Relax ... here are the real answers

Preparing for the next round of GCSEs or A-levels? George Turnbull offers some advice
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A prayer mat bought by my son on a college visit to Tunisia in November was the first positive sign that he was taking his imminent A-level examinations seriously. Despite the fact that the mat won't be allowed into the exam room, he remains remarkably calm. He usually does. I worry for both of us.

But then there is very little else that parents can do. They should be seen and not heard. They can usefully offer support and understanding, though, but must not interfere. This is a recipe for disaster.

Most of the 79 students on the trip bought a mat. For some it will be their only hope. And for the ones who are prepared to work - the mats won't be required. The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Getting started is often the most difficult bit. The thought of spending hours working even drives some students to tidy their rooms, instead of taking that first step. The solution is simple. The longest journey begins with just one step. If you are sitting exams - take it!

Work only for five or 10 minutes - initially. But work, and do nothing else, in that time. These constructive few minutes will turn in- to 20- or 30-minute sessions where useful work will be done. Have a short break and then begin a further session. Relaxation is important too. Create a balance between the two.

A good "crammer" course could be a good investment, if you can afford it. In an ideal world, they shouldn't be necessary. There are also study aids and revision books for most subjects. But it is really better for students to prepare their own notes and to plan the time they have left.

Here are some hints that will help you to do better in exams. But remember that there is no substitute for hard work. And the harder you work, the luckier you will become.

1. BE PREPARED.

Make sure you know what will be examined in each subject, and the way in which the questions will be asked. Have a look at the syllabus for this year's exams and practise on past exam papers.

Make sure you know what equipment you will need for each exam and who is to provide it.

Make sure you know where and when your exams are to be held. Every year students fail because they go to the wrong place, or the right place at the wrong time.

Make sure you don't have two exams at the same time. Alternative arrangements need to be made. Check this now.

Make sure you know the rules for each exam. Never break them. You could be disqualified from all of your exams - or even arrested - if you do.

Don't try to learn anything new the night before an exam. Try to relax. Check your equipment and the details of where the exam is to be held, and when it starts.

Have a leisurely breakfast and walk to school, if possible. Make sure you get there in good time. Get an earlier bus or train, if necessary.

Avoid friends outside the exam room. They could confuse you. Keep your thoughts to yourself and concentrate on the exam.

Wear comfortable clothes, if your school allows this.

2. IN THE EXAM ROOM

Take six deep breaths, ignore everyone else and concentrate solely on what you have to do.

Have a glucose sweet to boost your energy - but don't crunch.

Read the instructions on the exam papers carefully - do the appropriate number of questions from the right sections, and answer compulsory questions.

Make sure you know how many marks each question carries - don't spend too long on any one. Use the number of marks as a guide.

If you run out of time, complete your remaining answers in outline only.

Those who start working straight away, without reading the question papers carefully, are either very stupid or very bright. Not many of us are that bright.

Read questions carefully before you write anything - not half-way through your answer. The examiners allow time for you to do this when they plan the exam, so don't think you are wasting time. Use that time to choose the questions you are going to do, and write notes on the question paper.

Answer the questions set, not the ones you hoped for. However good your work, you will get no marks if you don't answer the questions.

Make sure your answers are carefully presented - write clearly and label diagrams, for example, if this helps.

Let the supervisor know if anything is disturbing you - other people tapping nervously with a pencil, noise outside the exam room, or even the supervisor's squeaky shoes.

3. AFTER THE EXAM

Don't worry about the exam you have just taken - you can't do anything about it now. Concentrate instead on the next one. You can do something about that.

Tell your school straight away about illness or other circumstances that might have affected your performance.

4. DON'T PANIC

Exams are not designed to catch you out.

Being calm and thoughtful will help you to get the most out of your preparation.

And if all else fails, remember that there are more millionaires without GCSE and A-level qualifications than there are with. Good luck.

The author is a senior member of staff at the Associated Examining Board and co-author, with David Elsom, of 'How to Do Better in Exams'. For your free copy, write to: Department XDC, Barclays Bank,CRSD, Marefair, Northampton NN1 1SG - or phone 0800 400100, free of charge.

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