Stages of Preparation for an Exam


The traditional science exam follows a predictable formula of how students will prepare in order to do well in an exam. Every class will have a mixture of every kind of student, but their are still general patterns.

Stage One: Announcement

About two or three weeks before the exam is written, the teacher will announce that a test is coming up. When this happens, some students will not even pay attention, figuring that there is plenty of time between now and the exam. Others will flip open their school planners and pencil the date in, organized much more than the average student.

Generally, the announcement of the exam generates a bit of buzz in the class, but not too much (since the threat is so far away).

Stage Two: One Week Out

As the exam looms nearer, review sessions are common. This is where people begin to really think about the exam (not just in abstract terms). During these times, the students will start to ask questions about concepts they aren’t familiar with. They will have plenty of practice for the exam, but if they are anything like me, they are still waiting to start most of the problems, because there is a bunch of time left before that exam.

An alternative: the beginning of panic. Depending on the actual content of the exam, panic can begin to blossom at this time. For some classes, the sheer amount of material becomes almost overwhelming. Personally, I’ve experienced this sensation for my mathematics class, where the amount of formulas and procedures we had to memorize and know how to use was a bit nuts.

Still, with one week left, the student will generally feel good about his or her chances on the test.

Stage Three: T-Minus Three Days

At this point in time, full panic has either set in, or the student knows exactly what they are doing. With only a few days left until the exam, students are in an awkward position in class. The exam is soon, but the teacher does not want to waste time reviewing old material (since that had already happened), so he or she moves on to new material. Therefore, the students have to try and absorb new material while simultaneously thinking about their upcoming exam. Evidently, what usually happens is that the new material is only somewhat understood and not contemplated for very long.

It’s at this stage in the game that I personally crack down on studying. Usually, this means going over the topics for the tests, and redoing any assignments that are part of the exam. I choose to do this three days and less before the exam because I feel like it gives my mind the “muscle memory” to know what to do when I encounter a similar question on an exam.

This strategy can somewhat backfire if there is a lot of material on the exam, because it means I’ll have to go through an extraordinary amount of work in only a few days. Consequently, the days leading up to the exam are quite stressful, and it is difficult to think about anything other than the exam.

Stage Four: One Day Until the Exam

As the penultimate day draws near, I have two possible reactions: confidence that I know the material well, or utter panic that I won’t be able to do as well as I would like on the exam. With so little time until the exam, those are the basic mindsets I have. If there are problems I try that day that aren’t making sense to me, it’s probably enough to send me down in a funk, certain I will do terrible on the test (usually, I don’t do horribly).

For others, it’s a day of making sure to read over the notes and testing one’s knowledge of the subject. I do this too, but I find it more useful in science exams to be practicing problems instead of theory (though both are indeed important).

Stage Five: Moments Before the Exam

As the hour draws near, many are beginning to get trapped in a mental panic. Questions are shot back and forth between students, as if they are part of a tennis rally. Answers are recited in textbook-like form, and procedures are gone over. For a few unlucky students, questions about concepts are still posed, which implies that there are still uncertain subjects left to the student.

When there are only ten minutes or so left before the exam, many students adopt a military-like approach. For one of my more difficult classes (not for me, but in general), my friend would say something to the effect: “Well boys, let’s get ready for war. See you on the other side.”


The stages of preparation for an exam follow this pattern pretty well, to the point that I know the routine to follow for each one. I always feel like it’s an endeavour that must one cross, like a huge hill that one has no choice to climb. As the climb approaches, I don’t necessarily want to climb it, but I resign myself to the fact that I must. Then, once I reach the top, I feel a huge sense of relief that it is all over.

An important thing to note is that these are the stages of a science exam when there’s only one coming up. At the end of the semester, the situation is a bit different. For one, the exams are all distributed at around the same time. Secondly, the exams are comprehensive, which means there is much more material than on an exam during the semester.

This means it is very difficult to wait until a few days before the exam to begin studying. It’s possible, but I definitely don’t recommend it (actually, I barely recommend any of my procedure). To deal with this, I try to begin studying sooner, and I try to address the most pressing exam first. It’s not the best strategy, but it’s the one that I use.

As you can see, the stages of an exam are filled with one thing: stress, which is why it feels so amazingly good to finish one of them.

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