your exam experience with a bit of thought and preparation.

There are few things quite so scary in a student's life as the prospect of an examination. The very word "exam" can fill us with dread with it's suggestions of testing, interrogation and judgement. Nobody likes to be put on the spot and have their value linked to the success or failure of a single activity that may go well or poorly depending on so many factors. That said much of the power that exams can have over us is related to fear of the unknown and that is something we can do something about.

There can be little doubt that being adequately prepared for an activity takes a great deal of the mystery out of it. If you have seen a film numerous times then you are likely to be far less shocked when the killer leaps out of the bushes and attacks the hero. If you are familiar with a particular stretch of road you are not going to be taken by surprise by sharp bends and zebra crossings and your journey is likely to be a safe and successful one. If you know a person very well and have been friends with them for years it is going to be much easier for you to predict their behaviour and to avoid doing or saying things that are likely to damage your relationship. More often than not we fear exams because we do not feel adequately prepared and so we face the examination as some sort of mysterious monster with unknown powers that is ready to leap out and consume us. We let the examination own us rather than us owning it.

There are, of course, things we can do to regain control and ownership of our exams, but they do require effort on our part, these are not magic tricks but skills and attitudes to be developed. Some of them are fairly simple exercises of common sense that can be learned and applied relatively easily others are more demanding and require long term commitment and application throughout a course of study.

  • At the end of the day there is nothing like familiarity to take away the fear of the unknown. The more familiar you are with something the more comfortable you are with it. In essence, an exam is a test of your familiarity with your subject area, how comfortable you feel with the knowledge and insights you have gained. Familiarity cannot be established quickly, it takes place over a period of time. Think about it in terms of meeting a stranger for the first time and starting on the process of becoming close friends. You could try and fake it by memorizing some key facts about that person but that is not the same as becoming their friend and it certainly won't aid you in establishing a comfortable relationship.
  • Revision is not a learning process, it won't help you build up a comfortable familiarity with your subject. Revision is, as the word suggestions, looking over something you already understand simply to remind yourself of it. It's a bit like preparing to shop for a birthday present for a friend. You may know your friend very well but sometimes you have to sit down and remind yourself of their tastes, what their hobbies are, what they already have and so on so that you can get them the ideal gift. This process is not the same as actually becoming their friend, a process that takes time and commitment.

So, the best way to take control of your exam is to take control of your subject. Commit to your course of study, take the time to learn and understand so that you are not afraid of being questioned about it. There is no substitute for study over time if you want to avoid exam panic, last minute revision cannot do this for you, it's not what it is for.

The day will come...

Sooner or later, once all they studying and research has been done, you will eventually find yourself face to face with an exam paper. Even at this stage it is possible to take control and tame the exam. Students often make the mistake of confronting an exam in a passive way, as if they had no control over it at all. This is not true.

It is remarkable how many students see the start of an exam as if it were a race where they have been revving up, with the break on, ready for a quick dash off the starting line and this is a mistake. As with many things an exam is often won or lost during the preparation stage. Selecting the first question on an exam paper with a word in it you recognise and then writing, at speed, everything you know about that word might produce quantity but it is unlikely to produce quality.

Before you even pick up a pen…

  • Make sure you read through the entire paper so you are aware of all the questions available to you. The most obvious questions may not necessarily be the best ones for you. Some questions might look straightforward but may actually be asking you to do 3 or 4 quite complicated things. Other questions may simply require you to carefully compare two things. There may be questions on themes that really interest you and that would make good dissertation or essay topics but that might not suit you as an exam question. Always make smart choices, pick the questions that you understand clearly and that you can tackle well under exam conditions.
  • Always pay attention to what you are being asked to do – you will never get a question asking you to tell the examiner everything you know about a topic. Most question will ask you to compare or evaluate or critically analyse or apply theory to practice or argue from relevant evidence. As with any job, if you don't do what is actually asked of you then you are likely to fail. If the question asks you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a particular theory or approach and you simply provide information on the theory then you will get a low grade no matter how detailed your information and how well you have written. In the same way, if your boss asks you to produce a report on the value of bringing your cat to work and you simply write an essay on "What is a Cat?" you will probably get fired for not doing your job properly.
  • Take time to break the question down. Ask yourself how many things is the question asking me to do? It can sometimes help to underline or circle each of the sections of a question so that you don't miss anything. Once again it is important to note that if an exam question is asking you to do 3 things and you only do 2 then no matter how well you do these you could be losing out on a third of the marks. A tutor cannot say "They may have ignored the second half of the question but they answered the first half so well I'll let them off and give them a good grade."
  • Spend some time planning and structuring your answer, don't simple start writing and hope for the best. Answering an exam question involves a planning stage as much as it involves writing. In fact the writing part should be the last stage in the process. Just as with a coursework essay break your writing up into an introduction, a middle and a conclusion.

Introduction – show that you understand the question, what it is requiring of you and your method for tackling it. Here we want to see that you are a problem solver.

Middle – show that you are familiar with your subject and that you have studied and researched and can speak as an expert and make use of relevant information. Here we want to see that you are someone who has studied your chosen subject in depth.

Conclusion – show that you have an opinion of your own based on your prior research and discussion. Here we want to see that you have an informed voice of your own.

Final comments:

Exams are, when all is said and done, no different to many other tasks we tackle successfully on a daily basis. Familiarity, confidence, planning and preparation can go a long way toward removing the panic from the experience of preparing for and doing an examination and these are things that you have control over.