Survival tips from a veteran crammer

Revision is boring - even if you love your subject. But find the right way of working and the pay-off will be worth it, says Sarah Hajibagheri
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The Independent Online

It's May. School skirts are being hitched up, midriffs are being exposed, the sun is finally out. Unfortunately, for teenagers across the land, so are the books. GCSEs kick off next week, with AS- and A-level exams hot on their heels, leaving many panic-stricken students caught up in feverish last-minute revision. I should know. This time last year I was one of them.

At 18 I am enjoying a gap year, having spent the last three summers cramming for exams. I came through the ordeal with eight A*s and three As at GCSE, as well as four A grades in English literature, government and politics, history and Latin at both AS- and A-level. I guess that makes me a veteran crammer.

I really enjoyed school, and had a passion for the subjects I chose to study, but this did not extend to the tedious act of revision. So for all those of you yet to knuckle down and revise, I am living proof that there is hope. The coveted A grade is the result of effective revision, followed by successful application of knowledge. Both are based on technique, not necessarily IQ. Here are my tips to getting As this summer.


In theory, revision means you are re-visiting work you covered earlier in the year. In practice, this is often not the case. If you missed, "misplaced", or were unable to do the work first time round owing to the emotional tumult of adolescence, do not despair. No matter whether you are studying quantum physics or PE, a subject syllabus will give you a basic outline of what you are expected to know and it is easily obtainable from your exam boards' websites. Armed with those, you should be able to recognise the bits of the courses that you're missing notes on and gen up on them. After doing so, I advise you to tear the syllabus up. Divide it into manageable revision chunks. That will make it easier to digest and you can reward yourself frequently for your achievements.

Once you are dealing with topics, not subjects, you can plan your revision around your exam timetable. Do not do as I did, and procrastinate over starting revision by spending three days designing a rigid, time-allocated, colour-coded laminated revision chart. Instead, set flexible, realistic daily targets. Make sure you include incentives to keep working, like going out in the evening with friends. Of course, this relies on your making effective use of revision during the day, which means waking up before midday. Don't feel you have to stay cooped up in your bedroom - take your studies into the sunshine; the fresh air will do you good.

It's not the quantity but the quality of your revision that makes the difference. Revision is best done in short, frequent bursts; most people lose concentration after 45 minutes. Luckily, with some Post-it Notes, highlighters and a decent revision book (I recommend the CGP range for GCSE science) you can cover modules in hours, not days.

Vary your revision techniques

Even the most studious person gets bored of plodding through textbooks. We all learn in different ways. Some people learn best visually and find mind maps, diagrams and posters useful. Others are more practical, preferring to make models, to pace while reading, and to have active visual notes, using colour and highlighters.

I was always a bit of a chatterbox at school, and was haunted by the voices of teachers reminding me of things to add in exams. I am an "auditory learner". So I found it useful to discuss ideas with friends in study sessions, proving that revision does not always have to be a solitary business. We would split up topics, learn about them, present back, and then test each other; I found this embedded knowledge in my mind. It certainly beat talking to myself.

Make use of the media. There are countless revision websites that can add variety to your revision. I found www.homeworkhigh. com and particularly useful. The BBC's Bitesize revision programmes, which are being aired at the moment, are worth watching, though I advise you to record them and not wait up.

If you are lucky enough to own an iPod, you can download free revision podcasts such as David Cameron's Treaty of Versailles audio revision notes. These can be found on, and are surprisingly engaging. In the day when I did my GCSEs (a whole three years ago), iPods were not prevalent, so I used the WHSmith science audio guides, available on CD and tape. Either way, throw your earplugs in on the way to school, and no one will ever suspect you are learning about gamma rays and not listening to gangster rap.

I studied Latin AS, so there was little chance of tuning into a satellite channel or reading a Latin newspaper, as advised for modern languages. Instead, I found making vocab cards a real help. I cut up pieces of paper, and wrote a Latin word on one side and the English translation on the other. I could bung the cards in my handbag and test myself on them anywhere - even waiting for the bus. You get an immense sense of achievement when the pile of words you do not know declines over the weeks.

Whatever technique you choose, Jonathan O'Brien, managing director of the Quantum Training Group (, and author of The Great Little Book of Brain Power, advocates constantly reviewing your revision. He says that this dramatically increases the likeliness of information staying in your long-term memory.

Exam technique

According to Andy Thompson, principal of Cherwell College, Oxford, exams are increasingly about the application of knowledge rather than simply regurgitating it. Sitting past papers under exam conditions is the best way to hone these skills. I also found obtaining past mark schemes with examiners' comments (available from exam boards' websites), particularly profitable, as it allowed me to ascertain what examiners were looking for.

You may even find the question you have practised coming up in your own exam, which happened to me during AS government and politics. Even if you are not that fortunate, familiarising yourself with the layout and style of questions will stand you in good stead.

When it comes to timing yourself in the exam, divide the total time allocated by the number of marks for each question, to judge how long to spend on each answer. I hated essay planning. I wasn't going to "waste" 10 out of the 60 precious minutes I'd got to write an essay on planning the darn thing. As a result, it didn't matter how strong my ideas were - my essays read like verbal diarrhoea.

I quickly learnt that a strong argument, whether on the causes of the English Reformation or Chaucer's sexual fixation, needs a solid structure. An essay plan forces you to write more succinctly and acts as a security blanket, something for you to grab hold of when you lose your way.

If you do run out of time, the exam board Edexcel says you should jot down bullet points of the messages you want to get across. Even listing key words could help you pick up some marks. "Students lose marks for silly mistakes - either not reading the question properly or for answering the question they wish they'd been asked. The best tip is to read the paper slowly - twice," says Jerry Jarvis, Edexcel's managing director.

No doubt the next few weeks will be stressful. But, if you put in the hours now, and achieve good grades in August, then the pay-off, which for some may be a university place, will be worth it. Good luck.

'Start where you feel least secure'

Straight-A student, Rob Briggs, 18, now studying geography at Cambridge University

"I did my A-levels last summer and got three A grades in English literature, geography and German. In terms of revision, I think first of all you should get your working environment sorted. In my experience, working to music diverts your attention.

While I'm revising, my laptop is also switched off and my windows are shut to reduce outside noise. There's no point spending hours of valuable revision time writing out things that you already know and are unlikely to forget, so start on the topics you feel least secure about. With essay subjects, reading through friends' essays is a useful way of developing your own ideas and of appreciating the value of a good structure. As for languages, be sure not to neglect grammar. You can never finish learning more vocabulary, but with a basic grammatical grounding you can manipulate sentence structures to get around the inevitable gaps in your vocab knowledge.

I also tried to think in the language, even when I was not revising. It sounds really weird, but it made me much more comfortable with German. For example, when nature called, I would think to myself: 'Ich muss auf die Toilette gehen'"