UCT student busy with exams? Here is some advice from a lecturer

Have you noticed that you sometimes receive conflicting advice?  Sometimes you are told to “work hard”, “close the gaps in your knowledge” or “do not take your foot off the pedal”.  At other times however the advice is more positive, along the lines of “you’ve got this”, “back yourself” or “you’ll be fine”.  Confused?  Which voice should be the loudest?

Your best chance of passing an exam, is the next time you write.  You are a Knowledge Athlete who prepares for months but ultimately it all comes down to performance on the day.  How best do you prepare?  What should you be doing differently on the day?  I have made a series of 4 videos that contain all my general advice (watch these here).  You need to set goals and achieve them.  Be sure to read this article (How to set and achieve your goals) that reveals how I go about doing just that.

Back to our initial question – which voice should be the loudest when you are preparing for the ITC?  I think Maurice Green, former 100m champion, has it spot on “Train like you are number 2, run like you are number 1”.

“Train like you are number 2, run like you are number 1”.

When you are preparing for exams, you need to give it your best effort.  You need to stay motivated.  Imagining that you are #2 reminds you that there is still work to get done. There are areas for development.  Here are some practical steps to train wisely:

  1. Plan your work, work your plan.

Plan your preparation time carefuly.  Allocate more time to the disciplines where you struggle to score marks.  Plan times when you can relax.  Then you need to plan what a study day looks like. Create “When…. Then….” Statements that will help you stay on track.  For instance, “When it is 8am, Then I will start doing a tutorial”.  Don’t make up the structure of a study day every day, design the structure beforehand. Research shows that this will greatly increase your commitment.  Spend the last 5 minutes of every day planning your next day like this.

  1. Train your talent through tutorials under exam conditions

I have written about the importance of attempting tutorials under exam conditions here.  There is no substitute for doing tutorials properly.  It will be lonely.  No one will be there to cheer you on or notice if you take shortcuts.  This is the process whereby you gain exam fitness.  There is no other way.  While you are writing these questions, focus on the content of the question as well as developing these 12 mental skills for exam success.

  1. Always leave a tutorial attempt to mark for your next study session

Have you ever heard of the Zeigarnik effect?  We all have experienced it.  It is when you can’t stop thinking about something that you need to complete.  Many authors make use of it by leaving a sentence unfinished at the end of the day.  Why?  The next day when they need to start writing again, they want to start writing so that they can finish that sentence!  Why not do the same?  When you have completed a tutorial, leave it unmarked until you next study session.  Chances are that you will want to get studying again soon!

  1. Eat, Sleep, Exercise

Studying for exams should not be like Survivor or Hunger Games.  Your performance over the study period will be impacted by your physical condition.  Eat healthily, drink water, go to bed early and take frequent breaks for exercise.  I have written a whole article on these 3 important investments here.

“Train like you are number 2, run like you are number 1”.

The day of the exam has arrived.  Now is the time to change your mindset.  Now confidence is the name of the game.  You have spent months training your talent, now is the time to trust your talent.

  1. Trust your talent

You have done the work.  Over the past few weeks you have attempted many tutorial questions and have passed the majority of them.  Curveballs will come your way but you know how to handle them; that is what you have been doing for weeks now.  Trust your talent – you have got what it takes.  No matter what comes your way – strange scenarios, a table that wobbles, unexpected questions, that person with a cough sitting next to you – you are going to show grit and make it happen.  I want to be clear – something weird is going to happen – you can choose your reaction though.  Choose to fight!  (Click here for more on developing a growth mindset) (When I wrote my first Board exam – an invigilator checked every single page of my handbooks – it took 45 minutes and I was sweating – “What if my friends had written something in there as a joke?”)

  1. Remember all that you have achieved

What do you do in the 30 minutes before the exam?  Do you talk about exam issues with your friends or read your notes?  I would suggest something else.  I recommend thinking about all your past performances that have qualified you to write the exam.  You have conquered many obstacles and you need to remember those victories.  Walking into the venue, you should be freshly aware of all that you have already achieved.  That is far better than stumbling in trying to remember the last little bits of your notes.  Stop doing that.  Rather breathe deeply and relive past academic highlights!

  1. Avoid these 3 mental errors

There are 3 common mental errors that you can commit on the day of the exam.  Luckily, when you are aware of them, and the steps you can take to handle them, your chances of success soar.  Read more about these here.


You can “plan your work” but when it comes to “working your plan” it is hard to follow through.  Nothing worthwhile in life comes easier, and so it is with exam success.  Series, A warm bed, Sport – these are just a few of the possible distractions facing you during June and July.  When you are tempted to quit your plan, you need to speak to yourself.  You know that voice in your head, that’s you talking to you.  In those 10 – 15 seconds of temptation, you need to speak firmly to yourself. One sentence, at the right time, can make a powerful difference.

Your best chance of passing the exam, is the next time you write.  I anticipate your every success!

Paul Maughan

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