Preparing for an exam can be so much easier and successful if you follow a few simple rules to avoid frustration and optimize your learning strategy. I completely turned my fear into excitement and after taking so many exams I am always looking forward to getting into the next challenge. Along the way, I developed these simple strategies to make passing exams an exciting experience! So here is my list of 21 steps to take during your preparation in 4 simple groups:
Before you enroll
- Exam research
- Material research
- Learn how to learn
- Review lessons learned
- Fix the exam date
- Promise yourself a reward
During your study
- Calculate your pace
- Create an overviw
- Take notes
- Review regularly
- Finish early
The week before
- Take a walk every day
- Keep a steady pace
- Create a cheat sheet
- Visit the test-site
- No parties
- No stressful events
The day before
- No cramming
- Keep your rythm
- Prepare required documents
- Get a good sleep
Before you enroll
1. Research the exam details
Answer the following questions: Is this exam valuable for my career? Does the training provider have a good reputation? Is the study material the best I can get? How did others learn and prepare? What was Their experience with test centers and the exam itself? Download the syllabus from the exam provider and look for their study recommendations. Find out the time it usually takes to prepare for this exam and if there are any prerequisites. Remember: The best exam is always the one you DON’T take if it does not bring you forward in any way.
2. Do a thourough material research
This is a very important part of your research. Especially valuable are book reviews and any other material that summarizes the topics you have to study. Use googles special search function (e.g. type ” cheat sheet filetype:pdf”) so find PDF documents only. You are not the first one that takes this exam so there will be valuable information available if you know how to find it. Here are some more google search hacks to narrow down the results:
|OR, | Symbol||cheat-sheet OR summary|
cheat-sheet | summary
|Search for either word|
|– (minus symbol)||cheat-sheet -“paid”||Search for cheat-sheets without the word paid|
|Only searches the title of websites|
|Only searches the URL (e.g. would find www.cheat-sheet.com)|
|filetype:||cheat-sheet filetype:pdf||Searches for files only like xls, doc, jpg, txt, mp3…|
|site:||cheat-sheet site:improvestudyhabits.com||Finds all the articles only on this website that contain the word cheat-sheet|
This is known as “Google hacking”. Just type that into your google search box for a full list.
Besides that, there are a lot of good websites for paid and free resources. Search for audio programs and online courses (like on my favorite Udemy, CBT nuggets or Skillshare), search Pinterest for infographics, attend seminars or webinars, search on youtube and don’t forget to visit your local bookstore!
3. Learn about learning
If you think about learning and immediately “books” come to your mind think again. Try new techniques and new types of material you found in your research. A video course can never replace a detailed book but it gives you the necessary overview and prepares you for the topic. This makes it much easier to read any book if you know what you can expect from the material. Did you ever hear of the educator Edgar Dale? He created the famous “cone of learning” which says:
- 10% of what we read
- 20% of what we hear
- 30% of what we see
- 50% of what we see and hear
- 70% of what we discuss with others
- 80% of what we personally experience
- 95% or what we teach others
Though he did not support this by a scientific research it has an obvious tendency. The more action you put into the material the better you can recall it. So just by reading important things out loud, discussing it with fellow students or even help someone by teaching it to him improves your own ability to memorize the material.
4. Review your lessons learned
Especially when you are a continuous learner like me and take many exams you should maintain a record of lessons learned. While this is a common technique in Project Management or Agile development it also should be applied in your personal life. Even if you fail an exam you need to use that experience to improve. Always ask: What did I do right? And: What would I do differently the next time? – Write down the answers in a journal and always review your experience before your next attempt. I used those lessons learned to put together a list of things you should do on your exam day.
5. Calculate your pace
As mentioned before the booking of your exam does not only define your goal but also helps you to calculate your training effort. Allocate the time you need and get to work every day at the same time. Try to maintain a steady learning pace, include review sessions and make sure you always include some buffer time for unexpected events. But how to calculate the time you need? During your research of the exam, you should have come across the syllabus which usually contains the average amount of training time required. I usually do not calculate more than 8h of study time per day (this means effective hours where you really study). So I divide the suggested time by 8. Then I add 1 because the last day before the exam is for review only. This is how I come up with the exam date.
6. Promise yourself a reward
Learning hard and passing an exam is a big achievement. The certificate itself, the knowledge you acquired and the boost for your CV is already a huge benefit. But I always promise myself a personal reward. Something I always wanted to buy or do. That could be the new notebook that was always or my wishlist or the trip I wanted to go on. To increase my motivation even further I prefer to reward me AND my wife ( A trip, a fancy dinner or a concert) – and because I don’t want to disappoint her I get that extra kick.
During your study
7. Create an overview
Do not just start with whatever material you can find, get an overview of what you are going to learn and when you want to learn it. You have the syllabus from your research, book summaries, watch the first chapter of your video courses, get your mind ready for the material. Ask and write down questions that you want the material to answer for you. What do you know already about the topic? I personally use Trello to organize my material and plan my next steps. In Trello you can create boards with tasks and move them around. As a minimum, I always use To Do, Doing and Done. They have a Phone App so I can manage my ideas or questions from anywhere. Try it out, it’s completely free.
