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Breaking the Top Scorer's Code

Assignment season has dawned upon us all, so it’s inevitable that our stress levels are growing rapidly with each deadline we have to meet. Here’s a friendly (and totally not stress-inducing) reminder that sooner or later, exams are going to come rolling around again.

But fret not, Taylor’s Lexicon has got your back to make sure that you’re prepared early for exams. Who better to get tips from than our own peers who have done exceptionally well in previous exams? In this article, we gathered some valuable advice from 4 current and past students from TLS with excellent academic standing – Ong Eng Hong, Nakeeran Kumar, Gan Yu Ju and Low Rui Thong.

How early do you start preparing for exams?

Early. Each student stated that they typically start preparing at least one to two months before exams, or after the submission of the last assignment.

According to Eng Hong, his exam preparation starts right when the semester commences. By staying focused during lectures and understanding key points for each topic, you would be slowly preparing yourself for exams.

Similarly, Nakeeran advises students to ensure that they have understood the contents of their weekly lectures well and have cleared their doubts with their respective lecturers by the end of each week. It will benefit you to ask your questions right away to make sure you understand the lectures well every week so that when you start revision, you’ll be able to grasp the concepts promptly. This will lighten the stress you may feel while anticipating exams.

How do you organise your study time – do you distribute your time equally for all subjects?

Yu Ju explains that she normally spends more time on subjects that are more complex or require more research. On the other hand, Eng Hong states that his study time is based on the depth of his understanding or knowledge of each subject, so his distribution of study time is never equal. This is a good reminder to students not to keep revisiting only the subjects they enjoy learning or find easier. While the harder subjects do require more effort and time, it will be well worth it to see the fruits of your labour.

Time management is key. But it becomes even trickier when students have other commitments, be it societal activities, positions of power, your friends and family, your possible significant other or even your TV series’. Rui Thong shares that in her previous semester, she personally struggled a little with time management in balancing her work and studies. However, she made it a point to make studying her top priority as she neared the exam period. Fortunately, the legal firm that she worked in understood her situation and she managed to take 1-2 weeks off to focus on her studies and sit for her exams.

Similar to the others, Rui Thong also starts studying the subjects that she is not as confident with and spends most of her time on those. Normally, she will set a goal every day for her to fulfil before allowing herself to do other personal things.

According to Nakeeran, he doesn’t have a particular timetable but he ensures that he grasps at least 5 new legal principles every day before going to bed. Generally, he follows his lecture timetable but on some days, he decides to study certain subjects based on his mood. When he studies, he starts with subjects that he is most comfortable with before progressing to more complex principles and different subjects. Now, despite what it sounds like, this advice is not contrary to that of Eng Hong and Yu Ju in the previous paragraph. Starting is always the hardest thing to do. As we all know by now, inertia is the devil. If starting off with the easier subjects gets you going then that is what you should do! But once you’ve started, make sure that you give every subject the attention that is required depending on your personal needs.

What is the most effective way to study?

Rui Thong describes the steps she takes to study effectively.

  1. Read lecture slides and prepare notes.

  2. Read textbooks or articles and do further research on any areas I don’t understand.

  3. Draw mind maps – this helps me to have a big picture of the topic and it's easier for me to link with other topics. This is especially for modules that require us to focus more on problem questions.

  4. Memorise. However, since exams are online and open-book now, I skip this part.

  5. Attempt past year questions and discuss with friends. Sometimes, you might think that you understand the topic well enough, but when doing past year questions, you may find certain areas that you should focus more on. Further, it’s beneficial to discuss questions with your friends as you’ll be able to receive different views.

Eng Hong emphasises that you should not study at the eleventh hour. The secret to effective studying is that you should start revising and reading regularly on topics you have learnt after the lectures. Further, you should always utilise the tutorial system as a platform for you to gauge your understanding of the law by participating in the tutorial discussions. Ultimately, it is imperative to know what you don't know so you can figure out the answers as soon as possible as opposed to being stunned upon reading the exam questions.

Yu Ju also adds that before sitting for your exams, you should supplement the lecture slides with textbooks and other materials to further deepen your understanding.

