You may have heard before that exams aren’t a sprint but a marathon. The long race is an arduous one, and crossing the finish line is no mean feat.
First, a lesson in morale: understand that you might not understand, before you finally understand.
Let me explain what I mean. A few months ago, my sister was begging me to help her with learning how to do matched betting (it’s a method of strategically placing bets with bookmakers and exchange markets in order to ensure a profit – I’m aware this is a tangent, bear with me). I looked up some of the literature to start reading up – and I didn’t get it at all. I read the instructions over and over and for some reason it just wasn’t going into my brain. All the words individually made sense, but they weren’t forming a clear picture.
After a few days I was so frustrated I was about ready to give up; I gave the website she had sent me one last spiteful look over before I stormed off to make dinner and sleep, fully convinced that I would never understand matched betting. Waking up the next morning, I turned on my computer to check my email – and the site was still up. I skim read it – and lo and behold, I understood. It made sense; the picture had formed. That night, whilst filled with woe over my uselessness, my subconscious did a bit of gymnastics. The answers literally came to me in a dream.
The point of this anecdote is that you should never underestimate the value of not understanding something. When something looks utterly impenetrable, that should be your cue to chew it up and spit it out as many times as you can, even when understanding eludes you. Take a break to study something else after each iteration to let things solidify; the mental work continues long after you’ve put the book down, and often your brain will do it without even being told. Don’t lose heart.
Speaking of breaks, let’s talk pacing.
First, slow down. Marathon runners stop every few miles for water – if they don’t, they’ll surely pass out before they finish the race. The same is true for your studies; you have to stop for food, and sleep, and a mental break. It might not feel as urgent because you’re not literally gasping for water, but it will just as easily tank your long-term performance if you’re not careful. For every 45 minutes of work, give yourself 5 minutes break minimum. For every couple of hours, at least a full 20. The break in concentration will allow you to focus better – it’s worth every minute you feel you’re ‘wasting’ on a rest.
Another rule that often gets ignored is the separation of church and state. University, in this metaphor, is state: you have hard deadlines and things that need to get done. A certain level of clinical precision has to be applied, and you’ve got to be disciplined.
Your personal life is the church. Not necessarily religious, but individual. It’s easy to let one overtake the other, or blend in too much – revising in bed, eating at your desk, taking breaks in the same hunched over posture in the same squeaky office chair you’ve just been working in for the last hour.
The rules to keeping these separate are as simple as they are difficult to stick to: don’t eat at your desk if you can help it; stop work at least a half hour before bed; bed is for sleeping and chilling out, so don’t ruin that with readings and emails. Keeping these things separate will work wonders when it comes to maximising the benefits of each, so do your best to keep effective boundaries with yourself.
It can be hard to keep that kind of boundary, because hey, you made it, so who cares if you break it? Well, no one, so don’t be too harsh on yourself if you find it tricky. But if you can stick to them even a little bit, you’ll feel the difference in your sleep hygiene, your posture, and your exam results.