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What My Exam Taught Me About Being Productive

Last week I took my first exam in almost nine years. It was an event that I found difficult to digest.

My last exams had been for my A Levels, the courses that bridge the gap between compulsory education and higher education, and – and this is something I will not shy from admitting – I did not revise. I had not revised for my GCSEs either. I didn’t know how to revise, and no one had given me advice.

This time, at university, the decision to study had been completely my own, not an exercise in pleasing my parents and teachers as my time in sixth form had been. This time, because it was something I wanted to do and it was a subject I am passionate about, I made a great deal of effort, studied hard, and most importantly, I revised for my exam.

But having now left the claustrophobic room and the feeling of being a sardine in a tin, I can see where I had moved towards the other extreme. This time I had in fact revised too much, swallowed too much information. The result was that I wanted, and intellectually could have, answered every question on the paper. This left me with two issues, the first being that I spent a lot of time deciding which to answer and having a couple of false starts, and the second that I ended up not answering a question in the way that my instincts told me to – because I was conscious of including the same information in two different essays. I have learned my lesson.

A photo of a sheet of paper with pens on it and a big question mark written in the centre

When we take a lot of information in, especially for something like an exam where we know we are being judged for how we’re writing, what we’re writing, and how much we know, we tend to want to get it all out. We end up producing that most unsavoury of terms, “word vomit”, because if something is left out, we might have lost a mark. We end up not answering the question in every point we make – we ramble, we move away from the question in order to show what else we know, because we feel the need to prove something.

In order to be a good student, a good writer, a good reviewer, marketer, news source, helper – everything that comes with blogging – we must be selective. Never has this been more apparent to me than now. When I read, knowing that I have put it upon myself to review the book afterwards, I write down everything that comes to mind, and I try to include all of it in my review. And sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t. It’s the same when I find lots of interesting articles about the book world or the world in general, I feel a need to share it, to promote it, but there is definitely such a thing as too much in this sense too.

To be good at what you do you need to be selective, you need to recognise that you can’t always include everything and you have to grudgingly accept that that awesome sentence you just wrote can’t make the final edit. You want to spend time writing about your best ideas, not using it on less worthy ones. There is only so much time in a day and using it productively is of paramount importance.

It is one thing to know your stuff and to know that you are good at what you’re doing. It is another thing for you to actually apply it – and perhaps it is that, rather than gaining information, that is the most important thing to work on.

How have you used a recent experience to improve how you approach part of your life?


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