Another method of effective studying is trying to teach legal principles to others.

“Relate your legal understandings to practical situations. Explain those principles to your friends, families, siblings or anyone who have no legal knowledge. If you could make them understand, pretty sure, you can make the examiner fathom your answers too. Personally, I discuss legal principles I study each day with my mother and ensure that she asks me questions about them. As she is not from a legal background, the questions she asked would allow me to view a particular legal principle from a different perspective. For me, that's where you will be able to start to critically analyse a legal concept and properly understand the relevance of it in courts of law.” – Nakeeran

What should students do on the day of the exam (or before sitting for the exam)?

You should get enough sleep, eat well and remain calm before sitting for each exam.

“Nothing is worse than answering the exams questions incorrectly not because of your lack of understanding of the subject matter but because of pure carelessness when you misread the questions due to sleep deprivation.” – Eng Hong

Do not stress yourself out thinking about all the things you are unsure of. Be relaxed because of the things you understand well. Attitude is everything. Sometimes, even when you are underprepared, having a clear and calm mind will provide you with enough clarity to think and give it a good attempt.

“Exams are nothing but a mere indicator of progress. If you have worked enough throughout the semester, you have nothing to worry and if you have not, having a positive attitude provides you with a better chance to do well than being anxious about it.” – Nakeeran

Besides that, you should have your short notes readily available for you to refer to during your exam. You may also want to focus on any mind maps or diagrams you have prepared to organise your thoughts.

During the exam, how do you approach each question?

Eng Hong explains how he approaches essay and problem questions.

Essay Questions:

  1. Read the questions several times, highlight the keywords. Set out a structure before answering by listing out the points that are required.

  2. Approach the question from a legal perspective first – refer to authorities.

  3. Add in evaluations as required by the questions. This is where additional readings come in handy as it allows you to have an idea as to the pros and cons of the law in its current state and enable you to analyse the law accordingly.

Problem Questions:

  1. Read the questions several times, highlight the relevant facts and set out the area of law the problem concerns.

  2. Do not give a comprehensive explanation of the law. Instead, focus on stating what the relevant law is and apply it directly to the facts.

  3. Apply the facts in a creative manner by forming arguments for and against the parties you are asked to advise. As opposed to just thinking of how the facts of the questions can be substantially similar to a decided case and submit that the outcome of that case should be followed, try to focus on the significance of certain details in the factual matrix which might differ from the cases decided and suggest how it would have a bearing on how the case should be decided. In my opinion, this is how you make your answer stand out, compared to an ordinary answer which adopts a very straight forward approach without a thorough, argumentative discussion.

What advice do you have for students that want to ace their exams?

“You do not have to follow blindly how other people study. Identify the study method that works the best for you. If you lack discipline, find a study buddy. If drawing charts help, do it. Make sure you take care of your health, both mentally and physically.” – Yu Ju

“Share your knowledge. Discuss legal concepts with your friends. Certain questions from them would be thought-provoking and may become the reason for the 'A' you want to score. So, ask many questions and try to answer questions posed to you. Never be afraid to be wrong. Each failure is an opportunity to learn. Thus, if you ask me, to ace your exams, make mistakes and learn from them. Nobody is a better teacher than failure, so, never be afraid of it.” – Nakeeran

Overall, the key takeaway from the tips above is that you should always prepare early and proactively ensure that you are grasping and applying legal concepts well. Putting in consistent effort throughout the semester will definitely save you some stress for when exams come around.

That aside, always remember that you should be proud of yourself for your effort and hard work regardless of the outcome. At the end of the day, an exam is just an indicator of your progress – not the end all be all. When you’re preparing for exams, don’t stress yourself out too much and make sure you’re studying smart and not hard. Every now and then, take a breather and enjoy the process. When we’re caught up in all the work that we have to do, it’s easy to forget that we can actually appreciate what we’re learning.

On that note, Lexicon hopes that this article has allowed you to learn something new, be it a new approach to studying or tips on time management. Lexicon would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to Eng Hong, Nakeeran, Yu Ju and Rui Thong for their contribution to this article. Lexicon would also like to congratulate them for their outstanding performance as top scorers for their respective year!

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