One of the most powerful and under-appreciated tools at your disposal is the ability to ask for advice. Asking other students for advice is an incredibly easy and effective way to develop your intuition for what works in an exam.
As useful as your own analysis can be, there is no substitute for talking to people who have direct experience and combining their different perspectives. They have already been in your position and know things that you do not know. The right advice will change your own perspective and provide huge shortcuts to your preparation.
Unless you are very unlucky, you will know of at least one or two people (and often many more) who recently took the exam that you’re about to take and aced it. I found that a great way of identifying the best exam-takers was simply to ask teachers or older students at my school which students got the best exam scores. These would often be people I didn’t know particularly well (if at all), but that didn’t matter. They were always happy to help.
Successful students are also more likely to know other successful students who you can speak to. Once you start collecting tips from multiple successful candidates, you can compare them to identify similarities and differences. If lots of those successful candidates tell you the same thing, you can be pretty sure that what they are saying is true.
Be very careful about who you ask and who you listen to. Bad advice is worse than no advice. Favour those students who have experienced success in multiple exams. They are far more likely to give good advice than somebody who might have just got lucky with one good score. This is very important. A lot of advice is thrown around by people who don't actually know what they're talking about.
Unfortunately, most people don't know what they're talking about because most people don't get great exam results. This means that a lot of the conventional "wisdom" is just wrong. Even if it sounds right. Expect to hear unconventional advice from the very best. Don't take advice from anybody who hasn't directly proven themselves as an expert.
In addition to asking for general advice, it is good to ask specific questions. Especially questions that relate to issues you are concerned with or curious about. Questions that are more specific are easier for the person you are asking to think about and usually result in much clearer answers. Make it easy for them to help you.
I found it useful to ask questions such as:
When making my topic choices for my final year at university, I asked some older research students for advice. They had already taken their undergraduate exams, which meant that they knew things that I didn't know. I asked which topics they thought were the easiest, hardest, most enjoyable, and most likely to score high marks on.
These students also explained to me how exam questions for particular topics were set and marked. Many of them were working with the lecturers on a daily basis for their research, so they had inside information on the examiner. As we will see in Part 3, any insight into how an examiner thinks and behaves is extremely valuable.
Of course, none of this will be useful if you don’t take the first step and approach others. You cannot expect help to come your way if you do not take the initiative.
People love to talk about things that they are good at, particularly when by asking for advice you have given them an invitation to do so. Every single person I have ever approached for exam advice has been very happy to share their tips with me. Remember that most people are nice. And in the exceptionally unlikely event that they refuse to help, what have you really lost?
It’s easier now than ever before to contact people. You have no excuse for not being able to get in touch with somebody. A perfect example of this can be seen in a friend of mine.
He looked up the previous prize winners in his subject at his university and messaged them on LinkedIn (an online professional network). He heard back from every single one of them, and they happily gave him detailed advice on which topics to pick, how to study, and how to answer exam questions. After implementing their advice, my friend went on to become a prize winner himself.
This isn't even that surprising. Very few students bother to learn from the best. If you do so, you can get a massively unfair advantage over everyone else. Take it.