How I overcame my Astronomy 101 exam blues

In my first year at U of T, I took astronomy to fulfill my breadth requirements. When the first midterm came around, I studied really hard because the topic was out of my liberal arts comfort zone. I reviewed the lectures and the reading notes and made flash cards, and I felt like I was on track.

I went to the midterm early, flashcards in hand. Looking around, everyone seemed nervous and stressed, and I was overhearing people quizzing each other with questions I didn’t know the answers to and started to panic. I put in my earphones and listened to some music and tried to take deep breaths.

Stacks on stacks (of flashcards). Image by benjamingolub via Flickr.

Stacks on stacks (of flashcards). Image by benjamingolub via Flickr.

When the midterm started, I flipped through and read over the questions and realized that I was only confident with my answers for about 20% of them. I started to panic again. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, and filled in the scantron to the best of my ability, the whole time telling myself I had no chance of passing and that there was no point of sticking around to try to work through questions I was unsure of. When I left the midterm, I felt terrible, and when I saw my grade a few weeks later, I felt even worse.

I talked to my TA, and I realized that I had approached studying for the midterm all wrong. There weren’t any essay questions, so why was I memorizing concepts as if I was going be asked to regurgitate them? For the final exam, I focused on practicing application questions while studying.

It still wasn’t my strong suit. When I did the practice questions, I struggled to wrap my head around the concepts and apply them to the specific problems being posed. But I knew that I was going to be more prepared this time around. I also started working with some peers from my tutorial to share questions and discuss strategies for application.

On exam day, I decided to do things a bit differently. That morning, I woke up early to review my notes, had a nice breakfast with friends, and headed to the Exam Centre on time so that I wouldn’t have to spend too much time overhearing panic-inducing questions. I kept my earphones in with music playing until the last moment I could. When I got the exam, I ran through it, and still noticed plenty of questions I wasn’t sure how to tackle. But I didn’t stress, and I didn’t rush. I took my time with unfamiliar questions and gave myself time to work through them.

The green wall at the Exam Centre is a beacon in an ocean of last-minute quizzing and cramming. Image by loozrboy via Flickr.

The green wall at the Exam Centre is a beacon in an ocean of last-minute quizzing and cramming. Image by Loozrboy via Flickr.

I didn’t beat myself down – instead, I just reminded myself to stay relaxed and that I had studied really hard and could do this. When I got my grade back, it turned out that my new strategies had paid off, and I was able to turn things around and get a good final grade in the class.

Every exam is different and demands a different approach to studying. It’s always a good idea to start off by looking at the format of the exam and making a game plan that matches it, and to attend tutorials to see application of lecture concepts in action. Most importantly, when it comes to exams, do what you need to do to take care of yourself first and foremost! Staying calm during the exam is one of the main reasons I did better on the final than the midterm. Eat before you go, bring water, and don’t beat yourself up while you’re there. It’s only three hours. You’ve got this.

Got questions about exams, or looking for some tips? Join me and the Academic Success Centre for a Twitter chat on exams this week on Wednesday, November 18 at 7:00 pm. Follow along and share your questions with #ASKmeUofT.


Danielle is the summer 2015 Communications Intern at the Office of Student Life. She wrapped up her undergrad this year and will be entering a master's program at U of T in the fall, studying in the Faculty of Information. She previously studied English and Jewish Studies with a minor in History. Danielle studied abroad twice, in Jerusalem and Berlin, did a service learning course, and did a few work-study positions. Her favourite part of her undergrad was working at The Varsity, the campus newspaper. She was the editor-in-chief in her final year. She's passionate about good writing, student journalism, reading, knitting, long walks (on the beach or otherwise), and table tennis, which she insists she is very good at, though her friends may not agree. You can reach her on twitter @lifeatuoft over the summer if you want to chat!

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