At this time of year, perhaps the only thing more terrifying than the inevitable return of Cliff Richard is the resurfacing of that dreaded monster called revision. Zoe Alford has some suggestions to help you enjoy your time away from university a little more while still feeling ready to face those January exams.

christmas penguin

Preparing for January exams can seem particularly cruel on those long, dark nights when all you want to do is lounge about drinking mulled wine. For first year students these exams are often their first at a university standard, and the prospect of not knowing quite what to expect is always difficult when you’re still trying to find your feet in a new place. On the other hand, exams can be just as tough – if not more so – for returning students. Despite having the advantage of knowing what to expect, for many it’s been almost half a year since having completed summer exams. So returning undergraduates may certainly feel out of shape when it comes to exam preparation – myself included.

As these exams are fast upon us, I’d like to offer some of the tips and tricks I’ve learnt over the years, right the way up to my second year of university. However, my main point would always be to take this and any other advice you are given with the traditional pinch of salt – only you will know what works best for you, and often this kind of self-knowledge can only be acquired through the slow process of trial and error.

Recognise Procrastination

While it’s great to have a neatly-organised pencil case, colour-coded revision timetable, and well-ordered to-do list – there comes a time when you have to realise all of these activities should only be tools to aid your revision, rather than the main event itself. Being super-organised can help some people, but personally I find that stressing over how neat your handwriting is like it’s the first day of school is often detrimental to the process of learning. It may not be neat, it may not be pretty, but by diving straight into revision you may be gaining valuable hours that would have otherwise been used to assemble your books in alphabetical order. Or, as playwright David Mamet puts it:

“It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.”

I’m not denying that having some sort of plan is always a good idea if you want to stay on track with your revision. However, my point is that we’re all human. You will procrastinate and go off topic, often without realising exactly what you’re doing. For instance, by writing this article, I’m postponing my essay on Richard Brautigan. The only way to combat procrastination is to acknowledge it as a fact of life, and try to limit your use of it as much as possible. This especially true for those sneaky little activities like the ones I’ve mentioned above – those that look like they could be useful for revision,  while in reality only detract valuable attention from the actual work you need to get done.

Location, Location, Location

Virginia Woolf wasn’t kidding when she advised serious writers to get a room of their own. Different people work well in different places, and discovering a place where you work well should be a priority if you want to revise effectively. Don’t worry if the place where you can achieve the best concentration is different from others – I prefer to work at home, whereas my housemate Claire says she only works well in the library.

When at university, I avoid the library at peak times. During the summer I found that my favourite place to work was in the Fulton House Cafeteria. Admittedly it isn’t open for as long or as often as the library is during exam seasons, but then again staying there from roughly 10am-12am most days should be plenty long enough for most people to get work done. As few people think of using the area to revise, it is considerably quieter than the library, with the added bonus of sofas being available. Being at the heart of the university, it is also easy to pop over to JCs on study breaks and reward yourself with a pint or ten. Similarly, the prospect of getting a cooked breakfast is a great incentive to crawl out of bed and revise. With all those windows, the room isn’t half as gloomy as depressing as the library can be, and most areas have sockets to charge laptops. Did I mention I really like revising in Fulton House?


Good Company

This year I have been lucky enough to live with three of my best friends, one of whom is also on my course. This has been great for me as it means we have been able to pool resources, compare notes, and generally just vent about all the things we don’t like about this course. Even if you may prefer to do the majority of your work alone, knowing that someone else is there going through exactly the same experience as you is incredibly reassuring, particularly if there is an aspect you’re really struggling with. If you don’t live with someone on your course, I would highly recommend meeting up for various study sessions with a friend/ friends from your subject area, even if it’s just to recap the stuff you’ve already done.

Be selective about who you choose though, as anxiety can be infectious, and the last thing you want is someone dragging you down and confusing matters with their negative attitude. Everyone experiences nerves to a certain extent, but the whole point of meeting up with someone else is to make yourselves feel better about your situation, not worse. Equally, don’t revise with someone that’s only going to brag about how wonderful they are and how much work they’ve done without actually contributing. Like any good relationship, a rewarding working relationship should be one where both partners put in equal work and aren’t afraid to share ideas and concerns with one another.

Let Your Voice be Heard

If one hasn’t been created for your subject already, I would highly recommend creating a Facebook group.  It’s such an easy and convenient way of getting quick and easy answers from your classmates – from what everyone thinks of the exam setup, to finding out who your subject reps are. On the topic of subject reps, be sure to let them know if you do have any comments or complaints, as it’s their job is to let staff know how they can improve your learning experience, and this includes your exams.

Furthermore, be sure you have a good relationship with your subject and personal tutors. I would suggest that it’s even worth asking to change if you don’t get along with yours. On more than one occasion now I’ve been told by my tutors that they wished more students knew that they’re able to come in and discuss questions with them. If you don’t particularly want to see them, often an email can work just as well. It’s not cheating to use them as much as you can – that’s what they’re there for!

Little Revision is better Than No Revision (or Too Much Revision)

Mentally preparing yourself to be chained to your desk for hours on end can put you off working before you even begin. Be realistic, and aim for short, effective bursts of work rather than an “all or nothing” approach that will either leave you feeling overwhelmed or incredibly guilty. There is rarely such a thing as too much revision – but it can happen if you force yourself to work  for so long that you forget what it is you’re studying in the first place, (or indeed the ability to talk, as I once did after one gruelling all-day library session).

