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Despite the gradual move away from examinations towards assignment based continuous assessment, there are still many professional qualifications that require the student to take formal, externally assessed examinations. In this article we look at how to prepare for professional examinations effectively, in a manner which will greatly increase chances of success.

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The first step in preparing for any professional examination is to understand why the professional body is asking for external examinations to be taken. It is because they believe that they must have primary evidence that you know your subject at the level expected of a professional in that field. Examinations are considered by most of the professional bodies to be the only reliable format in assessing the competence of the diverse group of students wishing to be awarded professional status. Professionals in most sectors now practice in a global environment, and most professional qualifications are available internationally. In order to maintain a high standard of competence, and to guarantee at least a certain standard of professionalism, regardless of where the professional studied or practices, the most effective format is still the external examination.

Each professional body will have a set format. Some now also ask the student to complete regular assignments, or to complete an individual research project or dissertation, so covering much of the required background depth and breadth of knowledge. This in turn allows the setting of examination questions which focus on key areas which they believe can be best tested under examination conditions. The format applied by each professional body will be openly published in their study and examination guidelines, will be known to the course providers and the tutors, and will be visible in recent past papers. The student must ensure that they are familiar with this format. It is an essential factor in achieving success

This element of the preparation process is one that is often overlooked by mature students. Many international students will be studying for qualifications of professional bodies based in other countries, but will need to sit the examinations in their home country. This will often mean having to make arrangements to take the examination at embassies or other representative offices, usually in the capital city of the student’s country, where the professional body has made arrangements for the office to act as an examination centre. This is not something that can be left to the last minute, as there will be a deadline for acceptance, and secondly, the student will suffer additional negative stress during the critical revision period, if these arrangements are not made in good time.

For most mature students, especially those studying by distance learning, it will be necessary to arrange for absence from their workplace. This, at a minimum, will mean time away from work in order to travel, take the examination, and return, whilst for some a few days away to concentrate on the final stage of revision may be possible. If planned and agreed well in advance, the student can then relax about these issues and concentrate on preparing for and taking the examination.

Studying the course materials in a planned and thorough manner is essential. The core materials and supplementary research and reading should be studied as diligently as possible. Advice on this is contained in a sister article, but will be available from your course provider, tutors, and the professional body itself. It is mentioned here because it is often forgotten that without effective studying of the course materials it is unlikely that the student will be successful in the examinations.

The point of revision is to consolidate the knowledge and understanding gained during the course of study, and to reshape it into material that can be used effectively to answer the questions in the examination. Revision is a stage that needs planning for. Planning properly means that you need a revision plan, a timetable of activities which will result in you being prepared for the examination itself. When to start revision, how long to allocate, will depend on the nature of the examination. For example, if it is a single examination the revision period may be relatively short, perhaps one or two weeks only. However, if, as with many professional examinations, each stage requires two or three examination to be taken over a few days, then perhaps a month of revision would be more appropriate. How much to revise will again depend on the nature of the examination(s). Don’t try to recall or memorise the whole course content. Concentrate on preparing for questions about the main themes, the key topics, the most important areas of knowledge. To help you with this, ask advice from your tutors, look for clues in past papers, revisit the syllabus and look for the main topics there. Your revision plan will also be influenced by personal factors such as family, social, and work commitments. You will need to balance the demands of preparation and the importance of the success in the examinations, against these competing demands. If you are studying for professional examinations, you will need to give these priority during the revision period, and reap the benefits at a later stage in your career.

Overall, examiners, representing the professional body in writing the questions, are looking for evidence that you are sufficiently knowledgeable and competent to be awarded professional status. To demonstrate this, though, you will need to follow one simple rule. That is: answer the question. What the examiners require you to do is to answer the question that they have asked. It has been designed to give you the opportunity to provide the evidence that you are worthy of that status. If your answer(s) are not focused, do not answer the question, or complete the task, or give a surfeit of information which is irrelevant to the question, you will fail.

With the requirements of the Examiners in mind, you should practice identifying what the question is actually asking you to do or to discuss. To do this use past papers, make up your own questions, use the mini-questions and assignments in the coursework. Analyse questions and make notes on how you would answer them, and of course, practice answering them fully.

During the last few days before the examination itself, finalise your revision, but leave room for other, equally essential activities. These include confirming practical factors such as travel arrangements, access to the examination room, timings, materials that you need to take in with you. Also, give careful consideration to your general well-being, and try to eat and drink healthily, find time for relaxation, take exercises, and obtain sufficient sleep. Being in good physical condition will add to your chances of success.

Use the reading time wisely. Make a broad appraisal of the questions, and if there is choice, decide which questions you can answer best. Usually it is a good idea to select the question that you will answer first. This can often be obvious because it is the main question or one of those that carry the most marks. Don’t necessarily start writing immediately permission is given, as it can be much better to continue thinking and planning your tactics. List or mark the questions to show the order in which you intend to take them.

Before you answer any individual question, you should spend a few minutes, at least, on preparing your answer. This is to give structure to it, and to ensure that you will cover the main points. For each question, read it carefully and identify what the question is actually asking you to write about (remember the advice on what the examiners are expecting). List the key points that you intend to write about. The questions will always be based on material that you have studied on the course, so once you are certain that you understand what the question is asking of you, you can use your knowledge of the course materials to add points that you need to cover. Don’t fall into the trap of writing about everything you can think of related to the topic. Only give information relevant to answer the specific question being asked. In other words, stick to the point. Finally, don’t forget that in discussion answers you should show a clear structure: an introduction, the main discussion and key points, and a conclusion. If it is a calculation answer such as in accountancy examinations, present your answer in the required format. As with discussion questions, incomplete answers can still gain valuable marks, so don’t despair if your calculations are not perfect.

You will be asked to answer a certain number of questions in a fixed amount of time. After you have completed your reading of the paper and decided which question you will answer, allocate time per question according to the marks allocated to each question. As an example, if one question is worth 40% of the marks, then allocate 40% of the time to that question. The examiners will be expecting 40% of your efforts to be given to this question. Do this even if at that stage you are not sure which questions of smaller value you will answer last. Try not to overrun your allocated time for the larger value questions. If you spend 60% of your time on answering a 40% value question, that will only leave 40% of time to answer questions with 60% value. A recipe for disaster. If, as you near the end of the examination period, you are certain that you will not be able to answer the final question in full, change to a bullet point format, making clear notes on the key points that you would have discussed in more depth. Often this will gain you a few marks, as most examiners understand that perfect timing is not likely under examination conditions.

It is likely that you will not be informed of the result of the examination for many weeks, but you should review your performance within a few days of taking the examination. Reflect on how well you had prepared, how accurate had been your forecast of what questions would arise, how effectively you used the reading time, how well you managed your time, how well you answered each question. An honest evaluation made within a few days of the examination will be a valuable addition to your preparations for the next one. If you have more examinations immediately afterwards, carry out a brief review of the one that you have just completed, concentrating only on how you managed the examination itself.

The key to success in examinations is to be prepared. It is not sufficient to focus only on studying and revising, as for most mature students the examination experience is not one that they are highly practiced in. Taking examinations should be treated as a major project that needs careful planning and execution. The largest contributor to success in examinations is the preparation, not in the actual writing of answers to the examination questions. Be prepared and you will be successful.