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From One Student to Another: the Ultimate Exam Survival Guide

Reading time: 7 minutes

As the temperatures rise and we start to feel the first signs of Spring coming, another greatly daunting period is approaching – the March exam session. The study seats on campus are starting to get packed and with each day you notice more concerned students coming to Bocconi after their all-nighter sessions. In the light of this, an Exam Survival Guide would definitely come in handy. So no need to worry, we’ve got your back! After numerous interviews with students around Bocconi, this article examines the main concerns of the student community and provides insightful tips and tricks on study techniques and the exam preparation process.

The first thing that the majority of students notice during exam sessions is the increased levels of stress and anxiety. In fact, surveys indicate that in 54% of the cases, exams and the preparation process are the main triggers for mental distress. To test this, some of the Bocconi community members were asked how stressed and anxious on a scale of 1 to 10 they were for the upcoming March exam session. The average answer was 6 – many of the students explained that they feel like the Winter exam session ended not that long ago and hence it’s hard to comprehend the fact that another one is incoming. Yet, almost every student explained that the mounting pressure and workload is getting to them. But then the question arises – why worry? For an outsider it may seem like after only a month of the previous exam session all that’s needed is a small revision. But there are many motivations driving one to perform well in an exam.

One of the respondents, Pierfrancesco Urbano, explained that for him the priority is learning more about the subject and testing that knowledge but simultaneously seeing the most supportive people from the outside environment, such as family, be proud of the result as well. For others like Bojan Zeric and Paola Cielo it’s about internal satisfaction. The priority is to “walk out of the exam with no regrets”, knowing you’ve done everything in your power and having your hard work get acknowledged later on. Another student, Carola Rotta, said that although it’s nice to get good grades, the most important aspect is what you learn and receive from the subject – she said “it makes me happy when I perform well and know how much I learnt from the class”. A fellow sophomore Jean-Philippe Paupe said that he gains satisfaction by learning, yet the grades do matter – they showcase what you’ve learned and serve as proof for others and oneself of how much work you put in. With each respondent the answer was different. There seem to be plenty of driving forces behind excellent exam performance all of which can increase the stress levels given the stakes involved.

Naturally, good performance requires proper preparation, yet that can be hard to achieve given that each student has a different study technique that works for them and there isn’t a “common learning policy” that would be equally as effective for all. Studying is a rather personal process that requires a person to try out different methods before the most efficient one is found. From dozens of different note taking styles to the Pomodoro technique and repeating concepts out loud, there are a lot of methods to try before you find the one that works. To make things slightly easier, the interviewees described their key steps to success when preparing for an exam session – perhaps that’s one thing that will help those of you struggling to prepare for the upcoming exam session.

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Firstly, the interviewees were asked how much time they dedicate for each exam session. The majority of students responded that when preparing for a partial exam session they usually try to dedicate 1 or 2 weeks for all of the exams. One student, Tommaso Gariazzo, explained that when preparing for a partial exam session one should start revising at least 2 weeks before. He explained that this is the optimal time period given that it allows you to “stretch the preparation time” and hence study continuously without overworking oneself every day. When it came to general exams, Jean-Philippe said that ideally he spends 10-20 days for each exam. Pierfrancesco explained that it can even take less time if you’ve studied for that subject before – in that case, revising might take 5-6 days.

Secondly, the respondents explained their studying techniques for the exam sessions. A crucial thing to note is that one aspect was mentioned by almost all students – when preparing for partial exams, continuous studying is key. In one of the students’ words, “partials are the most traumatic – you work 12h a day in Dahlia [a local coffee bar]” which naturally drains a lot of energy and requires a lot of effort. But while that might make the preparation process sound hopeless, it is not the case and there are still ways to survive the exam sessions. Respondents like Bojan explained that one should preferably be done with covering the main material of the classes and note taking at least one week before the exam session starts. He also explained that it’s important to try out different studying techniques – from his experience, only the 6th exam session in Bocconi was the one where he felt fully prepared. And that’s normal – it’s crucial to find the best study method and not be afraid to experiment with them for the sake of finding the most effective option.

When the interviews started to get more detailed, students revealed the methods that work the best for them. One exchange student noted that she uses small incentives that motivate her to work harder, such as buying chocolate at the end of the day to treat herself after a long day of studying. She also explained that her study sessions consist of going over the slides and making summaries of the content, yet interestingly, she starts by studying from class takeaways in order to grasp the general context of the subject and then moves on to study it in more detail. Tommaso explained that he learns by studying examples. For instance, he finds it easier to understand a political economics model when it is adapted to real life – that way he can memorize it better.

