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Heads up on exam prep: the expert guide for kids & parents

Who better to coach you through how to make the most of revision and stay cool ahead of exams, than Master of Magdalen College School, Helen Pike?

It is strange to think that there is currently no year group in schools which has sat public exams. So it’s possible that we’re all feeling a little more anxious this year.

Students who are about to sit A Levels are feeling the pressure having not had the experience of GCSEs behind them, and there are even some teachers who have yet to see a ‘normal’ exam season. 

While some students are delighted at the chance to own the exam room, some miss lessons at home and being assessed by their teachers.  Prep for exams has always been about keeping heads in the game, and this feels particularly true this year.   

For parents, revision time can feel peculiarly stressful.  The tendency to intervene and micromanage can be overwhelming (and it is an urge to be resisted.)  Your job as a parent is to provide shelter, food, quiet-ish space and above all love.  You can’t sit these exams for your children, as much as part of you might like to (or not.)  Therefore, what follows is written with a student firmly in mind.   

We have a coaching culture here at MCS: nearly half the teachers so far have had coaching training – it is brilliant for encouraging listening, self-awareness and compassion.  My overarching piece of exams advice is therefore: be your own coach.   

Listen honestly to yourself.  Sadly this doesn’t mean ‘I am telling myself that I’d rather be on Snapchat than go over these formulae again.’  It means recognising what needs to be done and when is the best time to do it.  

Know what you have to do. Public exams are back – but not quite as we knew them.  Every course will have had ‘advance information’ which is designed to help target revision, and this will be different for each subject and each Board.  Don’t get caught up in the question of whether or not it’s fair: it’s happening, and you need to do the best you can within the rubric set by your Boards. 

Do active not passive revision.   Reading notes and the textbook won’t get you very far.  At risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld—how will you know what you know and what you don’t?  Test yourself.  Do past papers.  Make flash cards. 

Buy stationery.  The joys of packs of multicoloured pens and a rainbow of record cards! (I am happy to sign a sponsorship deal with Muji, but I digress…) One word of warning: yellow highlighter kills royal blue washable ink.  You will highlight a sentence, and a week later, it will be gone.  

Plan when you are going to revise….   The brain functions optimally for 4-6 hours a day.  If you schedule six hours of revision a day, you have eighteen lovely hours/three quarters of your time to do other things, including sleep.  Timetable your revision, preferably into half-hour slots with short breaks (of 5-10 minutes, not two hours.) 

….And when you are not. Take breaks and do something enjoyable and memorable with them.  Exercise is optimal.  Walking counts.  Make your exercise your transport and your means of socialising.  That’s a life lesson, not just a revision tip, by the way.   

If the timetable slips, don’t give up and take to the sofa on a residential basis.  Enough said.  

Eat and drink well.   Parents have an important role here.  Fundamentally, food is fuel. Eat too much or too little, and there are serious consequences which go far beyond whether or not you can concentrate on your vocab. For many of us, food is also reward.  In perspective and moderation, looking forward to a healthy meal or even a not so healthy snack can be a motivator.  Deploy food wisely, and drink mainly water not caffeine. 

Don’t cram and don’t get jittery on caffeine tablets or worse. Again, I hope this is obvious.  

Speak to yourself as you would a beloved friend.  I find this a much more meaningful statement than ‘be kind to yourself.’ How would you advise your friends to prepare for exams, to organise their time, to conduct their life?  I doubt you would tell a much-respected friend that they are lazy and useless because they have had a bad day.  So don’t treat yourself like that.  You are the only self you will ever have, so cherish yourself a little, every day.   

Sleep: the holy grail.  I am obsessed with sleep.  If you don’t get enough good sleep, or if you get too much, then you risk either not revising properly, or for all your revision to be lost in brain fog.  All the studies show that our capacity to retain and store information requires good sleep – all four stages including REM and NREM sleep are required; this means ideally we want two full sleep cycles of approximately eight hours. Also, don’t give into the temptation to go nocturnal before exams.  The exams are not at night.  

And finally… You have time to prepare, many millions have done this before you, and whatever happens, you will be ok.  Keep your head in the game, take your teachers’ advice and target your revision. You’ve got this.  Good luck.   

Read my updated review of Magdalen College School here – and see the school for yourself at one of the upcoming open events: Year 7 and Year 9 taster evening on 18 May 2022; a Junior School Open Morning on 24 June 2022; a Senior School and Sixth Form Open Afternoon on 28 June 2022; and a Whole School Open Event on 17 Sept 2022. Booking is essential for all: register your interest here.

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