8. Book in advance
Once I have done my research and roughly know how much I need to study I can calculate my exam date. I always book my exam first. This is a commitment and makes my decision final. As soon as I have a date and chopped up the topic into chunks I have a plan. This is calming because there is no guessing and dancing around the material. I know what to learn and when to learn it and the knowledge that I have a solid plan to study all the things I need to know in time takes a lot of pressure out of the process.
9. Take notes
I cannot emphasize this enough – take notes, mark up your material and summarize it with your OWN words. The action of writing something down and physically working with it like highlighting text in a book is much more effective than just skimming over the material. Buy your own books if possible and after a
- Create a mind map. Mind maps are incredibly powerful. I always create at least one to have a visual overview of the whole topic. It grows over time and I can get a better grasp of the big picture by trying to find relationships of all the different aspects of a topic
- Create exam questions with explanations. Usually, practice tests and exam questions are hard to come by (Especially free ones). Therefore I always create a list of practice questions with explanations so I can test myself later. There are many websites that let you create quizzes for free. I wrote a cross-platform App for that because I found that most of the quiz editors are not suitable for more complicated tests like e.g. Chinese Level 1 where you need to listen, read, have multiple answers or assign values to images etc. You can have a look at www.quizzerwiz.com and contact me if you like to use it.
10. Review regularly
Most of the things you read are forgotten within the first 24 hours. Begin the day with a short review of yesterdays topics! Another good advice is to put your mindmap somewhere you can see it. I got myself a huge whiteboard where I can attach stuff with magnets or draw up some notes and visualize important facts. But just repeating the material from yesterday the morning after is not sufficient. To improve the amount of material you can recall it is important to repeat it at regular intervals. This is also known as spaced repetition. As a simple rule of thumbs according
- Every morning: Review your study notes from the day before
- After 7 days
- After 16 days
- After 35 days
There are some Apps that can track those cycles for you, I prefer to simply put the repetition date in the upper corner of my study notes. If I am satisfied with what I could recall on the review day I move it into the next cycle or else back to the previous one.
11. Finish earlier
Plan your study so that you finish all the required topics at least one or two days before your exam. This gives you a feeling of security. You learned it all. You are ready. Nothing is worse than realizing 2 days before your exam that you missed a certain topic… panic is the death of any certificate!
The week before
12. Do your exercise and take a topic for a walk
Exercise and fresh air is not something only for exams and the last week of course but within the last seven days you can use a good walk to clear your mind, to think the topic through, to identify gaps. Did you really understand the material? Could you explain it to someone else? Sometimes thinking it through during a walk brings you clarity, explaining it to yourself makes you realize the important facts.
13. Keep a steady pace
Just because it is the last week does not mean you need to panic. Keep your pace, you calculated everything so there is no need to double your daily study hours. Reassure yourself that you are where you should be with your study and keep calm.
14. Create a cheat sheet
This is the best preparation method ever. If you are forced to summarize everything on 1 or 2 pages you need to find what is essential about the material. You will get the big picture and how it all fits together. Take this sheet with you … I always have it with me – during preparation so I can quickly look up a fact that I cannot remember – and though I never used it even during the exam – it somehow gives me confidence.
15. Visit the test site
Fear is the greatest enemy of successful exams. If you can familiarize yourself with the exam site before the exam day. Not only do you know exactly where it is and how long it takes to get there but you will feel calmer on your big day when you arrive at a place you are familiar with.
16. No parties
This is a no-brainer of course – delay all outings and parties … anything that disturbs your rhythm – have a (big !) party AFTER you have your certificate.
17. Avoid stress
Make sure the last week is stress-free… no important presentation or duty at your job – no visit at the dentist or any other things that will have a negative influence on your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. If you have trouble keeping calm before the exam you might try some simple meditation techniques. Check my article about how meditation can improve studying.
The day before
18. No cramming
The day before is best used to do a review of your summary. Do not try to bombard your mind with new information and concepts. This will only make you nervous and doesn’t work anyway. Read my article about cramming for more details.
19. Keep your rhythm
Do not change anything – just because it is the day before that doesn’t mean you need to go to bed earlier or do an extra long repeat session … you have planned ahead – nothing left to be done – the day before the exam is for calm review so you can go to bed with the knowledge that you have what it takes to get your certificate!
Make sure you have everything for a healthy breakfast – Buy all you need for a nutritious healthy power breakfast!
20. Prepare your documents
Get all your documents ready. Passport or any other ID, Exam fee or voucher, any material you are allowed to bring, print out the address and a map, contact details with
21. Get a good sleep
Go to bed at the usual time. Now you can already experience an invaluable advantage of your preparation and advantage. The knowledge that you have done everything possible to ace this test is very relaxing. No nervous thinking, anxiety or problems to fall asleep. I actually need to admit that I always felt excited that the day I have worked so hard is finally here so I can take home the prize!
This list of preparation tips has helped me a lot so far. From all the exams I took, I did not fail a single one. But this is not it, there is more to do on the day itself. If you don’t want to leave anything to chance continue reading my article about what to do and to avoid on your big day itself.