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Don't Fear the Unseen Exam


Faculty: Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences
School: School of Creative Industries
Course: BA (Hons) Writing and English Literature
Category: Language, literature and media

15 March 2019

I find exams of any kind stressful - that is a fact universally acknowledged. But what on earth do you do when you’ve got no idea what’s going to come up?

We’re all familiar with it – you look on your assessment criteria for a module and see Examination, 90 minutes, UNSEEN. Your mind starts listing all the things that could possibly go wrong- you could answer the wrong question, you could forget everything related to the subject, your mind could forget everything in general, you could somehow forget to bring any writing equipment. But it’s that word, isn’t it, which makes everyone panic: unseen.

This is a concept we’ve all struggled with since GCSE’s: how can you prepare for something when you don’t know what it will be? What should you focus on in revision, how much should you focus on, what parts of revision deserve the most attention? What if you get a question in the exam that you haven’t done any revision for? You’re also doing other subjects: don’t they think it’s a bit unfair to add the stress of an unseen exam to all the other modules you need to work on?

A hatred of unseen exams and revision was something I discovered in school when relentless facts and how to write them was drilled into my head for History GCSE. After the stress of school and college and working for a few years, I came to uni to find myself actually being treated like an adult when it came to my education. College, for all its sing-song about how it’s so different and grown up to school, still does parents evenings. Uni lets you prep for things however and whenever you want.

When I think of how best to prepare for an unseen exam, what springs to mind are these points.

  • Get stuck in early. Use the exam date as your deadline. The more material you can cover in the weeks leading up, the more you will reread and the more it will stick.
  • Work out which areas interest you the most. Just common sense – you remember things you are interested in. If you are doing an English exam and you know you have a selection of authors you can choose to write about, choose the ones you like or have interest in.
  • Work out when you will revise. It helps to write down what you’ll be doing and how long for. Once you’ve got it on paper: “revise Dickens 1-2pm”, “revise Chaucer 3-4pm”, you’re more likely to stick to it. I’m not saying spend eight hours doing this, you’ll exhaust yourself, but make sure a bit here and there is in every day.
  • Remember to take breaks between this. Something that has been proven to work is if you attempt to memorise something several times, then take a break for 5 minutes and come back to it, your brain remembers it. No clue how. Don’t question it- just use it. 
  • Work out where you will revise. If I’m at home at my desk, I’m more likely to fling myself on my bed and go through Instagram for an hour- woops! There goes an hour of revision. I work better in the University library; put in some earphones, pop on Spotify, job done.
  • Every point counts! If an interesting point comes to you when reading, get it written down before it floats out of your head. Your phone has a notebook in it for a reason. Or keep a notebook and pen next to you when reading, always. Because you found it interesting enough to write down, odds are you will remember it. 
  • Tell someone what you are revising. Sounds patronising, bear with me: find a friend who isn’t studying your subject; housemate, a family member. Someone who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. And tell them about it. Explain everything to them so they begin to understand it. If something sounds wrong as you’re saying it, or they ask you to explain a bit more, that’s what you need to do.
  • Cover as much ground as possible, within reason. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t have to stay up till 3am as a lot of people do. Get yourself into a regular pattern with studying, such as doing an hour of each subject each day with breaks taken in between, so your mind is given a chance to relax and refresh and you can honestly say: I’ve done lots of revision today!
  • Reward yourself! You are allowed to congratulate yourself on working hard. Buy some chocolate, watch an episode of your favourite show, take a nap.
  • If you’re struggling to balance time: prioritise. If you’re working part time, get your shifts sorted as soon as possible so you can work out when you can revise and for how long. If your boss is reasonable, they will understand you are a student and also need time to study, and might even give you a few less hours if you need.
  • Getting distracted? If you are addicted to your phone, put it on the other side of the room. Put it on silent, in a drawer. Ask a roommate to look after it. Don’t give yourself the temptation. Better yet, use some time on Instagram or YouTube as a reward after studying.
  • Have trouble using this list? Don’t use this list. Study is a personal thing at the end of the day – it’s different for different people. As long as you’re getting it done, never mind how other people do it. If you found your perfect revision routine in College and know it works, ignore this list. Or if you’re worried your revision techniques are no longer working for you, find out why and change them.
Above all, remember to stay calm. You’re only human, and you can only do so much. And you will smash it.



The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.