Reflections on Doing First-Year Exams – for the Second Time

My first LUMS blog post, written in January, was about the somewhat unusual experience of what it’s like to be a first-year at university – for a second time. It’s now April, and another familiar experience is rearing its head for a second time: exam season. Exam season was a stressful period for me as a first-time first-year. I’d like to think, however, having a crack at it again as a second-time first-year, that my experiences in 2016 equipped me with some valuable lessons to make it a smoother ride this time round. I won’t be so bold as to say ‘take my advice’ – you’ll have to check back in a few months to see what grades I get to know whether that’s a wise idea or not! Nonetheless, here are my reflections.

I suppose the first thing to mention is that, although I am a second-time first-year (those don’t sound like real words any more, do they?) I did pass the first year of my previous course, BBA Management, and my decision to switch to Management, Politics, and International Relations was made before taking my exams. I say this not as a matter of defending my own honour – well, not entirely, anyway – but to address the oft-touted notion of ‘first year exams don’t count!’. While it’s true that at British universities, your first-year exam grades do not contribute towards your final degree classification, they absolutely do count, and thinking otherwise does one no favours. Many LUMS students, myself included, take the opportunity of going on a year-long work placement as part of their degree. As the application process for placements takes place during your second year, your first-year exam results will be just about all your potential employers have to go off regarding your academic performance at university. Insisting that you’re intelligent and hardworking, but got middling grades because ‘it was only first year’ will surely not be an appealing notion to a FTSE 100 company looking for the best and brightest, and this thought has certainly kicked me from any lingering complacency I had regarding exams.

Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case that you get as much out of university as you put in – and as stressful as exams can be, they are ultimately there to help you, not to punish you. I’m not going to pretend that I was experiencing meditative feelings of self-improvement and development whilst trying to memorise every last accounting formula over a third cup of coffee last year; but that I still remember many of those formulas today, despite doing a different degree and not being a natural ‘numbers man’, is testament to how valuable exams are as learning tools. The takeaway for me is to go into exam season with a positive mindset. If you’ve attended lectures and put your all into your course over the year, and you have the will to put in the necessary time and effort into revision, there’s nothing to fear, and everything to gain. A university education would be worthless if it was not challenging. Knowing you’ll come out on the other side of exams with much-improved knowledge and skills in your subject area is surely a motivating thought.

One big mistake I made last year in my exam revision was attempting to substitute sleep for caffeine. Sleep is often seen as an enemy in exam season. We try to ‘game the system’ – seeing each extra hour of sleep as a lost hour of revision in those crucial few days just before an exam. This is a totally flawed way of thinking. Four hours of revision on a good night’s sleep is infinitely more valuable than eight hours of revision on a short kip broken by fifteen alarms and gallons of energy drinks. Practice doing timed papers is essential, and it takes a lot of revision to get to the point where doing this kind of practice is feasible. I’ve found this year that spreading my workload in small, manageable chunks across a long time period is not only far less stressful but much more effective. To paraphrase Will from ‘The Inbetweeners’, on a tired brain, nothing goes in. What’s more, I found that doing some of my exams last year on very little sleep made for a much more anxious and nerve-wracking experience. Confidence in exams comes not just from knowing your stuff, but from being well-rested and able to approach the exam room with calmness rather than underslept agitation. After one particularly poor night of sleep, I ended up forgetting to bring both my pen and my student card to an exam, and then sitting in the wrong seat. The thought of ‘one day I’ll look back on this and laugh’ provided little consolation at the time, and the debacle added some much-unneeded extra stress to proceedings. Had I had a clear, well-rested head, I doubt I would have made the blunder, and I’m sure I would have done better had that stressful situation not occurred.

Of course, you can only treat yourself to those few hours of extra sleep if you actually start revising early enough that you don’t have to cram half of the course content on the night before the exam. And that’s really the key to everything: starting early. Revision, in my experience, always takes longer than anticipated. There will always be parts of the course you’re not so familiar with, or find particularly challenging, that will take you unawares. Discovered early on, you can tackle these bumps in the road. But discovered three hours before you need to be in the exam hall and they can deliver a wounding blow.

Although my exams are still a fair way away, my experiences last year have kicked me into gear and I am some way into my revision already. First year exams come quite a bit later and are ultimately less important than second-year exams – but they are important nonetheless and provide a key opportunity to develop good revision practice. I go into this year’s exam period viewing exams as friend rather than foe; and aiming to have more hours of sleep and fewer trips to Costa Coffee.