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Final countdown: how students can make the most of the run-in to the State exams

Even if you feel overwhelmed, there are lots of things Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert candidates can still do to maximise their chances of success

It’s the final term. While many students may have their eye firmly on the end-of-term summer holidays prize, those due to sit the State examinations may well be counting down the coming months, weeks, days and hours purely in terms of how much time they have left to prepare for the exams in June.

It’s the stuff of nightmares – just ask anyone who has been there about the recurring Leaving Cert dream. But there are lots of things students can do – and not do – to maximise the time left, and minimise the stress at the same time. It’s a case of knowing your dos from your don’ts.

Do remember it’s quality over quantity

Especially when it comes to the number of hours spent studying. So says Donnchadh O’Mahony, the careers guidance counsellor at Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

How many hours a student needs to study depends “on how many higher level subjects you’re doing and how many ordinary level you’re doing. Even what subjects you’re doing”, says O’Mahony, who also runs the Instagram account Leaving Cert Guidance. If students “just can’t concentrate” after a certain period, he says you should “put the books away” and have a wind-down.

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“You are in school for six or seven hours a day and then you’re asked to go home and do two or three hours on top of that, so concentration levels can be affected when it comes to study as well,” he says.

“Some people have to be conscious of burnout, and then on the opposite end some students have to be conscious that they’ve done very little study up to now. Some days you’ll feel like you’ll want to do two or three hours. Some days you might feel like I only want to do an hour, and that’s fine as well. As long as the study is quality.”

Don’t panic about maths

Yes, the one that caused so much upset in 2023.

“Very few students have failed the higher level or the ordinary level in the last number of years in the post Covid era,” reminds Eoghan O’Leary, head of maths at the Tuition Centre. “For the majority of students, if they work steadily from now until the exam, they will be fine.”

O’Leary recommends, along with consistent study, that students use this time to check the maths log tables and “get familiar with what are the relevant pages to you”, which include formulas that students won’t have to learn by heart.

O’Leary also says students should be “fluent” with their calculator. “It’s very important that the student doesn’t get a new calculator type on the day of the exam.” The best of intentions can cause big problems if a student ends up being unable to use their new calculator on the big day.

Do practice exam papers and, for languages, know your key vocabulary

Past papers are key to knowing the layout of exam papers and how marks are allocated. Marking schemes for papers, available on the State Examinations Commission website, also give insight into how marks are awarded.

For those studying languages, knowing your key vocabulary will help you understand what you’re being asked in your exams as well as answering the questions, teacher Audrey McSweeney from Excel in French, said. Along with sample exam papers, students can “go on to examinations.ie and practice past listening papers”, McSweeney says.

McSweeney suggests that Leaving Certificate students practice one reading comprehension per week from past exam papers “and know their question words”, (how, what, when, etc).

She also suggests picking out words that you don’t understand, which may have prevented you from being able to answer the question, and then looking up their meaning and adding them to a vocabulary folder to revise. “The more you build the vocabulary, the easier the whole exam becomes,” she says.

Don’t drop your hobbies and outlets

“I’m a firm believer that students should not park their hobbies until exams are over,” Donnchadh O’Mahony says. “I would certainly believe in going out, exercising, relaxing even as well – whether that’s your Netflix, or even a bit of PlayStation.”

He does suggest that students think twice about competitive sport, especially where there’s a chance of injury. “You don’t want to have a scribe or someone like that writing for you in the exam,” he says.

O’Mahony also cautions “if you’re someone who drinks, I would certainly, certainly limit the amount of alcohol you take over, and in the lead-up to, the exams as well. That actually can have a huge effect on your performance.”

Do trust your own strengths

“Look back over the feedback of all the work that you have got and listen to the feedback that your teacher gave you,” says teacher Sonya Macken, of Bandon Grammar School. “If the teacher is giving you advice like ‘be more specific’, rather than saying ‘a law was passed’, then name the law and state the date.”

She also advises breaking up your study time into half-hour slots to stay engaged. “Break it down into small-sized bits. And every half-hour you do, you’re better off than you were half an hour before,” Macken says.

Don’t procrastinate (yes, that means you – and your smartphone)

Put the phone away, out of reach – it’s all too easy to waste hours on mindless scrolling.

Donnchadh O’Mahony also advises students to avoid overloading on caffeine and energy drinks, which can cause anxiety and disrupted sleep patterns. In addition, he says, don’t compare yourself to others. Just focus on what you need to do.

Do seek support if you’re feeling overwhelmed

“From a teacher, from a guidance counsellor, from classmates, even from a parent or brother or sister,” Donnchadh O’Mahony suggests. “Maybe they can help you create a study plan. Maybe help you break down what you have to study. Help you prioritise certain aspects of the course in the lead up to the exam.”

O’Mahony also says students should, at this point, be using efficient study techniques such as “active recall, spaced repetition, summarising, even recording your notes into your phone and having a listen to them when you’re out for a walk”.

Don’t do anything different or drastic

Don’t change what you’ve prepared, or decide to cover a completely different aspect of a subject to what you originally planned, Sonya Macken says.

“Stick with the plan,” she says.

While students have the option to change the level [of their paper] right up until the day of the exam, Donnchadh O’Mahony says this isn’t necessarily a good idea. The layout of some ordinary level papers can be quite different from the layout of a higher level paper. It’s better, he says, to make that decision now.

“Sit down with your teacher and have a look at it and see if ordinary level or higher level would suit you better,” he says.

Don’t nag (hello parents, we’re looking at you)

“Nagging never works,” says child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor.

“One thing you have to resign yourself to is that you can’t make your child learn. You can’t make them study. You can lock them in a room with just them and their books – you still can’t do it for them.”

“What you can do is encourage them. Maybe that’s not talking about exams all the time. It can be a cup of tea. It can be giving them some leniency around jobs – not having them put out the bins when they normally do. Whatever it might be to support them, to give them time to study.”

Noctor cautions that parents should “never compare them to siblings who have gone before and say ‘your sister was much better at this than you are’”. “Don’t threaten that they’ll be stacking shelves in a supermarket – obviously it doesn’t motivate either.”

“All you can do is incentivise them, support them and try to make space and time for them to do it.”