Having tutored students for a few years now, the most common concern I see is the fear of not being able to finish things within time constraints. Whether it’s a ‘mark-a-minute’ Maths multiple choice section or an essay-per-hour English exam, it’s quite terrifying to think ahead to the end of the year and picture yourself handling those tough conditions.

And they do that to you on purpose! The assessors want to test your ability to respond quickly and accurately. Now, we could debate at length about whether this skill is even worth testing, but until you graduate, get a degree, and revolutionise this nation’s education priorities, you’ll just have to toe the line. Like it or not, the time constraints are going to be there in the end. And if you don’t learn to address them, they might end up unravelling all your efforts.

So this guide is going to take you through three different strategies for maximising your efficiency and helping you overcome the barrier of time constraints in assessment tasks. The first are things you can do now while studying to better prepare yourself for real test conditions later, whilst the third is something that will work just as well for your preparation exercises as it will for your actual exam.

Micromanaging time constraints

Firstly, we’re going to examine a means of helping you adjust to time constraints in the early stages of the year. For the most part, I’d argue that there’s little sense worrying about time conditions months before exams unless you’ve got some in-school assessment tasks that have pretty strict conditions too. But if you’re a student who’s pretty much on top of the content and is just looking to fine-tune their skills, then it can be worth thinking about issues of timing early in the year to make sure you’re prepared come exam time.

This first method is one that worked wonders for me in Year 12 because I was someone who would feel crushed if I couldn’t get things done within time constraints. So if I sat down to write an English essay and gave myself an hour to do it, I would invariably end up hating myself every time I paused, or beating myself up every time I forgot a quote. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to write practice essays because it was so demoralising. Even arbitrary constraints like me telling myself ‘I’ve got to do these textbook questions before 6:00pm’ would lead to me being less productive and more stressed out. Often I’d just be frantically watching the clock instead of concentrating on the content.

To counteract this, instead of writing practice essays, I wrote practice paragraphs. I’d just set aside 20 minutes in the evenings to take a prompt and unpack it in about 200 – 300 words or so. And suddenly, the time constraints weren’t so stress-inducing because I could concentrate on little goals rather than letting one big scary one haunt me for a whole hour.

The same can be done for any subject, even down to a really small scale. For instance, I might do a few quick time-trials where I’d go through a series of multiple choice questions and just give myself 90 seconds for each one. Again, rather than it being a case of ‘I HAVE TO FINISH 40 QUESTIONS IN 60 MINUTES OMG OMG’ it was just a collection of tiny, 90 second exercises.

Kind of like how eating one piece of chocolate fifteen times is way healthier than eating fifteen pieces all at once, right? RIGHT?

Realistically, you’re still having to conform to the same limitations, but by breaking it down into more manageable chunks, you’ll make the task much more accessible. In fact, often the whole task can seem way easier to digest. Like chocolate. Man, I can’t wait for Easter.

Overestimating the time you need

Anyway, another process I swore by back when I did Year 12 was the overestimation method.

It works like this: you know that you can write a good essay in around two and a half hours. So you give yourself four hours. You know that the introduction usually takes you fifteen minutes. So you set aside 40 minutes. The first two body paragraphs take you half an hour each, so you give yourself eighty minutes. The next two each take 20 minutes, so give yourself 70. And the conclusion only takes five minutes, but you set aside 20.

Obviously, this is super excessive. However, the idea is not to actually take up all the time you’ve set aside – the idea is to see how far ahead of yourself you can get.

Now you know you’ve got forty minutes to write an introduction, but how far under 40 can you go? Because the faster you finish that intro, the sooner you can get a head start on the first body paragraph. It’s a great mental trick to play on yourself! Even after explaining this trick to students, it still work for me at a university level when I need to get essays done or prepare for an upcoming exam with strict time conditions.

