Ace your exams – use the Filing Cabinet Strategy

The strategy which I’m about to tell you about comes from years and years of trying to excel in exams and finally acing them in my final semester as a student.

My previous strategies had failed because of a lack of hours invested in preparation, or by attempting to learn everything as a bundle of information for each subject, or by trying to prepare a perfect answer without sufficient room for adaptability.

The “filing cabinet system” was perfect for my exams which were essay-based. However, I would still recommend this system for anyone who has to memorise a huge amount of information  and it in a logical order during their exam.

Filing Cabinet System

A well organised and detailed filing cabinet system is the perfect metaphor for preparing for exams.

A high-quality filing cabinet system will contain all of the information, but will also have a log of where exactly each piece of information is contained and the order in which the information is stored. Likewise I would prepare for my exams by memorising information on four or five topics which could come up in a logical order so that I would be able to cover the topic fully in my answer.


How to prepare for your exams?

Just like organising a filing cabinet, you have to account for all of the information first.

I would read my seminar notes and then outline and read particular texts for the topic from each seminar week in order to build up a structure for a possible question.

Starting with a basic structure with the logical order of events, I would build up the skeleton with notes of useful academic sources with some details on their stance and research, and then boil it down to just the sub-sections and sources (see the left-side and right-side of the image above).

This where putting the hours in matters! I would memorise both lists at the same time so that I would instinctively know the details, but I would have a minimised version in my head as well so that I could have an overview from which I could pick and choose what details I needed to add in based on the exact question that came up in the exam.


What are the benefits for students?

The main benefit of this system for me was that I wasted less time pondering all of the information which I had crammed in the week before. Instead I had boiled everything down to some key points, and when I then focused on any one of them it would immediately unlock the information on authors, dates, and arguments.

Although you are remembering the individual points for each topic in a particular order, using this system also allows you to mix up the different points if the essay question requires you to.


Extra considerations

Get into a good sleeping pattern:

When I say put the hours in do not be tempted to work past the hours when your mind is actually learning anything. Another major difference in my preparation for exams in my final year was that I had been able to sort out my sleeping routine so that I was always in bed before 10:30pm and always out of bed before 7:30am.


Work in groups:

Some members of my seminar group would meet unofficially in the three weeks leading up to the exams. We would each bring our notes on our individual assigned texts to share so that each of us were not having to read everything, and compete with each other for the limited number of copies in the library. We would also work on building a skeleton plan on each topic together for mutual benefit.



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