7 things I did to do well in exams in college

I was freaking out. I had just got out of a meeting with the head of the school. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

“You have one semester to improve your grades, otherwise you will lose this scholarship.”

These words echoed in my head and they had a hollow ring to it. One more semester. That’s all I’ve got.

A quick calculation in my head reminded me that the scholarship was worth almost 50k. I had to make it.

And so I decided to go all out and try everything. I tried reading any book I could find on learning and doing well in school (some were great, some didn’t work for me). Tried mind mapping (didn’t work). Tried listening to Bach while studying (can’t tell if it did help or not). Tried rearranging my room so I would be more motivated (actually helped in the short term).

Eventually, I made it. It was the best feeling on earth. I felt invincible.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. “Flashcarding” after lessons. I have a bad memory, or at least I am lazy to remember things because I feel that the brain is for more important things than remembering that the tax rate of Singaporeans earning 280k a year. By using flashcards and practising throughout the semester, I was able to remember things without much notable effort. It was the greatest liberation I felt, because suddenly I was filled with all these knowledge that seemingly came from nowhere. I first heard of this amazing tip from Cal Newport’s book and subsequently modified it to suit my own needs.

2. Stopped doing sample questions with no answers. During my earlier years when I did an accounting module, I managed to get hold of many sample exam papers which did not come with any answers. Psyched and desperate, I ploughed through all the questions conscientiously, believing that this was my big break. My sure way to the A+ that I really needed. But I was wrong. I did horribly for the exams. Shocked and in disbelief, I wondered how this could have possibly happened. I was so sure that my efforts would be heavily rewarded. Upon reflecting, I think I must have understood some of the concepts wrongly; but without answers or solutions, I did not even know that I had misconceptions about the material. It was as if I were navigating a ship without a map. It was an utter waste of time. And I learnt one thing: only proper effort is rewarded.

3. Explaining things to myself to make sure I understand things. I learnt this from Scott H Young. It is not about repeating what I just read. Instead, it’s about being able to explain what I read, without any reference to the notes. So, covering the notes with a piece of blank paper, I taught myself as if I were a professor teaching his student someone for the first time.

4. Role-playing as the Professor. Apart from teaching myself, I would try to imagine what kind of questions a professor would ask in a test, based on what was being taught. Then I would try to answer them. And when I realised I couldn’t, I knew there was a knowledge gap and I had to work on it or ask my professor directly about it.

5. Find the right environment to study. There was really only one type of place that worked for me. Absolutely quiet ones. You just have to find yours and stick to it.

6. Forgiving myself. Improvements came in drips for me. As long as I was moving in the right direction, I did not beat myself up too hard when I was still shitty. Some things that I really sucked at were class participation and projects, which I became better at as I went along.

7. Immersing myself in the material. This was something that caught me by surprise. As I was trying to understand certain concepts, I would devour textbooks, other professors’ notes, websites, Youtube videos explaining the same thing. Somehow at the end of the semester, I would end up loving the subject. And I usually started out hating it at the beginning of the semester. I think immersing myself in the topic gave me a deep understanding of the concepts and also an immense sense of satisfaction when I realised how knowledgeable I had actually become.

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