Student Life

How to Survive a Masters Degree Part 2; 5 Ways for Focused Exam Prep



Its nearly the Easter break and I am four campus days away from seminar and lecture freedom and another term closer to completing my Masters degree in Psychology.

If you had read my first post on my second journey as a student (Confessions of a 31 Year Old Student), you would have felt my tiredness from the all day  lectures and the dread at the thought of the upcoming January exams.

Now that I have come out of the other side of those exams, I can say they were a breeze and passed them all with Merit – but I would be lying.  Not about the grade thankfully, but the breeze part definitely!  Those exams were tough; one Statistics paper, a Cognitive Psych and Psychobiology exam in which there were 30 multiple choice questions and then an essay question (unseen) on each.

I’m not going to lie that the revision was tough, especially when also going to the day job when not at university plus trying to get my the thesis project off the ground.  However, now that the first exam period has passed I can say that I have learnt more than just how to write an entire essay on long term memory with references in just an hour.  That being said, I can attribute the following tips to helping me through those first exams. These tips are mostly based on the type of exams that are set for my UK based postgraduate study and within the school of Psychology though hopefully some of them can be used for any exam type/school of study.

My 5 tips for focussed studying for postgraduate exams:

  1. Get started on the exam prep as soon as you can!   I realised when a particular lecture topic had caught my interest that I could see there would be a good topic to discuss for an essay.  As soon as I knew there was a topic I could base a good argument on, I should have focused in on preparing that essay outline straight after the lecture.  However, I didn’t think that at the time. This time around I already know, with a 6 week head start, which topics I am going to focus on for my 4 exams.  This time, rather than trying to prep for 1 definite essay and 2 other backup plans in case the questions don’t come up, I am going to focus on the one topic area and do as much reading as possible. That way I would be confident to answer the question but can also tackle it should the question be slightly off what I had planned.
  2. Plan your essays out. Use an essay plan as a prompt sheet to remind you of the points you have read while also keeping your essay structured.  Think of which general points you would use to include in your introduction but don’t forget to make sure you address the question in the final exam.  For the main body, think of the main arguments/theories on the topic and use them as headers.  Under each header, bullet point any references you want to mention and then if you support or critique that theory and why.  If you disagree, lead it to the next header that can counter claim that theory with bullet points again for references. Do the same if you have read a theory that enforces the previous one.   This is great to begin with as you memorise the information you will need.  As you start to feel more comfortable knowing what you will write, reduce your plan to even more simplified bullet points that address each section in just a few words. Using this structure, you will find that you can plan out an essay in about a page  and you will have a useful memory jogger for when the exam gets closer.  If you have time to practice writing out an essay and timing yourself, that will be a bonus and something that I personally found really helpful.
  3. Go for a strong conclusion. Don’t just mention everything you have written in the main body.  Use the conclusion to summarise the main strengths and weaknesses of the topic and you can even give your own suggestions as to why and how the theory could be improved.  As a Masters course is mainly about critical thinking, showing that you can understand any restrictions that may have given rise to certain theories but may now seem less robust (maybe society and understanding of the topic has changed), and give your ideas on how you think it could be improved or a different approach. No one says you have to be correct, but it shows that you have put thought into your answers and that your essay has a point.  Don’t forget to answer the question though! An unrelated tangent won’t get you any better marks even if you can argue it into the ground.
  4. If you have a day job, plan your study time and have a cut off point! Studying for every minute outside of work, or during your lunch breaks will just give you burn out.  Believe me, I’ve been there!  My most productive study time came just a couple of weeks before the exams when I began to subconsciously timetable my revision.  I stopped cramming during lunch breaks and spent time with friends instead.  When I came home I would sit down for half an hour with a cup of tea and a chat with my mum before taking myself off to revise.  I would then concentrate for a few hours on a particular topic until my husband came home from work to then have dinner and wind down before bed.  Knowing you have a set number of hours can help you to focus on the important work and make that revision more effective – such as doing a mock paper, reading a few articles to pick out points for your essays or even re-reading notes for the multiple choice questions.  All of this was much better than panic reading articles during lunch time or trying to revise for three exams at once in two hours every day!  The same goes for weekends.  Allow yourself a few hours each over Saturday and Sunday to live a normal life but still use some of each day to do some more focused revision.
  5. Work with the exam structure to balance your efforts.  Try to find out as much as possible about the exam so you can put in the work where its needed.  You might be thinking, but I don’t really know anything so I have to learn every little thing so I don’t miss a single mark!  Let’s be realistic, you can’t do that and remain sane enough to even enter the exam hall.

Think about:

  • How much of a percentage does the exam hold for the module?
  • Have you already done projects/coursework that count towards the final grade?
  • How long will the exam last for?
  • If the exam is in two parts, what’s the percentage for each section?

Obviously the higher the percentage that attributed to a whole or section of an exam, that is the area that will require the most effort.  In my case, the essay questions hold the most weight which is why I have focused so much on those.  Whereas the multiple choice sections, which are assigned 30 minutes of the whole hour and a half exam, will be lower on my priority list.  Some of that revision will come from the essay prep by default, but I will study for those sections on days where I have less time or am feeling less motivated to revise (it happens!). Then I will use lecture notes and do some additional reading to pick up key theories related to the areas but it will be a lot less intense than for the essay.  If you have a solely question based exam (like the statistics paper), look at the mock exams/past papers to get an idea of what type of questions will be asked.  Most exams of this type follow the same structure every year.  While you wont know the exact questions, you can still practice to get a feel for what’s coming and identify weaker areas to focus your revision on. Practice, practice, practice! Monitor your practice results so you can see improvement and work on the areas that keep tripping you up.

I hope that the above tips help out anyone who is going through, or thinking of starting, postgraduate study.  Everyone has their own ways of working but I have found that through trial and error, these are the things that help me get through exams and to get better marks than I would have done withoutthem.  Going back to university is not an easy thing, especially if you have to adult alongside your course.  The time does go so fast once you start and it will all be worth it in the end when you’re at your graduation ceremony.

Don’t expect the campus days to always be useful.  There will be lecturers who just read from slides and make you lose the will to live.  There will be the lecturers that completely hook you on a topic.  Then there will be the seminars that are completely directionless or that will inspire you and give you a boost to think differently and rethink your essay questions for the better.  When it comes to Postgraduate, you are mostly on your own but follow all of the information given to you, give the school feedback and talk to your fellow students so you know you’re not alone in both your ideas and your frustrations.  We can do this!

Nic x


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