As you get quicker and quicker, you can gradually reduce the time constraints. Assuming it took you an hour and ten minutes to write an extended response piece, you can give yourself an hour and a half with five minute intervals added to each paragraph. By constantly trying to increase the lead you have over yourself, the incentive becomes not just to finish within the time constraints, but to beat your generous estimations. If you’ve got a competitive streak or you’re in need of a confidence boost, this is one of the best ways to help you turn your timing related anxiety into something constructive rather than destructive.

Planning ahead

And last but certainly not least, we have the notion of planning.

It’s a characteristic of mid-range students not to plan ahead in test conditions. By that I mean instead of thinking about the exam as a whole and considering which questions will be the most difficult or time consuming, mid-range students will just concentrate their attention solely on single questions or components. For Maths and Science subjects, this is a bit of a drawback because it means you can end up wasting time without even realising it. If you’re so wrapped up in trying to apply a formula or remember a definition, you may lose sight of how long that task is taking you. Moreover, if you’re just doing the paper from start to finish without looking ahead to see where the easiest marks are, there’s a good chance you’re missing out on some crucial opportunities.

The high-range students, contrarily, are like chess players thinking three moves ahead. They still devote most of their attention to the question at hand to ensure they don’t make silly mistakes, but they’re also churning over other parts of the exam at all times. This means that even if they leave a difficult question or section until the last five minutes, they’ve still got a decent chance of answering it because it’s been in the back of their mind for the last hour or so.

Let’s say you’ve got an exam with four main sections: A, B, C, and D. Section A is multi-choice, Section B is full of short answer questions, and Sections C and D are extended response or essay-type tasks. Now let’s say there are two students who take the following approaches:

Student 1:

This student chooses to start with Section B and get those answers out of the way as a warm up exercise. If there are any that take longer than five minutes, or that he does not know the answer to, he leaves them for later. He then starts on the Section D essay since that topic was the most accessible for him. Next, he attempts the Section C essay which is quite challenging, but he’s sure to leave enough time at the end to get to Section A. In his remaining time, he revisits those difficult and/or time-consuming Section B questions and has another go. He leaves this multiple choice section until the end though, since even if he only has a couple of minutes left, he’ll still be able to make some quick educated guesses and maybe pick up a few marks. In the end, he has to rapidly shade in the last few parts of Section A, and likely missed one or two marks, but he’s completed the whole paper to the best of his ability.

Student 2:

By contrast, this student goes through the exam chronologically. He starts with Section A and does all of the multiple choice questions. Then he does all the short answer questions in Section B in order. Even if a question is difficult or taking too long, he sticks with it for as long as it takes. Once this is done, he starts on his Section C essay, which he finds extremely difficult. By now, he’s really starting to feel the time constraints, and is sure he hasn’t left long enough to write a proper Section D piece. Because he’s taken so long, he’s not feeling confident about that last section, and this is translating into nervousness as he’s writing his Section C piece. It’s not his best work, and it’s taken far too long, but he knows he needs to start on Section D. He does so, but he knows he can’t finish, so it’s a bit of a half-hearted attempt at hitting some easy criteria. The exam finishes, and he leaves feeling awful because “there wasn’t enough time!”

Clearly the first student is in a way better position having dedicated his time in a pragmatic way, rather than letting the layout of the exam dictate his focus. The second student might have had skills on par or even better than the first student, but because of the differences in their approach, the first student is far more likely to receive a higher score.

As was mentioned in our recent article on improving your test taking skills, knowing the content and being smart about how you show that knowledge are two very different things. You don’t want to let your studies go to waste by never devising an exam approach that caters to your strengths and lets you maximise your results.

So the next time you’re worried about time constraints or test conditions getting the better of you, try to shake up your study regimen and have a go at one of these strategies. And don’t stress if you’re still struggling – remember that this is something the assessors deliberately do to separate the students who know their stuff from those who can demonstrate that knowledge efficiently. If you know what to write but just don’t have enough time to write it, you’re already at that top end of the bell curve, and it’s only a matter of time(!) before you fine-tune your way to success.