Exam Diary: The Ups and Downs of Sitting Four Exams

It has been an absolutely fabulous exam year. Sitting exams for four courses is challenging, but the changes to my study procedures over the year, my revising plan and the reality of multiple exams really helped me improve study outcomes and, hopefully, exam results.  What I noticed about my exam experience this year, despite doubling my course load, is a much more focused process with better results, at least from my process point of view.  This week I thought it might be helpful to others considering enrolling, or wondering what managing four courses is like, to see my Exam Diary.  The schedule for my (BA English) papers started with one exam on 9 May and then three consecutive days, 14, 15 and 16 May. That’s eight interesting days, and a sixteen day revising process. Here’s what it was like:

1 May: My meta-exam revising strategy begins! At first I thought two days for each course would work but immediately realized that engaging with each course every day is more productive.  The schedule that worked best for me was four sessions, one for each course, ideally of two to four hours each spaced throughout the day.  This helped me maintain engagement with all the material I had to revise in an incremental process.

Wednesday 8 May: My last study session before exams begin.  The last study session of the day was devoted to the next day’s exam, Renaissance and Restoration Literature.

Rather impressive for an exam centre: Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh

Rather impressive for an exam centre: Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh

Thursday 9 May: Up at 4am to play with Jelly Bean, my Collie Dog, and then start engaging with the texts for my exam at noon.  Six hours of study time and out the door for the train at 10:30. I arrived at the exam center an hour later, in time for early lunch, a cup of green tea, and a forty minute review of the last three ‘Examiners’ Reports.’  While skimming the reports I am hunkered in a corner of the University Café, gobbling up boiled eggs and a protein bar, a very, very helpful boost to concentration.

This exam was great! Right after completing the exam I sat down to write summaries of my essays and note which questions I answered. Very handy for when the reports are released.

I gave myself the night off from study, for a little rest in the middle of this sixteen day exam-a-rama.

NB: revising several  past Examiners’ Reports just prior to entering the exam room is one of the most helpful strategies I identified.

10-11-12-13 May: With four days between the first and second exam I used the same meta-exam revising strategy of multiple daily study sessions with a few hours for each one between Friday and Sunday.  This year I ruthlessly revised a limited number of texts, four for each course. Texts to revise were selected based on the quality and quantity of secondary material available.  On Monday 13 May, the day before my next exam, I focused entirely on that course, the work of Shakespeare.

NB: My revision in the hours just before exams use video lectures that provide a comprehensive review of specific texts in a fairly short time – one to two hours, which is another hugely helpful strategy.

Interior of the Cathedral of Learning

Inside the Cathedral of Learning

Tuesday 14 May: Same process, since it worked well; up at 4, a nice relaxing walk with Jelly Bean, then revising my four plays in the few hours before leaving for the exam center.

Another great exam! Although a very comical start to the day it ended up quite well. Comical because, after reading my particular courses this year I can barely remember how to spell in modern English.  I am feeling tired because of my study and work schedule, and a bit like the absent-minded professor.  I had to check the calendar for the date, and when completing the registration paperwork I couldn’t even remember what plays I revised before leaving home.  The green tea effect kicked in just as I sat down in the exam room.

After this exam I am feeling very lucky about the questions and my preparation.  I made notes on my essays and questions, then home to start preparing for tomorrow.  It is definitely espresso time. After a short break, I began review of the texts for Literature of the Later Middle Ages at around 19:00 through 22:00.

NB: A high protein meal right before exams is incredibly helpful for my concentration. So is a high protein snack right afterwards, since there is a lot to work to do at night.

Wednesday 15 May: Today’s exam is at 8am, so I am up at 2:30 for my wonderful process. Jelly Bean flatly refuses to get up at this hour!  Revising until 6am, then motivate the Collie Dog for her walk and breakfast and on the train by 6:30.  Because of the exam time there is less time to revise.  This course requires four essays instead of three so watching the clock closely is important.  Selecting texts for LLMA is a little different. I prepared one Gawain Poet text, five of the Canterbury Tales, a Breton Lai, and focused on a few lyrics.

And it was another great exam! It’s time to make my essay notes, get some lunch, play with Jelly Bean, have a nap, and then start revising for the last exam.

NB: In the exam I used every text I prepared including a religious lyric.

Started revising late tonight, 22:00, because of a work issue and then studied until midnight.

Thursday 16 May: The last exam, Augustan and Romantic Literature. This is the most difficult course for me mostly because secondary texts are difficult to find for the texts I want to use. And it is the last paper when you can imagine, fatigue is high.  Fingers crossed.

