Getting High Scores

Some people have this idea that you just need to work hard and you will get high scores. That they are a representation of how hard you studied and if you didn’t get the score that you wanted that you just need to work harder. In reality, there is an aspect of that but there’s so much more that goes into it, both things that are in and out of your control. The score you get on your test is a marker for how well you studied but it’s not a perfect one. There are a lot of factors such as the difficulty of the exam, luck (in terms of which questions appear on the exam), your stress level, things that are going on in your life, etc. Try to imagine a room with 1000 chairs, each filled with a version of you starting from the same baseline of knowledge. These 1,000 people will get slightly different exams and will have varying external factors impacting their performance. Even though they’re all the same person there will be a bell curve distribution of scores. What I’m trying to show with this is that when you’re taking an exam you’re placing yourself somewhere in that bell curve and you don’t have much control over where you land. What you can do, however, is to slide the bell curve closer towards the higher scores and decrease the range it covers. That’s what we’re going to be going over in this section of the course.

One thing that is vital if you want to obtain top scores is knowing what is important in the eyes of your professor/teacher. These are the things that are most likely to show up in the exam (we will call these “high yield”). If your university uses transcriptions, a great way to identify high yield concepts is to use them and to see what the professor spends a lot of time on, and emphasizes during lectures. If your university or school doesn’t have transcriptions then paying attention to what the professor says during lectures will work as well. In the case of standardized exams with a syllabus this is even easier, as they will literally tell you what you focus on, so use them to your advantage.

If your school/university doesn’t have transcriptions but you’re interested in making them, a great way to reduce the personal workload is to work with friends and classmates (this is what we do in Italy). You get a large group of people to each transcribe one lecture, that way everyone has all of the transcriptions with 1/x (x being the number of people contributing) the amount of work. You could also use this idea of working together to discuss what each person thinks will be asked on the exam, and writing your own practice questions. You’ll be surprised at how well you can guess what the professor will ask and how useful these can be.

Another way to figure out what’s high yield is to use your personal intuition. When you read through past exams and practice problems your brain will use its pattern recognition to create a mental model of which kinds of information are going to be required for the exam. You can then read through notes, textbooks, transcriptions and focus on the most important concepts while leaving the lower yield details for the end once you’ve covered everything. This process of spending your time first on high yield concepts then on lower yield concepts is what allows you to get high scores even if you end up not having as much time to study as you would have liked. This is as opposed to learning every detail of every topic and then rushing the rest of the topics since you misread how much time you have left to study.

Finally, if all else fails, there is almost always a great teacher on the internet who is happy to teach you the material for free. These resources are lifesavers for understanding concepts quickly, and once you have a strong grasp you’ll be able to answer more difficult questions, which will allow you to reach those top scores.