It’s Never Too Late to Start

I’d to explode the old myth that last minute revision doesn’t work. In fact, some of my best answers in exams have stemmed from things I’ve learnt last minute- those quick little snippets of information that stick in the short term memory. You’ll be surprised what the mind can achieve under pressure. I don’t condone purely last minute cramming as a form of revision, as you’re unlikely to have covered the breadth of knowledge you should to acquire for your exam. That said, by putting off any late revision simply because you think it won’t help or will make you forget things you’ve already learnt, you may be denying yourself a valuable opportunity to score a few extra points – provided you don’t stress yourself out too much.

Don’t Count Yourself Out

As an English Literature student, I have the unbelievable advantage of being able to take a brief 200 word plan into some exams where the questions are “seen”, so parts of these answers can be prepared in advance. This summer, I spent the best part of a month preparing for such a question, only to leave my plan at home on the day itself. I was beyond gutted. I thought there’d be no point at even attempting to remember my original question, so I just sulked and scribbled down some half-assed plan. The feedback I got for this answer was that if I’d actually been bothered to fill out my plan, despite leaving my original at home, I easily had enough material to gain a 2:1 or even a First. So, the moral of this story is to never give up, and don’t let your own self- doubt get in the way of  your potential success. You never know what you’re capable of unless you try.

My Top 3 Favourite Techniques 

1)   The “Carly Rae Jepsen”


This method is perhaps the most unusual, but is my personal favourite and revision process of choice.  You may have been asked at school what “kind” of learner you were – visual, auditory, or kinetic. I always assumed I was a visual learner, as I enjoy reading and have a good memory for things I’ve seen. However, it soon dawned on me that like most students, my mind has an incredible capacity for unconsciously remembering song lyrics. What’s more, they don’t even have to be songs you like. The simple act of repeated listening can cement these apparently useless words into your long term memory like nothing else. Hence I’ve coined this effect “The Carly Rae Jepsen”. If you don’t believe me, try reciting as many words as you can to “Call Me Maybe”. Like me, you may be horrified at how much of it you can remember, even when drunk.

So how does this help with revision exactly? My point is that converting my notes into audio files has been by far the most effective form of revision for me, across many subjects, from GCSE right the way up to today.  I seriously couldn’t recommend this method enough if conventional forms of revision haven’t been working for you. The ability to effectively revise anywhere, any time is a great comfort, especially in the last few days before an exam.

The website I use to convert my notes into mp3 is can be found here –

All you do is copy and paste your text into the box provided and then click on “Create mp3”. From there, you are directed to your file where you must click on “Download mp3”, and then right-click on the black screen to save your file under “Save As”. Simple, right?

The downside to this technique is the voice can be incredibly annoying – imagine a very bored sounding Stephen Hawking with intonation and you’re pretty much there. It also helps if you can break your notes up into smaller sub-sections, unless you want one MASSIVE audio file. One final point, remember to remove these files from your iTunes library after exams have finished too. I can assure you it’s very awkward when you’re having a house party and “Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan” comes up on shuffle, followed by almost every Motown record known to man.

2) The Shrine

Sticking up post-it notes or revision cards around your room is another process of simple, repetitive reinforcement that is particularly helpful if you are in fact as visual or kinetic learner. The process of writing out the information acts as the initial form of revision, while reading each one before sticking it up repeats the process. If re -visited every day, or if possible, more often this can quickly add up to a lot of revision.  It helps if you assign particular topics to particular areas of your room, thereby associating particular topics with particular areas such as above a mirror, or by the door. Later, the act of visualising each of these areas, or remembering whereabouts in you put each one, can further help the brain retrieve stored information by acting as a mental cue. I’ve found that this sort of method is most useful when remembering small sound bites or quotes, mathematic or scientific formulas. One thing to bear in mind though, what goes up must come down.  So if you’re going to spend three hours plastering every inch of wall space – good luck.

3) The Chat


It may not seem like revision, but recounting what you’ve already learnt in a casual, informal way to a friend or family member is a gentle way to calm yourself doing after hours of cramming. This method also is more productive than it may first appear, as it will help to develop your own personal responses by putting answers into your own words and highlight those vital areas where your immediate knowledge is lacking. More often, however, you should find yourself pleasantly surprised of the answers you can give, even when put on the spot. This is a great exercise to try with those designated study partners that I described earlier, or for an added challenge, you could try describing your answer to someone who knows nothing about the topic.

 Another variation on this idea you may have already come across is the practise of Q and A. However, it is generally a rule that university exams call for more sustained essay answers, that require you to discuss and analyse the content of your course rather than merely spout out pre-rehearsed facts and figures. Therefore, this process of formulating your own answers from little or no question to go on can be the most effective way of practising the kind of response that markers are looking for.  In addition, the most common response I’ve seen from feedback on first-class answers is that the best answers are those that take the student’s own ideas and support it with a passionate, well-supported argument. If you can already convince an audience of your ideas through the power of good rhetoric and supported reasoning , then you’re already well on your way to a great mark, even if you haven’t got all your important points exactly memorised yet.

And Finally – Remember “This Too Shall Pass”

Exams may feel like hell, but they aren’t forever. So instead of panicking that you only have a little time left when counting down the days towards exams, instead be thankful that it’s one less day until they’re finally over. You may not be able to control when your exams are or what one questions you get, but one thing you can control are your thoughts. Besides, a little positive attitude can go a long way – especially at Christmas time!

By Zoe Alford