Preparing for exams – Part 3 – Common writing/study traps and how to deal with them


The Preparing for Exams series was first posted in 2017. Each year now we update the posts and repost them as exams approach. Let’s face it, the rules for preparing for exams don’t really change that much over time. 

A while back, one of our psychologists wrote an excellent short article on how to deal with specific study traps, the kind that she most commonly sees students fall into. I’ve reproduced it below.


If overwhelmed -> do a brain dump

A brain dump is simply the act of attempting to get everything on your mind down onto paper (or a document on your computer). From a study perspective, it is about getting everything that you need to get done down on paper.

Brain dumps help to download information from your mind so that you don’t have to juggle it all in your mind continuously. A brain dump stops you swirling around in your head trying to find (remember) and organise the information.

A brain dump frees up space in your brain, so it’s got more room to think. Helps to identify mini-tasks. If having trouble identifying mini-tasks, see “Assignment Survival Kit” on University of Kent website for examples

Note: don’t just leave your ideas in this form, ALWAYS pair it with a next action plan (i.e. a weekly schedule/planner)


If trying to figure out how to manage your time better -> schedule & plan ahead

Using a week-to-a-view planner is the best format. They look like this:

Fill in all of your classes, tutorials, practicals, labs, workshops etc.

Fill in the hours you work.

Fill in the time it takes you to get ready and travel between home, uni and work.

Fill in any other regular appointments or responsibilities (medical appointments, sport, transporting children etc).

Fill in a breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner break. Include time for food preparation.

Establish a set time to go to sleep and get up in the morning.

Assign time for studying for each class/topic. Try to study for classes on they days they meet. Use large blocks for major tasks, smaller blocks for reviews/revision.

Schedule regular breaks and rewards for completing a task – don’t marathon study.

Schedule fun events – recreation, watching television, going out with friends.

This process helps you find ‘hidden time’ you didn’t know you had.

Helps to identify where you don’t have time (due to other commitments), but visually show you where you do have time. If there isn’t enough time available to study for all of your classes, then you might need to re-evaluate your priorities. You might need to cut or delay other commitments.

This is a good process for ‘reality testing’. We often go around saying ‘I don’t have enough time’ and freaking out. This process helps us test the truth of that statement. Can be relieving when we realise we do have the time.

Scheduling helps your brain to not feel so helpless by committing to doing something about it. If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen

If your schedule looks reasonable, then stick to it!


If not knowing where to start? -> do the harder tasks first thing in the day

Helps to get started on something before you get distracted by the day.

The ‘eat that frog’ principle – if you do the hardest mini-task first in the day, the rest of the day (when you are most active) will have less anxiety. You can Google ‘eat that frog’ to read other people’s views and use of this time management technique.


If struggling to get started -> use the 30-minute rule

Commit to doing 30 minutes of ‘writing’ (not reading). Writing helps you to lay down ideas. Just reading can be used to procrastinate further.

Set a timer and start writing.

At the end of the 30-minutes, either keep going (if you have momentum) or take a short break and repeat.

Brains are more likely to agree to doing a short-session of work, rather than starting the day with the expectation of doing 6+ hours of work.

A little bit of action can trigger motivation.


If struggling to write something -> first write whatever you think you know

Explain your existing ideas in simplified terms, as if you were explaining it to a layman/child.

Use a ‘write -> reading -> write’ sequence instead of starting with reading. This sequence helps you to find where the gaps in your knowledge are first, and then you can fill in the gaps with a summary of what you read.

This sequence also helps to optimise time, as it lets your work organically grow each time you sit down at your work station.


If struggling to maintain the work flow -> sign-post your work

Sign-posting your work involves identifying what you feel you would like to write next, whilst you are still in the work flow (i.e. write this down before you leave your work station). For example, at the end of a 30-minute writing session, before taking a break, you identify what you want to focus on next.

Sign-posting helps you to connect each study session. This helps to save time at the next study session thinking about where to start off again. You can kick off straight away by following your own instructions.

Example – “the very next most important thing to write is…….”


If feeling isolated -> use the ‘phone a friend’ approach

Use study buddies and study groups (see ‘embrace the social’ on our study tips post). Involving others encourages you to set up regular vs. haphazard study routines. Being part of a group that is attempting to be studious increases the likelihood that you will be studious (i.e. you are surrounding yourself with studious people). Having people to answer to helps to also make you more self-accountable.

Make use of tutors, Learning Lounge ( & Studiosity ( Getting feedback along the way helps to manage the overwhelm/anxiety and the ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ feeling.

Make an appointment with the Counselling Service:


If feeling unwell -> look after your wellbeing and health

Be deliberate about your self-care. Don’t work for longer than 2 hours at any one time. Have a break before continuing. Acknowledge and address the downside to ‘binge’ studying for hours on end (e.g., headaches, eye strain, back/neck aches). Being productive is not possible if you’re unwell, stressed, anxious or depressed. You’ll probably only end up doing only a couple hours of quality work anyway. Check out our self-care guide –

Book an appointment with a GP! Seeing a medical professional can help encourage you to better monitor your health and wellbeing. It can also motivate you to put things in place to prevent future health or wellbeing issues (e.g. eating better, getting more physical activity). Can also be a form of additional support should you need assistance in putting in a request for extra time for your assignments due to illness –


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