Preparing for an Exam

During the last weeks I have been taking the exams of my first semester as a graduate student of ETH Zürich’s Master Program in Biomedical Engineering. I have to admit that this task has been more challenging than I thought it would be for several reasons.

First of all, it has been a couple of years (almost 3) since I last had an actual engineering exam. It may not sound much, but believe me: studying is a habit and you can easily lose it. Then, most of the examinations at ETH at the Master level are oral. It is a very different approach: having an examiner in front of you, asking questions, and looking straight at you is, at least for me, much more stressing and demanding than a classical written exam. Finally, usually lectures have a huge amount of material (frequently complicated material) to learn. Although actually understanding the material is the main point, I can’t deny it also requires a good deal of memorization.

This experience motivated me to bring my thoughts together into this post on how to prepare for an exam. I would like to share my personal experience and give you a piece of advice that hopefully will be useful. Some of these points might sound pretty basic or even overused. However, I consider all of them very important if you are aiming for high marks on your examination.

General tips

  • Put an effort from the first day. Might sound obvious. However, sometimes it is so obvious we tend to forget about it. Attend to lectures. Even if you are provided with the lecture’s script/slides, take notes. Do the exercises and homework assignments (more the reason if they are mandatory!). You don’t have to study and memorize all the content from the first day. However, if you start working from the beginning, you pave your way for an easier study session.

  • Ask questions. Again, might sound overused. It isn’t. Never be shy to ask. I will save the “there are no stupid questions” speech. Nevertheless, the truth is that if you didn’t understand something or felt a part of the lecture was unclear, it is very likely (believe me, very likely) that the rest of the class felt the same way. If you are still not convinced in raising your hand in the middle of the lecture, approach your lecturer or the teaching assistant on a more personal way: shoot them an email and schedule an appointment (please do it ahead of time and not one day before the exam). Frequently, the lecturer and the teaching assistant have a couple of office hours per week designated specifically for this. They will gladly help you to clarify your questions. However, don’t expect particular lessons or to get the whole lecture explained again.

  • Schedule your study. I cannot emphasize this point enough. This is always helpful, specially if the examination you are going to take covers a lot of material. Take a few minutes to analyze how many topics/chapters/sessions need to be covered. Plan ahead and try to define how much time you can actually dedicate to effective study. This is crucial, specially if your university doesn’t have an special time for examinations (i.e. you have lectures and exams at the same time).

  • Know your examination. It is always helpful to know the general structure of the exam. This might help prepare yourself more effectively: you may be able to generate an efficient solving strategy and will avoid (or at least reduce) unexpected surprises that may affect (diminish) your performance. What is the time limit? How many points does it have? Is it written or oral? Is it multiple choice or open questions? Is there a penalization for wrong answers? Can you use additional aid material? Frequently this kind of information is included in the course description. If it is not, again, don’t be afraid to ask your lecturer. However, don’t press him into telling you the exact questions (even if you did, he/she will probably not do it 😛 ).

Tips for a written exam

  • Read the instructions. Sound ridiculously foolish, right? However, what we usually do is just read the first one or two lines and don’t care about the rest (“answer in pen”, “mark your answers clearly”, bla bla bla). I used to have a professor that “hid” very specific instructions almost at the end of the instructions section, which almost no one read. They tended to be something like “if you read the instructions, write the date in the top corner for 5 extra points” or “if you read the instructions, leave Section 1 blank and you will get full points for it”. I know this might be a bit too optimistic (specially at undergraduate or graduate level). My point is that nothing bad can come from reading the instructions. Actually, you might even get something good from it, even if it is every now and then.

  • Actually follow the instructions. If you are requested to provide two examples, provide two examples. Not one. Not three. Two examples. Sometimes it might be very tempting to go for that “extra mile” (we want to show how much we studied!). However, additional information to what is asked is usually not taken into account. In some cases, trying to show your knowledge might backfire: you may be penalized for not following the instructions or, even worse, the additional answers might be wrong!

  • Maximize your performance. Administer your exam time wisely and try to get as much points as possible. I know this is easier said than done. What has always worked for me is to go through the exam at least two times: in the first round, I aim for the questions that I am pretty confident I know the answer to and that are quick to answer; in the second round I go for the questions that I left blank the first time or that I wasn’t very sure about. If I have remaining time, I check my answers in a third round (you never know!).

Tips for an oral exam

  • Keep calm. It is not easy. Believe me, I know. However, look at this as an investment: when you are calm (or as calm as you can be in an exam) you can actually express yourself better and provide your answer in a more clear way.

  • Use the resources that are at your reach. The fact that it is an oral exam doesn’t mean you can’t use the board to plot the sketch of graph. Don’t be afraid to ask for paper and pen to explain an algorithm. The idea is to answer the questions as effective as possible; if you have the chance to use additional resources for this, well, go for it!

  • Make sure you understand what you are being asked. It is perfectly acceptable not to understand a question on a first try. However, in an oral exam you won’t be able to read the question as many times as you need to understand it. However, you do get the chance to ask the examiner to reformulate his/her question in a different way. This is a very valuable, and often overlooked, resource. Just don’t try to overuse it.

If you have any comments, questions or feedback, leave them in the comments below or drop me a line on Twitter (@amoncadatorres). Moreover, if you found this useful, fun, or just want to show your appreciation, you can always buy me a cookie. Cheers!