Cramming for an exam is, let’s be honest, one of the least fun ways to spend your time. There’s the pressure to get a good grade, mixed with the fatigue and sheer boredom of reading, re-reading and highlighting text in the hope that it’ll sink in. And there’s always the risk that something will come up on the test that you didn’t prepare for.
In a new video, YouTuber and Cambridge University graduate Dr. Ali Abdaal outlines the system he used to prepare for essay-based exam questions while he was studying medicine, and which ended up winning him a first-place essay prize.
He explains that he was able to write entire essays on demand, by first creating detailed essay plans for every conceivable essay question that might arise in an exam, and then using active recall, spaced repetition, spider diagrams and flashcards to commit them to memory. The idea is to be able to essentially “upload” whole essays into your memory so that you can then regurgitate them at will.
The creation stage
First, Abdaal advises trying to come up with a range of essay titles which cover the breadth of the class. “The easiest way to do this is to look at what past papers are available, and see what essays have come up in the past,” he says. “Then you can put yourself in an examiner’s shoes and think ‘what is a good essay we’ve not yet asked about.'”
From there, you come up with an outline for each title, ensuring that you have a killer introduction which sets up a proper structure that fulfils the requirements of the essay (i.e. it actually answers the question) and stands out from the dozens of similar papers that the examiner will be reading.
The memory stage
Abdaal uses the free flashcard software Anki to create “blocks” of content which he can slot into his essays from memory. He then creates a spider diagram for each essay, which breaks down the different sections of the essay, with keywords referring to specific flashcards.
Once he had created these tools, he would work away at memorizing them using spaced repetition, where he would revisit the material with greater and greater intervals of time between each studying session to improve his memory. He would also log each time he studied an essay in his retrospective revision timetable, marking the date and color-coding the entry according to how well he knew the material on that date.
“Over time, this became a really effective way to systematically use active recall to ensure I knew absolutely everything,” he says. “This method ended up working really well for me.
One additional benefit to this technique, he adds, is that it is even helpful in the rare instance of a left-field question, as you can “build” brand new essay answers on the fly using the material you’ve learned: “Even if stuff comes up that you haven’t memorized, you’ll know so much about the subject, and you’ll have so many content blocks in your head, that you’ll be able to generate a first-class essay from scratch.”
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