As an experiment when I was 21 years old, I helped out a friend with his exam preparation. He had always worked extremely hard for his exams but his performance often fell short of expectations. After applying my insights and reforming his approach to preparing for and taking exams, he received no less than the highest score in the year for his Master’s degree at the London School of Economics, scoring a Distinction in every single module that he took.
Now 23 years old (at the time of writing) and having quit my dream job at a $30 billion hedge fund, I have decided to share with you the unique perspective that allowed me and my friend to ace our exams, and may well allow you to pursue the future of your dreams.
During my years as a student I achieved 10 A*s at GCSE, 4 A*s at A-Level, and a First Class degree from the University of Cambridge. No retakes, no re-marks. If you’re not familiar with the UK exam system, this is a perfect set of grades.
I was not a typical straight-A student. I was very disorganised and supremely lazy throughout my years at school and university. I was frequently in trouble for not doing homework. I was often reported to my college for not showing up to classes or supervisions. I routinely failed mock exams. One time I scored 11%.
I also know what it is like to be at the bottom of the class. My first two years at university were a complete disaster. I threw away everything that had worked for me at school. By the end of my second year at Cambridge I received an overall exam score of 44%. I was in the very bottom segment of my entire cohort. My family and friends were shocked at my poor performance. I wasn’t used to doing so badly, and it didn’t feel good.
How had I gone from getting perfect grades at school to this?
I was slow to adapt to university life, and I was stupid. I skipped most of my lectures, I rarely handed in work, and I hardly socialised. I wasted my time watching videos, playing games, getting drunk, and doing lots of other stupid things. In the little time I spent preparing for exams, I broke every rule in this book. I was unhappy, my mind was a mess, and I couldn’t keep up with the pace of my subject.
Just to be clear, I do not recommend living like this. It is totally incompatible with exam success.
To make matters worse, I didn’t stop this way of life until halfway through my final year. Up to that point, I had still continued to skip most of my lectures and supervisions, and I had written nothing for my 12,000-word dissertation. I was in a rather painful position.
Deep down I knew I still had the tools to succeed, even alongside the intellectual juggernauts I shared a course with. I had been able to ace my school exams, so I could do it again at university. I had several weeks to catch up on 3 years of work and clean up my act. Thankfully, I did.
Not only did I very convincingly exceed the boundary for a First Class score overall, but I received a First Class result in my dissertation and in every single final year exam I took. So it definitely wasn’t a scrape, it definitely wasn’t by luck, and I definitely did not do it by catching up on 3 years of work the hard way.
How did I do it then?
The answer is simple. I viewed my exams with a different perspective to that of my teachers and fellow students. Unlike most others, I understood how exams actually worked. The most important shortcuts I took were not with “study hacks”. They were with my mindset. The way that I thought about exams put me in a mental state that allowed me to consistently make great decisions with my preparation and execution. This is the key to exam success.
Of course, there are some others out there who have achieved a similar set of grades to me. But either those people are super-geniuses or they worked insanely hard. Far harder than most people could ever consider themselves capable of. And for the record, I’m not a super-genius. A super-genius would not have scored 44% in their university exams.
I’ve come across a lot of extremely smart people (much smarter than me) throughout my education, and I can say with the utmost confidence that I do not know anybody who worked fewer hours than I did and managed to achieve the same results. This is not to suggest that I am smarter than those people, only that my approach to exams is the most efficient. Being a great student is very different to being a great exam-taker.
My mission is now to equip you with the same perspective and mindset that I had when I took my exams. This will clear the distorted view you share with most of your peers and teachers, and thus will offer you advantages that put you several degrees ahead of them.
Very few people have a perfect set of exam grades and a story of failure to accompany them. It is the extremely rare experience of both that has allowed me to see with a unique clarity what exactly leads to (and what does not lead to) exam success.