How you could get all A-grades too

It's exam time again and teenagers are struggling with revision. Lucy Tobin, 19, a seasoned reviser who starts at Oxford in October, explains her technique for coming out on top
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Revision books are creeping up bestseller lists, highlighter pens are getting harder to find, and teenagers - because anything's better than revising - are suddenly tidying bedrooms after months of nagging. Exam season is upon us.

Revision books are creeping up bestseller lists, highlighter pens are getting harder to find, and teenagers - because anything's better than revising - are suddenly tidying bedrooms after months of nagging. Exam season is upon us.

It's a familiar time for me: over the past three years, I've taken 10 GCSEs, five AS-levels and three A-levels, totting up more than 50 hours of exams, and revised everything from anarchism to the cell structure of a zygote. By the time I came to do my A-levels in June last year, I had honed my approach to revision and exams and, as a result, I got three A grades in politics, economics and English literature. But along the way, I also learnt that exams don't just measure intelligence, and that the cleverest students don't always get the best grades. Getting an A - be it in IT or PE - is, I found, at least 50 per cent down to technique.

The first hurdle on the route to an A grade is effective revision. Most students find getting started the hardest, so it's a good idea to get hold of the exam syllabus, and break it down into manageable topics. It's easier to face a single topic than an entire subject. Having a copy of your syllabus (available on exam boards' websites) also means that you know what to expect from each paper of modular subjects.

Next, arrange the exam subjects into a realistic revision timetable. I have learnt from experience: during GCSE study leave, I made a timetable that began at 7am and split the day into 14 hour-long revision slots, with a 15-minute break for lunch. Needless to say, I didn't keep to it - on the first day I spent three hours colouring in the dreaded timetable to avoid starting on it. But it is crucial to learn to structure revision time. As Josh Benson, who did maths, physics and IT at A-level, says: "By starting revision early, you can recognise your problems and get help before it's too late."

Schedule in lots of breaks, and calculate the amount of time you need to work each day. I found that four to five hours a day was my maximum. When I finished my daily list of topics, I would take a break and watch Neighbours or take the dog for a walk. You might find it easier, as I did, to decide on what you're actually going to revise day by day. Remember, revision doesn't have to be the worst experience in the world: I would often take my notes to the park on sunny days, for example. And give yourself incentives, like going out in the evening if you've worked really hard all day.

When tackling my 10 subjects at GCSE, I found that varying the subject each day made revision less tedious - maths in the morning, French in the afternoon, for example - but during A- level revision, I tended to stick to one subject for three or four days, so that it sunk in. Most people profit from making notes. I spent most of my revision time writing notes, and used diagrams and colours to make it more interesting. Active revision is the most successful type: learn a subject and then test yourself, either vocally or with a practice essay.

People work better at different times of the day, so experiment to find your optimum revision time. James Spencer, who got As in 10 GCSEs and three A-levels, says: "During revision time, lots of my friends didn't wake up until 1pm, so they didn't get much work done before it got dark, when they just wanted to go out. If you get started at 9am, you can do lots of work before lunch, and still go out in the evening."

Each subject calls for a slightly different approach to study. I find it difficult to learn facts by rote, so maths and science revision, for example, were a struggle. But I found one method helpful: sticking key information on Post-It notes and leaving them in prominent places. Before my maths GCSE, I just couldn't learn the "functions" off by heart, so I stuck them on the bathroom mirror and learnt them while brushing my teeth over a week.

Language students could profit from the advice of straight-A student Sarah Shenker, whose A-levels included French, Spanish and Italian: "In language exams, you're often using skills that you've acquired over the year, so revision should be based around practice questions from textbooks and past papers. Focus on areas of grammar and vocabulary that you're weak on, rather than revising things you already know - even though it might be tempting to do so!"

She adds: "Immerse yourself in the language. Listen to foreign radio stations or watch foreign TV - you'll pick up new phrases. And try talking in the language with friends. Your fluency will improve and there will be less temptation to fill gaps with 'ums' in oral exams."

Once you're in the exam hall, there are many simple ways to boost your grade. Never leave an answer blank: even a one-word answer can give you a mark. In maths and science exams there is often as much as a 70 per cent mark allocation given to the correct working-out, so ensure that your calculations are clear. Be aware of the length of answer required, usually shown by the number of lines, but mark allocation is also indicative. Short-answer questions will be worth only one or two marks, so don't spend too long on them. If you're flummoxed on a structured question, where there's a brief description of a situation and then several questions labelled "a", "b", "c", and so on, read through all the questions, as there's often a hint within them.

I used to ignore my teachers' advice about planning essay answers, thinking that a plan was a waste of valuable writing time. Then, in my English literature A-level, I was confused by the question and discovered the merit of planning. I used a spider-diagram on my answer sheet, with the central point of the question in the middle, and my main points following from there, helping me towards full marks. In addition, making a plan means that, even if you run out of time, the examiner can see your main points. You're also less likely to ramble.

Exam questions tend to be worded in specific ways, and that should affect your answer. "Evaluate" or "analyse" questions, for example, should show both sides of the argument, so use words such as "however" to remind yourself of that. If a question asks you to "explain", a single-sided answer is usually sufficient. But check this with your teacher or a mark-scheme, because some exam boards take different approaches.

Timing is often a make-or-break issue. You're more likely to do well by finishing all questions in less detail than answering the first few questions so well that you can't finish. The first marks of questions are the easiest to pick up. Past papers can help you to see how to pace yourself. Everyone works at their own speed, but it can help to divide the total time allocated for the exam by the number of marks available, to see how long to spend per answer.

You're bound to feel bored and depressed at some point during the exam period: it's a stressful time for you, your friends and your family. But remembering that there are fun times to come, whether it's a holiday or starting at university, will help you to get through it. Exams are a means to an end, and the short-term pain will be well worth the long-term gain.

Revision and exam tips

Start revision by writing notes, then read around the subject in books and magazines and on the internet to hammer the message home.

Test yourself with essays and practice papers. Ask teachers to mark your tests or, even better, give you mark schemes so that you can see what examiners are looking for.

Revision websites can be good for alleviating boredom. My favourites include the BBC's Bitesize for GCSEs; Channel 4's www.homeworkhigh.com, to ask teachers questions; and www.tutor2u.net for economics and politics revision.

Revision books will often phrase things differently, so can aid understanding. I found the CGP range amazing for GCSE science and maths.

Talk to classmates about what you are working on and what you have learnt.

Stop revising on the night before your exam. Watch TV, catch up with friends, and have an early night.

During the exam, follow all instructions carefully. Foreign-language papers, for example, require some answers to be in the relevant language rather than English.

Leave time at the end to check for mistakes and spelling and grammatical errors: extra marks are often given for good use of language. Even if that's not the case, poor writing won't make your answer clear.

Never leave a question unanswered: it's always worth making an intelligent guess.

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