Pierfrancesco said that he prefers to study alone by repeating concepts out loud and then meeting up with friends later to revise the content together by using other study techniques, such as drawing or writing down explanations on the boards available in study rooms. This technique also seems to work for other students. As Carola and Paola explained, they prefer to first study on their own by rewriting notes, analyzing them and repeating the concepts, yet they find it helpful to meet with friends and study together – discuss the material, do the exercises, go over the content with others. Lastly, Jean-Philippe said he uses a tactic that resembles the Pomodoro technique. Since he finds it hard to study for more than 1 hour straight, he takes small breaks in between revision sessions. Like others, he enjoys studying on his own, yet finds it helpful to change the conditions a bit by e.g.: listening to music for some time and studying in complete silence later. It seems like all students have varying learning methods but one aspect remained the same for almost everyone – respondents said that they vary their note-taking styles. Most indicated that for quantitative subjects, such as Mathematics, Policy Evaluation or Finance, they prefer to take notes by hand, while for others like History or Law computer-based notes work the best. Crucially, many said that taking your own notes is very important, as it helps to memorize all of the concepts better.

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However, while effective studying techniques may help achieve the wanted results, they don’t always help to solve the overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety that a student might experience. Studies show that around 1 in 5 college students experience high test anxiety that can turn into panic attacks or greatly hinder their performance. It is hence crucial to find ways to deal with highly stressful periods and take care of one’s mental health. When asked about experiencing panic or anxiety attacks, the interviewees provided some useful tips in going through them. Firstly, students said that it all comes down to reshaping the way one thinks about an exam. Instead of thinking that a partial is going to determine your future career, realize that it is just a test – one in a million of those you took in school and will take in the future. If you start to feel like you can no longer keep up with the workload and it’s affecting your health – do take a break and prioritize your mental wellbeing.

Many of the interviewees noted that even in the worst case scenario you can refuse to take the partial grade or withdraw from an exam, and if that’s not possible – at the end of the day it’s just a score, it doesn’t show your academic abilities nor talents. Respondents also said that it’s crucial to have a balanced work routine – make sure you work out once in a while, hang out with friends or family, and leave free time for your hobbies. Secondly, students provided tips on how to deal with an anxiety or panic attack. Tommaso said that since panic attacks make you dissociate from reality, you should try dissociating even more in order to calm down. Try listening to loud music, breathing deeply and slowly or laying down if that’s possible. An additional advice that might seem peculiar at first is sipping very hot water slowly – you read it right, not tea, water. Doing this calms down your stomach and makes you more relaxed, creating a placebo effect that can help you overcome a panic attack faster. If a panic attack occurs during an exam, try breathing deeply for a bit and taking a moment to compose yourself. Paola said that in a scenario like this it is useful to move onto other questions and leave out those that make you feel stressed. Crucially, all students noted one thing – when preparing for an exam, try putting all worries in perspective. Your results are just scores that don’t define your talents or abilities, there’s no point in wasting your health on it.

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To conclude the interviews, students were asked to give final advice to other Bocconi community members aiming for excellence during exam sessions. On a practical scale, many said that it’s crucial to try and follow all of the classes, make sure you’re not lagging behind and try planning out your week at least on a minimal scale so that you’re more organized. Others indicated that it’s crucial to prioritize sleep and eat well, as that is the main driving force behind any performance and all-nighter sessions with one hour naps won’t take you anywhere. Crucially, students noted that it’s important to detach yourself from grades and stop the comparisons between yourselves and others – you must focus on your general wellbeing, not the grades you get. Afterall, when you look back on the university years once you’re 50 it won’t be the Finance exam that you’ll want to remember, but rather the experiences you gathered while being a college student. There doesn’t exist a more perfect way to end this guide than a quote from one of the respondents: “The risk of focusing only on studying is to look back in 5 years and have regrets – I wish I played sports, I wish I asked her out, etc. We’re young adults put in a system that’s bigger than us. Studying is a big thing but you may look back and say “God, I wasted that”. Be on top of classes but also allow opportunities that come to you, come to you.

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Chief Editor

Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments and techno parties.

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