Here they come again: exams! So what will you do? How can or should you prepare? Are there any tactics to follow?

I DO NOT have a degree in education. I will just tell you what helped me. Those who know me will also know that I was quite a handfull during our exam time.  And I am also quite lucky to be a fast learner. What I am writing about might also best apply to engineering exams.

First thing’s first: if the exam is tomorrow and you haven’t prepared, you might be busted, but let’s just assume there’s enough time to prepare properly. I think the key to engineering exams is routine: the more you practise and the more problems you solve on your own or with friends, the easier it will get for you. And yes, that might mean very hard work over some time. What won’t work is copying the solutions from friends – even though you think you understand, you probably don’t. If you don’t try yourself, you’ll probably find out during the exam.

Second: look out for other students who you get along with and who are motivated. Meet regularly and prepare together. Of course, with my friends that often ended in cooking, playing around with computers, fun, stuff and more – not necessarily 8 hours of straight work 😉

Third: try to get exams from previous years and solve them under exam conditions. Use only what is allowed during the exam. That really helps to find out, how much work you’ll need to put into your preparations.

Fourth: organise your time well. Especially during the exam. Spending too much time on single problems happens very fast. Bring a clock to put on your desk – not your mobile phone – and look at it regularly. Most lecturers will tell you to read all problems and start with the one you like most. I didn’t do that, I only read the start of each problem so I knew about its topic and then I just started from the beginning. In the end I would have to solve all, so why bothering changing the order? But I limited the time, which I spent on problems and parts of the problems without finding a solution or at least a way closer to the solution. If the time passed, I would simply go on. And I also set a time limit for solving the problems in order – that was maybe two thirds of the overall time. Then I would just try to fill in the blanks. Even if it meant I would only sketch how the problem could be solved. There are many exams in which points are given for partial solutions.

Fifth: always try to sketch the solution, start working on the problem. Even if that’s nothing more than copying an expression from a formulary. You wouldn’t believe how many points one can get for that!

An example: I had to take an exam in analogue circuit design. 6 problems, 3 hours to solve them all. Only a starting point, a final formula and a final numerical value would give any points. No help from formularies or anything like that. I had already worked very hard during the semester, and also worked very hard with friends of mine, but I was still uber-afraid. I solved problems in the order they came for 2 hours and had a time limit of 5 to 10 minutes for not finding any solution. After those two hours I looked at the blanks which were left and tried to fill them. Time limit for not finding a start was only 1 to 2 minutes. I didn’t look at the clock all the time, so the time estimates are estimates. But I think you can see how I sped up.

The most important thing: even if you feel you have no chance, even if you feel you can’t get anything in or out of your head: do NOT give up!

So: good luck for everyone who has exams!


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