The exam is at noon. A little extra time would be helpful, so I am up at 3:00.  I still don’t feel sufficiently revised for the course. And I am very tired, which means it is difficult to remember quotes from primary texts.  This morning I decided to revise two additional texts, which takes longer than is desirable, so I am late.

Somehow I arrived at the exam center with thirty minutes to revise. This course covers a large, diverse and complex body of material. It is challenging to narrow the reading field for focused research and still have at hand a range of work that is representative of the periods.  Today there is some exam anxiety…

But this exam still was better than performance in past years although I did not feel as engaged with the material as I did on the other three exams.  I did not use the two texts I revised this morning. That time would have been better spent focusing on my preferred texts. One positive experience for the day was really working out thesis statements and arguments.

NB: Tips for constructing a thesis statement: Think of the statement in three parts, Context, Subject, and an Opinion that is a debatable point.  For example,  ‘(context) In Fielding’s England  (subject) soldiers returning to England from war created a set of difficult problems in London (opinion) that  Fielding effectively illustrated and presented potential solutions for in his novel ‘Amelia.’

If you are thinking about taking four exams this is what the experience was like for me.  Without jinxing it, I think I passed the papers.  From my perspective my papers this year are the best I ever produced in exams. I felt more in control of the process of writing in the exam room. Trying to predict results is never helpful, so I will be content with that and start thinking about the four courses for next year.   It was a very satisfying, if exhausting, exam year.

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes.

10 thoughts on “Exam Diary: The Ups and Downs of Sitting Four Exams

  1. Well written article. Thanks for sharing insights on strategies you used to effectively and I dare say, succesfully take 4 units. I plan to do the same next academic year and as you can imagine the thought is daunting. However, articles like this offer real world advise which is beneficial particularly to those like me attempting 4 units for the first time. Big thanks for sharing.


  2. Thanks so much for your post, John. Taking 4 units was a bit overwhelming at first. But, it turned out to be one of the very best choices for me, assuming I passed the exams of course. One thing that helped keep it manageable for me was the relationship between content in 2 of the units. I am taking 4 units this year too. Keep me posted about your study strategy and advice for managing the work.


  3. Well done you! I thought I was the only one sitting exams four exams this year. Luckily for me it’s been one every week for three weeks, then I had a two week breather before the last one tomorrow. I didn’t rest, only went back to work… It’s been tough though, like you I only ever sat two exams before but this time I decided to take the last four and finish the course once and for all. Wish me luck!


  4. I considered your strategies for taking 4 units exams, brilliant. I will be sitting for 4 units next year. Your post will be very relevant.


  5. Congrates you!! I’m from Seychelles and following the BA English course aswell. Unlike you guys we’ve been doing four modules since the first year and this second year was no different. We sat four exams last year and the same for this year. It was quite tough but we really didn’t have a choice so we pushed it through! We all hoping we passed of course! Good luck tou you all!


  6. Hello Caowrites! Congratulations, this is amazing, thanks for sharing your experience. Did you juggle this study with other commitments? Full or part-time work or a family? Thanks again. This info really helps me decide how many to take.


  7. Thanks so much to everyone for your support and encouragement! And congratulations to Judi and Beverly on completing four units. It feels so very good and satisfying when it’s over, don’t you think?

    The way the exam calendar falls sort of depends on what units you have enrolled in. Just my luck, my courses were on consecutive days in 2013. In 2012 the same courses were several days apart. Que sera, sera.

    Lukyanh, I did juggle other commitments. I work full time, with a job and a business, but my schedule is fairly flexible because I work from home – no commuting really helps, saving hours every day. My family is fairly self sufficient meaning no young children to care for. So for me, I think it is easier than for some other of my colleagues. What kind of juggling will you do?

    Objectively, I think these exams reflect my best preparation and performance. We’ll see when the marks come around. I’ll let you know the results.

    The part that feels brilliant is having accomplished it, and the satisfaction that comes from feeling it was my best performance.

    Happy Studies!


  8. Very inspiring!!
    I am currently sitting 6 course modules for my MSc in Clinical Trials. I seem to be using most of your strategies.. The experiences are very similar. All the best and wish me also luck.


  9. My goodness, six courses is more than I can imagine, especially in a clinical discipline. I do wish you all the luck in the world! Please let me know how your term progresses. We’ll be great support for each other! Best- CAO


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