Direct vs Indirect Preparation

Working through past papers, writing notes, and reading textbooks are forms of direct preparation. As the name suggests, they directly test and improve your understanding of exam material. Direct preparation is what most people think about when they think about exam preparation.

But there is another kind of exam preparation that most people forget about: indirect preparation. This is everything you do while you’re not working at your desk. A few changes to how you spend your free time can be extremely productive without feeling like extra work.

For example, reading this book is a form of indirect preparation because it improves your mindset towards exams. Your mindset influences every pattern of thought that you have, so the right mindset will automatically lead to much better decision-making in all aspects of your preparation and exam performance. In other words, any improvement to your mindset will have a universal benefit. This is true for all forms of indirect preparation.

Mental Fitness

Sports professionals devote a huge proportion of their training to boosting their general physical fitness.


Because it enhances their performance in every way. Similarly, you should think about boosting your general mental fitness. This includes:

Don’t worry—you don’t have to start doing brain exercises. The best way to improve all of these at once is to choose active forms of direct preparation. The reason active preparation is efficient is because it stretches your mental fitness at the same time as improving your exam material.

For example, avoiding distractions will improve your focus and endurance. Doing past papers will improve your memory and agility because it forces you to recall information and apply your knowledge under time pressure. Reproducing your concise notes will also improve your memory.

The other key to mental fitness is your overall health. A healthy lifestyle makes you feel good and keeps your mind sharp. You can get 95% of the way there by focusing on the basics and avoiding big mistakes:

  1. Sleep
  2. Eat well
  3. Exercise
  4. Talk to people
  5. Avoid alcohol and other recreational drugs

I could talk all day about this but I’ll keep it short. Work efficiently, prioritise your health, and your mind will work at its best.

Mix With Good People

You are the average of the people you spend your time with.

One thing that really pushed me to work for my final-year undergraduate exams was the knowledge that most of my friends were extremely focused on achieving exam success. As a group, our drive to perform had created a sense of pressure and competition. For me, this tension was a very powerful source of motivation.

I didn’t have this in my first two years at university and my exam scores were terrible. Do not underestimate the hidden benefits that you can get from mixing with the right people.

Whether you like it or not, the behaviour of your peers sets a standard to which you will compare yourself. This comparison may only be subconscious, but it is unavoidable. You would feel pretty good about getting a B if all your friends get a C. But you would feel pretty bad about that same B if everyone around you gets an A. Distance yourself from the bad influences in your life and embrace the winners.

Full Immersion

Full immersion takes the idea of indirect preparation to the extreme. Use it for the few days before your exams. Don’t start too early or you will burn out.

Full immersion happens when everything you do revolves around the final stages of your preparation. Your exams are in primary focus throughout this period. Anything that does not contribute to your exam preparation is secondary. This is the one time when you must work extremely hard and push yourself to the limit.

Remember that your choice of activities outside of studying is itself a form of indirect preparation, and these will be optimised during full immersion. You will barely touch your phone. It will be off and out of sight for at least 23.5 hours per day. Every break you take will minimise sources of mental crowding.

Get full immersion right and you will unleash a burst of energy which makes your mental fitness skyrocket. Your brain will become ultra-responsive to any exam-related demands you place on it.

Full immersion is ultimately a state of mind. Don’t fight the pressure of exams. Instead, use it to unlock your potential. You are biologically adapted to feel uncomfortable under pressure because this discomfort can be used to your advantage. When this pressure is properly combined with the deliberate focus and coordination of your activities, you will experience full immersion. In many ways, it is an all-encompassing extension to the Zone.