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When I was in school I was functionally clever, but I was not as smart as some of my classmates for whom passing exams was a passtime. This meant that, in order to avoid replicating the slow-motion train-wreck which was my AS levels, I had to take some pretty extreme actions. I have made a note of them, and for those who are interested, they are as follows.The points are divided into academic and non-academic actions.


Is there something which you enjoy and which takes up a large portion of your time? For me it was my rock instruments. I took my electric and my acoustic guitars and my bass guitar, wrapped them in a sheet and put them in the attic; there will be time for you to enjoy your hobbies after the exams, don’t let them make you get bad grades.

This is not to say that you should give up your hobbies, just make the time which you spend on them deliver more, just remove the time-sapping component. As for social networking, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to give up facebook, just make rules; my rule was to spend no more than a 1/2 an hour per day, and when it was exam season I only allowed myself to reply to existing comments or messages. The same applies to surfing, don’t stop, just regulate — I used the web only for research and for web-comics; comics are useful in this sense, in that they give one one’s daily fix, but are not time-consuming. No television.

Timetable your day, it sounds nerdy, it is, but failure is a real possibility. My wartime timetable went like this:–

4:00 — arrive home from School, take cup of coffee up to room with me, do any assignments which are outstanding or which have been set on that day. When this is done, revise, and while you are revising, do the occasional question which can be found in the text-books.

6:00 — go downstairs and ¬†make dinner with help from the family, whilst listening to the news and then the comedy on radio 4; this is a good opportunity to relax, as one can gain information and entertainment at the same time as being productive. Drink tea with dinner, then maybe a coffee after dinner is finished. After dinner — chill for 5 minutes, then move out, this is often a good opportunity for checking email and a quick look at Facebook. Be disciplined.

Approx 7:30 — back to revision, same as before.

10:30 — Bedtime; read in bed. This is a very early time to go to bed, which is healthy and will help you to digest the information which you have revised. I can assure you that it will not be difficult to go to bed at this time, the utter boredom of the (necessary) revision will make bed with a good book feel like going to the cinema. This timetable makes days dour, but one gets a protestant kind of satisfaction from using this regime, as well as remembering that there will be time for a little more recreation on the weekends (within reason). Remember, I can attest to it being very possible for a student, through a simple volume and organisation of work, to do OK in their exams.


The school day should also be subject to this level of regimentation. In order not to fail, I pretended that I was not a member of the 6th form anymore, no more free periods. Choose a place where you can be alone and do work in school. Go there during your free periods and do practice papers and revise, it will seem strange initially, but after time it will become habit. It is likely that you will end up seeing more of the teachers than of your friends, but you can decide whether this is a fitting collateral for good grades.

Exam time will be a good opportunity to make up for all the Marxist comments which you made in lessons. When you are given a practice paper, do it as soon as you can, and hand it in as soon as you can. Do as many as is possible, when you run out do them again, then when you’ve done them all twice sit down with your teacher and invent some. There was one strange and twisted moment when I was getting through papers quicker than the class genius — she got better grades than me, of course; but can you imagine what my grades would have been like otherwise? These measures may seem extreme, but this is total war, and it’s 1942 and Hitler has just appointed Alber Speer as Minister of Armaments.

Here’s my non-scientific guide to ‘getting an A* in English’ (perhaps a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc):–

1 — Decide that it is not your best subject and therefore that it deserves additional work, overcompensate.

2 –Write notes! Split your study texts into themes (love, family, conflict etc.) Get an A4 sheet of paper, write the theme as a title and condense all your notes onto that sheet, with diagrams and bullet points, paperclip on some partner texts which fit the bill, if the partners which your teach gave you are lame, choose your own which you know well.

3 –How many themes do you have, and how many poems? Create a calendar, find the date of the exam, go back 3 days, write a theme, then for the day before that a poem, and for the day before that write ‘explore at unseen texts’, and repeat until you’ve got a timeline leading up to the exam with all the stuff you need to know broken into chunks. I did that for all my subjects, and for most I did the timeline twice over with a gap in between.

4 — During the half term, do the equivalent of the exam you which you will be sitting’s worth of questions every day for all your subjects (except if you have an exam immediately after half term).

5 — It’s impossible to know what unseen text you will get, all you can do is make it so that you will know how to interpret it (which is what you are supposed to do!). What period of history are you studying for literature? If it’s 1600-1945, for example, research all the main literary movements which existed between the two dates and note write a small overview of each period. When you do ‘explore unseen texts’ read over a few periods and read a few appropriate from the periods. It’s possible to condense most of what you have to know for each subject into notes which are portable enough to carry round with you. Put them in a briefcase and carry them with you everywhere.

Pick a spot which is within walking distance of your school, this can be your place to go when your feeling misanthropic or when a teacher annoys you. Go here on occasion and while you’re there do something, like drinking a flask of coffee — think about what you’re going to do after exams, and about important people.

3 thoughts on “A Mediocre Student’s Guide to Not Failing Exams”

  1. Good advice. My main comment would be, especially if you’re doing a “scientific” A level: learn it the first time round. This might seem obvious, but when exams are months or even years away, it’s easy not to be that bothered in class. It’s 10 times easier to learn it then, and merely have to remind yourself of it come the exam than it is to learn what you need to know a few weeks prior to exams, when you have to revise everything else as well.

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