copies of two classic books

Five exam revision tips for the SQA prelims


December is Revision Time: Deck the House with Heaps of Post-its…

It may not sound very seasonal, but December is the month when some Scottish schools hold their National 5 prelims (or ‘mocks’ for readers south of the border).

Meanwhile, Higher and Advanced Higher students are starting to gear up for their prelims in January after they return from the festive break (although perhaps the word ‘break’ is a slight misnomer, in their case).

In preparation for the forthcoming exams, we’ve put together five revision tips:

  1. Be prepared: have a plan!

List all the topics you need to cover for each subject and allocate an approximate time requirement next to each topic, e.g.

English – MacCaig poems – 1 hour’s intense revision per poem = 6 hours.

English – Close reading practice – 3 sample/past papers x 1.5 hours = 4.5 hours (for Higher) or 3 x 1 hour = 3 hours (for National 5).

Draw up a formal schedule (an Excel spreadsheet is helpful for this) showing the days you have left until the exams (if you’re on study leave) or all the available mornings/evenings (if you’re doing prelims, for which most schools don’t give study leave).

Break the day/evening into half-hour or 45-minute blocks (depending on your concentration span), then allocate the topics you need to cover to the available study blocks. Remember to block off the occasional afternoon or evening when you know you’ll be away at family or friends’ houses over the festive season, as you need some downtime as well.

If you’re fortunate enough to be heading away for a week or longer with the family during the holiday but also need to prepare for prelims/exams, the bad news is that you probably can’t take that amount of time off! So plan ahead and condense your most important notes into revision cards (see photo) to take with you. That way, you can travel light but still have the key info with you to revise in between socialising/skiing/sunbathing.

2. Learn new vocab as you go…

When it comes to revising vocabulary for French, German or Spanish (or indeed any language), try to revise new words on the day you learn them at school, so you don’t end up trying to master 400 new words on the night before the exam.

However, if you end up having a vocab blitz in the final few days, you might find these handy vocab Post-it notes useful (see photo left). Select five or six and stick them onto a mirror or your headboard or beside your desk so you’re seeing the words regularly and becoming familiar with them subliminally. Alternatively, buy blank Post-its and create your own customised vocab revision cards featuring words that you find particularly hard to remember.


There are also some great apps to help you with vocab learning (I so wish we’d had these when I was at school!). If you’ve not tried Quizlet  or a similar app yet, now’s a good time to start.

3. Take advantage of the high-quality revision materials available online

You’re no doubt already familiar with BBC Bitesize – if not, a pleasant surprise awaits. For example, in the English revision section, you’ll find analysis of the main poems, plays and novels for the set Scottish texts, plus quizzes to test your knowledge.

If the novel or play you’re studying for your National 5, Higher or Advanced Higher English isn’t covered by BBC Bitesize, it’s worth checking out the inimitable Mr Bruff on YouTube. He covers a wide range of English literature texts in a highly engaging way.

Last but not least, you’ll find several podcasts on English language techniques, essay writing, etc. that you can buy from . Plus there are a number of short free videos on the TLC YouTube channel – for example this one, featuring tips for the translation section of the Higher German exam.

4. Revise with a study buddy – or three

Not all revision needs to be done solo. There are many topics which lend themselves to revision with a study buddy (or buddies). For example, why not organise a ‘literary lunch’ one day? Grab your packed lunches (or gather round your usual table at the café in town) and talk about the shared themes in Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry or discuss whether Gatsby was a fool to dream he’d ever end up with Daisy.

Alternatively, arrange to meet a friend at your house (or theirs) one evening to test each other on French vocabulary, English literature quotes, etc. for a couple of hours over a leisurely hot chocolate, coffee or cup of herbal tea. If you choose someone with a similarly serious attitude to revision, that can work brilliantly and even be fun as well as educational.

5. Look after yourself!

No doubt you’re already sick of your parents telling you this, but (just this once!) they’re right.

For a start, it’s well documented that teenagers need plenty of sleep (see our recent blog on the subject of sleep), and this applies all the more during periods of stress, such as when you’re preparing for exams. So when you plan your revision timetable (see Point 1), be sure that you factor in time for eight to nine hours’ sleep every night, as that’s what scientists recommend for optimal performance.

Also, while it’s fine to treat yourself to the occasional bar of chocolate or bag of crisps, don’t make these tempting snacks your sole sustenance while you’re studying.

Begin the day with a healthy breakfast to kick-start your metabolism, then top up with a protein-filled lunch and evening meal, accompanied by a selection of vegetables (go for a rainbow of colours – not only will your plate look aesthetically pleasing, but you’ll also get a good range of vitamins and minerals to boot!). Check out our post by Caroline Thomson from Courses for Cooks about how to eat healthily during the exam years.

Finally, don’t spend too long sitting down glued to a screen or a page without budging. We blogged recently about the importance of exercise during the exam years. At least once an hour, get up and move.

Walk briskly (or even run!) to the loo or go out and grab 10 minutes of fresh air by walking to a local park or round your garden. Not everyone aspires to be a hockey, rugby, football or tennis player, but fortunately exercise comes in many forms.

A simple stroll with friends or the family dog works just as well.

After all, the Romans knew what they were talking about when they coined the expression ’mens sana in corpore sano’ (‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’). Why not build your exam success ‘empire’ by following their advice?




  • Janet Rose
    Posted at 08:49h, 03 March

    Thanks for a great article and very good advice Karen. Down here in the South West the schools tend to run mocks later than in Scotland. Most have completed them in January/February but a couple of my students are still to face them in early March. I will try to share this on our Facebook page.

    • Karen Elwis
      Posted at 21:02h, 03 March

      Thanks for your kind comment, Janet 🙂 Yes, I thought that the mocks were a little later in your part of the world. Good luck to your pupils who are still facing theirs!