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A Night Before The Examination Essay

1.  Begin early. It should be no blinding revelation that you, gentle reader, are the central element in your education (no matter who you may be).  If this is the night before your exam, what follows may be too late.  If this turns out to be an all-nighter-post-mortem, please consider the following suggestion:  In future, make every effort to stick with the program.  Read the syllabus; attend lecture; keep up with the reading; ask questions.  If you need help, ask:  See your Professor during Office Hours or before or after class. If you have a disability, inform your instructor early in the semester and make appropriate arrangements well in advance of Exam Day. But in any case, prepare yourself for the exam now. Work on your reading, writing, and study skills.  Don't wait for the next exam.  Do it now.  You are the principal player in your education. Accept your responsibility. Please don't say no one told you.
Remember (Sorry to be preachy):   It takes two to learn and it is likely your professor is not an ogre (but never rule out this possibility).  For now take a chance.  A good question from you during class would be welcome. If you have any other kind of problem or concern, discuss it with your instructor before or after class or during office hours.  Communicate your concern.  In the meantime, do your job. Learn to listen critically, develop skills in taking notes, develop good study habits.
Remember University Guidelines:  Three hours of out-of-class study for each hour of class.  That means that a three-hour class will cost twelve hours a week.  Minimum.   Smart students spend significantly more.
2.  Syllabus & Notes? If you have done the reading and attended lecture you may want to take a glance at the syllabus (it has lecture titles and reading assignments, etc.) and, to the discerning reader, it has a pattern.  Now ask yourself:  What is the big deal?  What are the themes, the major questions the course and readings ask?  Make an outline.  If you have a study sheet the task is simpler:  Review your notes and required readings.  Make outlines for each study question.  You may wish to organize a study group to discuss the questions and potential responses.  But perhaps you should have done that earlier.
3.  Cool! A study sheet!   If you have a study sheet in hand and you have reviewed your lecture notes, the next job is to review them again focusing on what the question asks you to do.  To be sure, you will have to write something.  But what?  First, as a rule, the more intelligent prose you write the better.  The logic is simple:  Ten good pages are better than three good pages.  But not so fast. Quality is always the key.  If your name is Abe you might be able to write classic prose on an envelope.  Alas, most of us do not write with the power and simplicity of President Lincoln.  Think before you write.  Remember the old apology:  'Sorry I wrote a ten-page letter, I didn't have time to write two.'  Good writing is succinct.  As a rule it is re-written writing.  But you have only one shot with an in-class essay!  To be on target aim to be prepared.
4.  Preparation:   That means getting your thoughts organized in order to write clearly.  Your essay should have good organization.  As Aristotle suggested:  A Beginning; A Middle; An end.  If 'The Philosopher' and 'Master of Those Who Know' does not impress you (he is, after all, just another dead guy) recall the standard issue of the United States Army:

i.    Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em;
ii.   Tell 'em;
iii.  Tell 'em what you told 'em.

Writing a Blue Book Examination is the academic equivalent of going to war, well, anyway, defending something worthwhile.  Boy Scout or Big Green: Be Prepared.

5.  What to include?  If your thoughts are organized, what do you include in your essay?  In general be specific.  A good essay has a thesis:  It says in simple sinewy prose:  I will argue that....  A good essay uses carefully selected examples.  Like a good poem or a good piece of science or a good historical argument memorable essays make a general claim supported by specific examples.  The general and abstract are grounded in the particular and concrete.  Make a general claim; organize your essay with clear arguments; support your arguments with thoughtfully selected examples. 
Time is short.  Because time is short your essay should show economy of expression.  Make it lean and to the point.  Truth is simple.  Your reader can usually distinguish pepper corns from mouse droppings, so keep fertilizer to a minimum.  Grab the bull by the horns, butt heads with issues.  Writers kid themselves more often than they fool their readers.
6.  Be simple, direct, detailed.  With Democritus 'Don't speak at length, speak the truth.'  Fifty minutes is short, thirty minutes is twenty minutes shorter.  So you must select in advance what you judge worthy of our time.  In preparing for the essay you must select and that means you are interpreting. You must make your own evaluation of all that stuff.  You must find (create for yourself) an interpretation, a critical position, that you can defend. That requires sound argument and solid evidence. Good writing should have a thesis; clearly stated objectives; a clear structure; careful use of evidence, and appropriate 'telling' examples to illustrate and support your claims.

To be even more specific, be specific. Remember the basic charge: In general, be specific. The most common comments on Mid-Term Exams include the following: Be Specific; Explain; Give Examples; Too Vague. The most common mistake in writing essays is ignoring, overlooking, or giving only short notice to major issues, concepts, or historical figures. Your essay must be balanced. So, look at the syllabus. Consider where the greatest amount of time, effort, and emphasis has been placed. If we have spent several hours talking about Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus, et alia, do not be content to talk about 'the Greeks'. Be specific. These Greeks have names. Mention them specifically, explain their views. Similarly, if we spend days talking about what the Egyptians and the Babylonians observed in the heavens, for heaven's sake be specific about what they observed -- eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, oppositions, risings and settings, that there was some very specific interest in Venus (why?), that there were specific developments with place value notation, with the 24 hour day, the 365 day year, etc. In general, be specific. Finally, notice on the syllabus that we have spent the bulk of our time on Aristotle and Ptolemy. Their views are important. Did they think the same way about nature and knowledge? Can you write a Mid-Term Essay without mentioning them? Think about balance and proportion when you prepare.


