Gaurav Sood, the all-India ISC Board Examination topper in 2008 with 99 per cent marks, shares some of his success secrets, which he has also discussed at length in his recently published book
To be the best is an indescribable feeling. Especially when it’s in something as important as the Boards. Since I’m not the smartest person you’ll meet, I’m invariably asked — “How (on earth) did you top the boards!?” “More importantly, how can you?” Fortunately, the secret isn’t “study till you’re a sleep-deprived zombie.” Unfortunately, it also isn’t “mum fed me steroids/dad taught me to cheat.” The secret recipe? Connecting the dots. You don’t need to be a prodigy studying 25 hours a day to ace an exam-you just need to work smart. As I also write in my recently released book, How I Topped the Boards and You Can Too!, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never really been an exceptionally gifted student. I’ll admit, I was a decent student all my life, but anything north of decent would be pushing it as far as adjectives to describe my intellect are concerned. Sure, I worked hard, but neither was nor am I the most hardworking person you’ll ever meet either. Did I work a lot for the board exams? Most certainly — I put in a lot more effort for the Board exams than I had for any other exam in my life. But were there people around me who put in more effort than I had? Even more certainly. And no, I’m most certainly not a freaky genius. Of any kind.
So how, then, did I, a normal kid, manage to top the Boards across India? More importantly, how can you? Your Boards are going on. You’re probably tense. Understandably so. As an Indian student, the Boards will possibly be the most important examination of your life. The exams you take over that one month will determine the direction your life will take-the college gates you’ll walk through, the job you’ll get, the relations you’ll form… Not many exams have that ability. I’m often asked what I did to top the boards. Here are some simple, actionable tips that you can incorporate into your final week preparations. These are small little tweaks that worked for me when I was taking my Board exams and will ensure you maximise your score.
Tip 1: Write, write and write
Why? Simply because the boards are a written examination. The more you write, the more comfortable you’ll be on the final day. Your brain will move in tandem with your hand, which will save you time. In addition, you’ll familiarise yourself with what you’ll actually be doing on exam day and this will, in turn, breed confidence. And there’s no substitute to confidence. In anything you do in life, for that matter. To quote from my book: In my 12th grade, I went for tuitions in Economics during the summer. Our teacher would make us write each answer out in full. Questions in Economics are often subjective. By writing out each answer, we quickly started to understand how long it would take for us to solve any type of question. For example, I knew that it would take me twenty minutes to solve a ten-mark question. This ensured that I didn’t spend too long on any question. I knew exactly what to write for each question prompt and didn’t have to spend too much time preparing my answer in my head before writing. While writing the answer, I wouldn’t have to stop, hesitate or waste time thinking about whether I was on the right track. One of the worst things that can happen while writing an answer during an exam is realising that you have to start from the beginning because you forgot to consider an important part of the answer or misunderstood the question. This exercise also ensured that I didn’t overwrite or underwrite my answer in length. Okay that’s great — I’m supposed to write. And I get why I’m supposed to write. But I still don’t know what I’m supposed to write.
Tip 2: Answer questions
Fair point. It’s rather pointless to waste time writing poetry when you have a physics exam around the corner, unless you’re Dr Richard Feynman. Combine this with tip number 1 and go find yourself a set of the last ten year’s papers. Start from the most recent paper, solve it and move backwards (reverse chronologically). Since you only have a few days left for your exams, try to solve only one-three papers on paper, as writing out answers can be time consuming, limiting the number of questions you could potentially look at. For the rest, it makes sense to simply read through and understand the questions in your head. Mark the questions you’re iffy about and focus on those.
This combination of written and oral practice will get you the best of both worlds — you’ll practice writing answers and simulating the actual test while practicing enough questions orally to get familiar with the exam pattern. And please avoid trying to guess the questions for your paper, unless you’re completely starved for time and absolutely have to. For all other cases, be confident in your preparation.
Tip 3: Use a timer
Solve the first paper without a timer. However, for papers 2 and 3 — solve the question paper with a timer in front of you. It’s incredible how much pressure a simple device can add. Not only is this a better simulation of the actual exam, doing so will also help you understand the length of the paper. Since everyone’s different, you’ll get a better sense of how long it takes you to solve the paper and whether you need to increase your writing.
If you’re feeling confident, try solving the paper in less time than you’re supposed to. For example, if it’s a three-hour paper, try to solve the paper in 2.5 hours. The important thing to keep in mind here is to ensure that you don’t sacrifice the quality of your answer. The purpose of this exercise is to write just as good a paper in less time. This way, in case something goes wrong on the final day, you won’t panic as you know that you can always catch up.
Tip 4: Flash cards
Again, if you’re feeling confident and have focussed on the above pointers, you could consider making flash cards for the definitions you find most difficult. To quote from my book: The one problem with revising your notes over and over again is that your brain gets used to the order of the text… That’s why answering questions is so crucial. It breaks that linear flow that you’ve developed, reading the same notes over and over again in the same order each time. One way to improve the quality of your revision is to change that order by using flash cards. For those of you who don’t know, a flash card is a learning aid that contains a small amount of information on two sides.
On one side you write the topic (say, ‘Entropy’) or the question (say, ‘Example of entropy’), and on the other, you write the definition of the topic or the answer to whatever question is being asked. Download a flash card app on your phone, and it’ll do most of the work for you. If you mark a question as incorrect (you answered it wrong), the app will throw it back to you after some time and continue to do so till you get everything right. With flash cards, the order in which you recall information is completely out of your control, and the randomness significantly improves the quality of your preparation by disrupting any rhythm that you may have developed over time. Some apps will also save statistics such as which flash cards you consistently get wrong, so that you can target them the next day.
Tip 5: Make it fun
We all have our kryptonite. For me it was always dates. If you find yourself struggling to remember something important for the exam, try to make it fun. Use simple word associations for example. Can’t remember whether to open the parenthesis first and then add? Here’s aunt Sally to the rescue! PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally or Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract-the order we need to follow to solve one of those overcomplicated math equations that we all love so much. Using mnemonic devices like acronyms has been proven to increase learning efficiency. In addition, you could summarise the information into a comparison table or diagram.These tools will help you learn the information much faster.
Such habits are helpful because you use more of your brain to remember visual and active images than you do to remember just a list of items. Using more of your brain means better memory. The key to such memory devices is that the phrase or sentence you come up with has to be more memorable and easier to remember than the information you’re trying to learn.