Select and Eliminate

Throughout this book, I will use terms such as topics, subjects, sub-topics, modules, and material. These are entirely interchangeable depending on whichever unit of study is relevant to you.

Efficiency is at least as much about which work you choose to do as it is about how you do that work. This chapter is a guide to help you identify the best possible set of topics to study and eliminate unnecessary work.

Elimination is almost always possible for essay-based and university-level exams, but for other exam types the scope for this will be more limited. If you aren’t sure whether there is material which can safely be eliminated, consider whether your exams offer you a choice of questions to answer. Whenever there is a choice, it is possible to eliminate work.

First, you need to get hold of a syllabus specification so that you know exactly what can and cannot come up in an exam. If you’re having trouble deciding whether a particular area of study is part of the syllabus, simply ask a teacher or lecturer for help. Once you are familiar with the syllabus, you can consider the following to help you decide which material to select and which to eliminate.

How Useful is this Material?

Not all topics or exam material will be equally useful. Favour versatile material which can be applied to the greatest range of questions and will contribute the most to your score. For example, crafting a sophisticated phrase that you can use in any essay is very useful. Learning a lot of very specific information that only applies to very specific situations or questions is not very useful.

Shared Material

Shared material is extremely useful. Take advantage of it by choosing overlapping and complementary topics. They can greatly reduce your workload, broaden your understanding, and improve your answers. A friend of mine from Cambridge did exactly this when selecting topics for her History degree. Many of her peers studied unconnected events scattered across hundreds of years. But she chose topics covering a contiguous block of history, all within the early decades of the 20th century.

These were periods that overlapped each other, which gave her an enhanced perspective on each topic without requiring extra work. In answering an essay question for any particular topic, she could refer to material in her other topics as well. It goes without saying that my friend's answers were much higher quality than those of most of her peers. She had given herself a huge advantage. She aced her exams and received a First Class degree.

How Many Past Papers Exist for this Topic?

Past papers are by far the most valuable preparation material. They offer extremely powerful and unique benefits. We'll discuss these shortly. Be very cautious about choosing a subject or topic that does not include a reasonable collection of past papers.

Exam Structure

You should know the structure of the exam in advance. Familiarise yourself with it so that you know which choices appear together. If there is a choice between answering a question on topic A and topic B, you know that you only need to study either topic A or topic B, but not both. For example, I mentioned earlier how the structure of my Music exams allowed me to completely eliminate a large topic because a much smaller, alternative one could be used in its place.

How Well Do You Already Know This Topic?

The better you already know a topic, the less work will be required to become really good at it. You should favour topics that will require less work and contribute more towards your exam scores.

Quality and Availability of Learning Resources

Favour topics with better resources for helping you to learn. How well is this topic taught at your school or university? If this is a topic for a university degree, how good are the lecture slides? How clear are the relevant textbooks? Is there much high quality online material you can use to aid your study? If you get stuck, are there people who you can easily turn to for help on this topic?

Difficulty and Scoring

Some topics are harder than others. Some topics are marked more harshly than others. Some exam questions are harder than others. Examiners are aware that these variations exist between topics and even within the same topic from year to year, and efforts will usually be made to reduce them. However, no set of topics will ever be completely equal, and it is not always possible to totally eliminate all forms of bias.

To establish whether there are consistent scoring patterns across certain topics, look at previous years’ examiners’ reports. They will usually include information on grade boundaries, the average score awarded for each topic and perhaps some comments on the distribution of scores. You can also get a good idea of difficulty and scoring patterns by talking to experienced students and teachers.

What are you Interested In?

This is a valid consideration if you plan on studying a particular topic later on in your education. However, experience strongly suggests that you will enjoy topics that are better taught more than those in which you are “naturally” interested. If you look back on your education so far, you will likely find that your interests stem from subjects for which you had particularly good teachers.