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24 - hours before the exam

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Jack Bauer often only had 24 hours to save Los Angeles from a major terrorist attack. What he managed to achieve in such a short period of time was impressive, and although he suffered pain and personal injury he maximised the time he had, and always saved the day.

Of course, you will have had far longer to prepare for your exam, however no matter when you started to study or the amount of preparation already complete, the final 24 hours will eventually arrive. But what should you do in these precious last few hours?

During the day (9.00 am - 5.00 pm) effective hours 6

If you have not already done so, and I would suggest this could have been completed about two to three days earlier, reduce your existing notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max). You may have some professionally produced revision materials but even these will contain too much information at this stage, equally you need to take ownership, the best notes will always be yours. This process of reduction is important, reflecting back on what you have learned and discarding what you know, means you will be left with what is personal to you and what needs to memorised.

In addition, as part of your preparation you should already have been practising past questions on the key examinable areas, under both exam and non-exam conditions. You may want to continue doing this during the day.

Physical and mental preparation is also important, drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress so you may want to build into your day time for a run or brisk walk.

The night before (5.00 pm - 10.30 pm) effective hours 4.00

The secret as to what you should do the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time so won’t be able to cover everything. Try to get an overview of the subject and focus on what needs memorising. These are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of key terms/definitions, talking out loud, drawing pictures, rehearsing mnemonics etc.

Make sure you are organised for the following day. This includes putting to one side your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course, make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Sleep (10.30 pm - 6.00 am) effective hours 0

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to bed. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, maybe watch TV for 20 minutes, something trivial. You need to break your state of mind from studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage.

The morning before (6.00 am - 8.00 am) effective hours 1/2 - 1

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you another half an hour or even an hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals.

1 hour before (8.00 am - 8.45 am) effective time 15m - 30m

What you do after arriving at the exam centre is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own reviewing the revision notes; don’t bother taking your course notes, you won’t need them. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to keep their mind off the exam. Both are fine.

And after the exam

Afterwards is also personal, many will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some confirmation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

What you do in the final 24 hours can make a significant difference to your exam result but it only improves your chances, it is not a substitute for hard work and a well-structured period of study beforehand.

Jack Bauer started very episode by saying “I’m federal agent Jack Bauer, and today is the longest day of my life.” At the end of your day you may feel the same but if you have made the most of your time in the last 24 hours, you can be happy that you could have done no more. 

Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial, has been involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years. He is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.