This article was written by Imogen Van Der Meer, a current English & Literature tutor. Imogen currently is accepting students, so if you’re interested in her services, please go here. 

It can be one of the hardest things to do: falling asleep the night before a major assessment task. You know you need enough sleep to be able to perform at your best, but you’re also worried that everyone you’ve studied will fall out of your head during your slumber. So you lie there, with the lights out, going over quotes, definitions, even algorithms… over and over and over again, ensuring they stay in your brain until the end of the next day. Every now and again, you might jump out of bed and frantically rummage through your notes, convinced you’ve memorised a definition wrong, or have left out a whole chunk of information. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll fall asleep… but it won’t be a deep sleep, and you’ll wake up feeling like you’ve fought in a battle. Then you’ll get to school, and have mini heart-attacks whenever you hear someone talking about the assessment. Stress levels will be at full bore until the teacher says those magic words; ‘pens down’. And then you’ll breathe for the first time in 24 hours.

And that’s if you haven’t left all of your studying until the night before!

I won’t go into all that ‘start studying early’ stuff, because by now, you’ve either decided to take that advice, or you’re just going to wing it with whatever you can grasp together on the train ride to school. And that’s fine, everyone has different thresholds as to how much effort they’re willing to put into their study.

Regardless of whether you’ve studied for the past three weeks or the past three minutes, however, everyone is going to experience the anxiety felt the night before a SAC or exam.

And I’ve come up with a list of things that helped me deal with this angst, and fall into that deep slumber that is so essential to performing at your best.

  1. DON’T READ YOUR NOTES – It’s too late! What you know isn’t going to disappear, and what you don’t know isn’t going to sink in.

Okay, I’ll admit, I’m not totally convinced with the whole ‘nothing can be learnt the night before’ thing. But I am convinced that whenever I looked at my notes, I started getting caught up in something that I didn’t feel confident with. So I would invest so much energy into this one tiny part of my study, and half the time it wouldn’t even appear on the assessment! Then I would just get flustered, and make mistakes on things that I knew really well.

Long story short, it’s worth trying to cram any extra information in the night before; and if you’ve planned your studying properly, there shouldn’t be anything left to cram in!

2. READ OVER THE SAC/EXAM REQUIREMENTS AND LAYOUT – I found this particularly helpful with Science Pracs, because it helped me get an idea of what ‘reaction’ was expected to happen. Also, for English, ensuring you know the proper structure of the essay you are writing will make it easier to map out your thoughts under time constraints. In Maths, a quick scan of the topic subheadings will give you a clearer picture on the types of questions you’ll encounter.

And for the final exams at the end of the year, it helps knowing exactly how much time you have, how many sections there are, and the requirements of each section. Looking over this one last time the night before helped me relax, because I knew exactly what had to be done the next day. Nothing caught me off guard, in other words.

3. ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS FOR 30 MINS – This is my version of ‘last-minute study’. While I was thinking about the things I would be tested on the next day, I usually asked myself questions that I think will be tested on. These can be the smallest of things, for instance ‘what was that character’s name that appeared in only one scene?’ or ‘how do I spell that word again?’. These are the things that I would check one last time the night before. They probably didn’t help in any way; as in, I didn’t learn anything new. But they did calm me down, because I could say to myself that I was preparing in some way. Giving myself just half an hour to ‘confirm my understanding’, so to speak, was enough to stop my mind from ticking constantly as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling.

4. DO HOMEWORK FOR OTHER SUBJECTS – This will help take your mind of the stressful assessment that lay ahead. It forces your brain to focus on something else, making you less likely to work yourself up into a frenzy over not preparing enough in advance. Sometimes, thinking about something else helps you organise the most important thoughts in an efficient order.

5. EAT A PROPER DINNER – This has so many benefits. Firstly, delicious food makes everything better. Secondly, your brain will be thankful for fuelling it properly. Also, a nice, hearty meal will help you become sleepy. And finally, taking time away from your books to enjoy a nice meal gives you a guilt-free excuse to stop thinking about studying for 20 minutes. Everyone needs to eat, of course!

6. WIND DOWN – Going straight to bed after closing your workbook is not a good idea! There needs to be time in between, where your mind can slow down and start drifting off into that beautiful sleepy faze. You might like to watch a TV show or read a couple of chapters of a book. Maybe you just want to play with your dog for a little bit. It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as it’s relaxing; and has nothing to do with school. So I wouldn’t suggest calling your friend to see how they feel about the assessment. It will just freak you out even more.

7. GO TO BED EARLY – As I keep saying, sleep is important! Your body needs it, your brain needs it, and your sanity needs it as well! Though its good to do well on all VCE assessments, at the end of the day, a SAC or exam is not worth losing sleep over. And you shouldn’t be feeling anxious or stressed all the time. If you are feeling like this, I suggest talking to your teachers to see how they can help you feel more prepared. Because if you plan well enough, you will do exceptionally well without missing a single night’s sleep.

All this may seem like common sense, but sometimes seeing these things written down in words, by someone who has experienced everything you are experiencing right now, is the only way you’ll truly take this advice into considering.

Once again, good luck with your studies! And stick to your bedtimes!

LearnMate is Australia’s leading tutoring agency offering private lessons in all HSC, WACE, VCE & SACE subjects including English, maths, science, humanities, foreign languages, and so much more. Our mission is simple: to provide professional, engaging and enthusiastic HSC, WACE, VCE & SACE tutors to students, while also ensuring the student feels empowered and confident during their assessments! Ultimately, our goal is to empower students all over Australia to achieve amazing results and make their dreams come true!


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