Friday 1 July 2011

Written exams : the basics

To celebrate this being the first time in in 16 years that I have had no summer exams (other than an optional mock exam today), here is my exam survival guide. I hope you might find something useful hidden in the depths of it =)

The beginning of the year, or as early as possible :
1) Sit down with someone in the disability service +/- the medical school, and discuss any adaptations you might need. Remember to plan for your worst day. They will be able to tell you what kinds of adaptations they've made for other students. (For example, using a scribe, having rest breaks, or sitting the exam in a separate room)

Before that meeting it would be helpful to think back on previous exams, or to do a past paper in as close to exam conditions as possible, to find any problem areas.

2) Don't let anyone give you the excuse "but when you're working you won't (get extra time, for example)". You might want to say "yes, but it is not your responsibility to make adaptations for me in the work place". This is more relevant for clinical exams, and I'll discuss that another time. It's a tricky one.

Don't let anyone feel like you are gaining an unfair advantage. These are adaptations you need to minimise the impact of your impairment on your exam performance.

The month of the exam :
3) Practice using any unfamiliar adaptations, such as working with a scribe.

4) Learn a quick relaxation technique, and practice is, in case you have a blind panic on seeing the first question (been there, my friend). Some examples are lying flat on the floor and counting slowly to 100, contracting and relaxing muscles working from the feet up, and reciting a funny poem or singing all the way through your favourite song in your head.

The picture shows a window sill, on which are placed a
pile of books, and a big ball of wool with knitting needles
sticking out of it. Outside the window is a lamp-post.
The week of the exam :
5) Make like a marathon runner and tone down your study. Prioritise rest, good meals, stress busting (cinema, craft, coffee with friends, gentle exercise) and some gentle "dotting the Ts" revision. Get your sleep pattern in sync so it's not an effort to be up in time for a morning exam.

The day before the exam:
6) Make sure you know where and when the exam is, and how you're getting there. I get my Dad to phone the morning of every exam to make sure I'm up (not what you might call a morning person...) Give yourself the best chance of sleeping well by using good sleep hygiene (riciculous phrase!) +/- a wee dram.

7) Make sure you've packed the following in 1+ clear plastic bags :
- pens, pencils, rubbers etc
- uni ID badge if needed
- cushions, splints etc
- regular medication and any PRN you might need
- bottle of water (that you can open) and snacks (unwrapped and folded in kitchen roll so you don't rustle)
- lucky charm or something that makes you smile

The morning of the exam :
8) Wake up in time to have a proper breakfast and a drink and leave in plenty of time. Don't look at any work longer than 1 side of A4.

During the exam :
9) Take at least one 5 minute toilet break (if you don't have rest breaks) to stretch your legs, run through a relaxation technique and/or refresh with a snack. I tend to do this after my first plough through, at the switch between types of questions, or if I get a bit freaked out.

10) Think about variety to reduce over-straining any muscles / joints, and to keep your brain engaged. Switch pens regularly so you don't get the dread exam hand cramp, change sitting position (or switch between between sitting / standing / lying down if that is helpful for you) and consider not doing all questions of one type in a block, but rather doing half of one and then starting the other.

What pre-exam routines do you have? Have your med school been helpful in terms of exam arrangements?


  1. If you use anxiety meds, *practice* taking them, maybe when you are going through past papers. I learnt this by taking a larger dose of beta-blockers than is good for my low-blood-pressure self, having great difficulty walking up stairs to my exam hall, blacking out, being fed sugary coffee by a kind-hearted departmental secretary, and sitting much of the exam concentrating more on staying conscious than on what I was writing.
    I now know that half the smallest dose of beta-blockers, and biofeedback & mindfulness techniques,are much safer.

    Similarly sleeping tablets the night before, benzodiazepines, and the timings of evening & morning meds (+- food) - do a few practice runs beforehand, & be particularly careful if you have a run of exams over several days or weeks.
    Doing things like skipping a neuroleptic dose altogether because they make it hard to think can cause nasty rebound effects down the line :(

  2. Oh no! What a nightmare. I sometimes skip my sleep-aiding pain med if I have to be up for something earlier than normal, but it always ends up wrong, because I end up not sleeping and then it's all rubbish.

    I remember that during my Alevels I sat 10 separate exams over 5 days in a row (I had loads of clashes so I was in isolation for most of the time) and I was just SO exhausted by the end. And I don't know really what I could have done to help that.

    That being said, plan to spend the afternoon after a morning exam in bed. Don't expect to get much work done at all that afternoon. Then at least if you get a bit done it's a bonus.

  3. Plan.
    Tesco order the week before, lots of soup, ready meals, quick to eat fruit and veg, emergency chocolate.
    I use Google calendar to bleep my mobile phone to tell me to get up, eat, go outside, go to bed.
    Make sure you've enough meds to get through exam period, especially PRNs.
    Stick to looking-after-yourself routine come what may - it's not worth spending an extra half hour on revision if you can't think straight in an exam a few days later.
    Realise you'll be crashed after exams, don't plan to go straight on holiday or move house then.
    Wish I'd been on DLA during my time at uni - I'd probably have used it to pay for help with housework around exam time, and maybe other sorts of personal support.

    This is one of those situations where extra time can be a problem - 25% extra time & 25% as breaks made my exam sessions too long, really. If I did it again I'd be a bit bolshier about needing things like meal breaks between papers. As was I don't know how I'd have coped with final year exams without going PT.