How you can never be unprepared for an exam

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Shalev
Shalev
Hey everyone. This week I’d like to combine the ideas from 2 of the previous newsletters: making plans and the 80/20 principle. I think it’s important to know in advance how exactly you’re going to use the 80/20 rule and to incorporate it into your strategy for the exam, so here’s how to do that.
In the past, I’ve had a lot of trouble with incorporating the Pareto (80/20) principle into my studies. I would start from topic 1 and learn everything there was to know, then I’d move to topic 2 and so on. There are a bunch of things that are faulty with this method. First of all, I had no plan for how I was going to finish all the material in time. I didn’t have any gauge on how much material I needed to cover each day/week. Basically, it meant that I knew everything about the first couple of topics and then I had to rush the rest so that I wasn’t completely clueless about them by the time the exam came around. 
Over time I’ve been trying to improve on this, but I think the reason it’s been so challenging is that my plan was always ignorant to the fact that I’m not perfect and that there’s a chance I won’t finish the material in time. I would always plan with the assumption that I would get through everything and that each day would progress flawlessly. I should have realized that how well my days go falls into a bell curve and that some days just won’t go well, and that should be expected.
I’ve been contemplating ways to fix this, to use the 80/20 principle as an integral part of the exam preparation strategy. I’ve devised a system of phases that should be planned for in advance in order to increase the probability of succeeding in implementing the 80/20 rule.
In the first phase of our preparation, we’re only going to go through the most important, highest yield concepts in our material. You’re going to completely ignore all of the minor details and just get through everything with a strong understanding. In order not to forget these concepts you’re going to need to incorporate active recall and spaced repetition. It doesn’t have to be Anki, you could do it manually but I’ll talk about how to do that another day. 
Basically, go through each lecture and only turn the important concepts into Anki cards, then keep doing the previously made flashcards each day so that you don’t forget the topics you reviewed at the start. This phase should ideally be complete at least a week or two before your exam, but since every person and exam is different, you should reflect and figure out what’ll work best for you.
After this stage, even though you have plenty of time before the date of your exam, you should be able to at least pass if you took it today. Once you’re at this point, you’ve secured the bag. You’re going to pass all your exams for the semester, congrats. With the extra time, you’re going to go back through the material and learn the smaller details that are going to get you the higher marks. You’re still not going to go through the material super slowly and memorize every small fact. You’re going to keep in mind what’s high yield, what can show up on the exam, and what the professor is most likely to ask. Then you’re going to learn and convert that into Anki cards. You should try to finish phase 2 at least a couple of days before your exam.
At this point you might be thinking, alright I’ve gone through all the material twice. I know the important concepts like the back of my hand and I’ve added the important smaller details. Aren’t I ready for the exam? Well not necessarily. It’s important to consolidate the information that you have. This means connecting those facts and concepts that you memorized and developing the understanding you have of the subjects. 
You could do this by drawing mindmaps, using the Feynmann technique, quizzing friends and having them quiz you, and lots of practice questions. You should be practicing using the same question types you’ll be getting in the exam. If it’s oral then ask each other questions out loud, if it’s MCQ practice MCQs, if it’s essay based then write essays. The reason this is important is because memorizing facts and concepts works fine and will get you good grades but it leaves gaps in understanding. You haven’t given your brain time to connect the dots and make connections. This is the idea behind phase 3.
At this point you’re golden. You know the most important concepts, you know the high yield smaller details, you’ve consolidated the information, and you’ve done lots of practice questions. You should be able to score very highly on the exam. It’s not guaranteed, there are always unknown, uncontrollable factors but that’s not your problem. You’ve done everything you can to do well, and most importantly, you actually understand the material, you’re able to use it in the real world, and you’re going to remember it long after the exam.
The best part is, no matter and what stage you are in, you are as prepared as you can be. If you end up with less time than you expected, no worries you’ve been preparing in a way that will give you the best results with the time you’ve spent. If that doesn’t happen then great! Most likely something will happen, things never go according to plan, so plan for things not to go according to plan.
Here’s a quick recap of the phases:
Phase 1: Go through the material quickly using the 80/20 principle
Phase 2: Go through the material again, adding high yield details
Phase 3: Consolidate the information using practice questions and working with friends.
I haven’t had much time to use and think about this system so if you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them. If you’d like help with implementing a plan like this I offer a 1 on 1 coaching program where you can work with me to improve your study skills: https://forms.gle/DgGZr2r29vf3vPL29
Cheers everyone, see you next week.
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Shalev
Shalev

Hi Everyone, I'm Shalev a 3rd year medical student studying in Italy. This is my email newsletter, every Friday I'll send out an email with a new idea I had, something I learned, or something I found interesting. I'd love to hear back from you if you have any thoughts about something I wrote.

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