Every exam structure is different, so there is no magic formula for applying the Minimum Work Principle. Instead, you must develop an intuition that enables you to identify places where you can cut down on the amount of work required for your exams. To help you get started, here are some examples of times when I successfully applied the Minimum Work Principle.
This example illustrates a strategy that you can use to write high-scoring essays every single time. At school, I studied the novel 1984 by George Orwell. In my GCSE English Literature exam, I knew to expect an essay question focusing on a particular passage of text from the book. The passage used in the exam could be from any part of the book. This meant it was impossible to reliably predict what would come up.
The obvious, brute-force solution would have been to learn the whole book to a high standard. A long, boring, unnecessary, and not very practical process. Although each passage in the book was unique, many of the ideas were not. They were repeated throughout the entire book as its central themes. This is how most books work. You can take advantage of this repetition. I simply memorised a small collection of quotes and ideas that were broadly applicable to the book’s central themes. I then crafted a few sentences which explored and remarked on each quote or idea in a sophisticated way.
With this strategy, it didn’t matter which question or passage came up in the exam. I knew that I would be able to find parts of any passage within the book that I could hook my general quotes and ideas into. All I needed to do was frame them in a way that appeared to be relevant to the question.
In essence, I had a bank of extremely versatile “units” that I could use to construct a large part of my answers. By manipulating the delivery of these same few units, I was able to make them work for virtually any essay. For example, one of the characters in 1984 is a woman called Julia. She is portrayed as rebellious and as someone who hates the evil government known as the Party. Winston, the main character, falls in love with her. The Party later uses these feelings to break Winston’s spirit.
Julia is introduced in the book as somebody who routinely carries a spanner. I created a few sentences that described how this could symbolise that Julia is in fact a tool for the Party, despite appearing to hate it. The one hopeful streak in Winston’s sad life could simply be a cold lie. A sense of hopelessness runs throughout the book, so I was able to weave this bleak idea into any essay. A golden nugget of versatility.
Because I had fine-tuned my essay units beforehand, they were much better than anything I could have come up with during the exam. Because they were so versatile, I only had to learn a small fraction of the material that many of my peers had learned.
The exam also included a question on poetry, for which I applied exactly the same strategy. I scored 100% for both essays.
If you are wondering whether the versatile unit strategy can be used successfully at higher levels of education, the answer is yes. This is precisely the approach taken by my earlier-mentioned friend towards the essays he wrote for his Master’s degree at the London School of Economics. Having adopted this strategy, he went on to achieve the highest score in his year across the entire set of modules that he took, scoring a distinction (the top grade) in each and every exam and all coursework.
This is an example of cutting out unnecessary work. For my Music A-Level, I had to take an exam consisting of a listening test and two essay questions. For one of the essays, we had to answer one of two questions based on a Mozart symphony we had been studying in class throughout the year.
More specifically, we knew to expect a question on the 1st movement and a question on the 3rd movement of the symphony (a movement is just a piece of music). This had been stated in the syllabus. The 1st movement consisted of 30 pages of music while the 3rd was 6 pages.
This meant that there was 80% less music to study in the 3rd movement than the 1st.
The decision to focus exclusively on the 3rd movement was therefore an incredibly easy one, since it involved far less work for minimal additional risk. Rather than split my attention between both movements, I learned just one to a high standard. I applied the versatile unit strategy and scored 97%.
The final year of my degree in Computer Science at Cambridge was assessed through three exams and a dissertation. Each of the exams was 3 hours long and consisted of 12-13 questions, of which students had to answer 5. The questions were drawn from a pool of 24 topics which had been taught throughout the year. Each topic would appear once or twice across the three exams, but a maximum of once in any one exam.
We were advised to study enough topics to cover 9-10 questions in the exam. This was so that we had a choice when deciding which 5 questions to answer. But after a quick calculation, I realised that this meant studying at least 15 topics. I know of one person who studied all 24 topics. He received a disappointing exam result.
I took the other extreme. I studied just 9 topics. It was the bare minimum that would allow me to answer exactly 5 questions per exam. To learn 15 topics to the same standard would have required at least 66% more work, which I didn’t have time to do anyway. My strategy worked and I scored a First Class result in every exam.