Academia, History of Art, History of Art Department, Life, University of York
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Surviving 48 hour open book exams


48 hour open exams sound tough, and I’m not going to lie, they are incredibly daunting as there is so much time pressure on you to attempt to write two well written essays. However, I think that there are many different things that you can before and during to help ease the pressure and anxiety of the exam process. The following blog post presents many different tips and advice that I have learnt throughout my own experience of completing a 48 hour open exam. If you can think of anything that I have missed, or if you have any tips that you believe should be on here comment below!

During term:

  • Note-taking: Try and take the best notes that you can during your seminars/lectures and meetings with your tutors- with history of art, tutors don’t give us the seminar notes like other subjects do, so it’s your responsibility to write everything down – even if you don’t think it’s relevant at the time, it might just be in the future. Try also to make notes and connections to any of the images used within the seminar presentation, as this makes life a lot easier when you come back to re-read your notes.
  • Reading for your seminars: I complete all my notes for my reading on the computer now – this means it’s quicker to find relevant quotes, and it’s easier to read. Also, scan any chapters or key pages of various books that you think will be handy, this will mean that you don’t have to go back and forth to the library during the exam.
  • Organisation: Try and be organised – whether this is creating relevant and tidy documents on your computer or with a physical folder that you take to class. Being organised will save you a lot of time, so try and start that now rather than having to waste so much time later attempting to organise your work. Trust me, you’ll be thankful later on!
  • Tutors: Talk to them! If you’re confused about something in class, or you want any other extra advice on particular things/ how to get better marks etc. They’ll be sure to help you and put you in the right direction! Ultimately, these are the people that will be marking your exams, so pay attention to how they want you to write (every tutor has a particular writing style). Also pay attention to any particular texts or scholars that they keep repeating, as these may be extremely helpful within your exams.


  • Seminar notes: Type up notes onto the computer – I find that this was really helpful during the exam, as it meant all I had to do was search for the word I am looking for, and this brought the file up. It saves time rather than looking through masses of sheets in your various folders.
  • Bring information together: Don’t just type your notes up, but merge the notes with the images from the powerpoint of that lecture, or add any other images that you think will be helpful. As well as adding images, add any other notes from the powerpoint presentations that you did not get time to write down in the seminar. Also, add any key quotes or make notes of any relevant texts that may apply to certain things/themes in your notes.
  • Key quotes: Compile a list of any key quotes regarding particular themes, artworks etc onto a document. This will come in great help when you need to back up your argument with a scholar! Remember, to make your life easier in the exam, footnote the quote. (SURNAME, YEAR OF PUBLICATION: PAGE) – this saves so much time! I cannot stress this point.
  • Key dates and information: To save time during the exam, make A4 pages of any key dates and information that may come in handy. Whether this is the date of a painting, or the dates of when a particular king reigned; having these dates and information on hand will definitely come in handy. I did this and it saved so much time.
  • Photographs/images and illustrations: I collected all the relevant images that I may need onto one document, and labeled them all properly. If you’re unsure how to label your images for your essay, go straight to your essay writing guidelines book – this will be your new best friend during exams. Images take loads of time to properly reference, so by preparing this in advance will help ease the stress during the 48 hours.
  • Essay plans: Before my exam I created a variety of detailed essay plans, which included bullet points of what I wanted to write about; quotations and the places where I got these quotes from, and relevant images (all labeled and referenced properly). You will probably be able to find some past essay questions from your module if it has been previously taught, so just go through these and try and answer them the best you can. Don’t make too detailed a plan, because you’ll probably end up not using it all and it will probably take a lot of time to re-read these in depth during the exam.
  • Reading: Finish any reading that you think might be helpful, or any key texts that you only managed to skim through. Don’t forget to type your notes up too!

During the exam:

  • When you first open the paper: Take your time, read through the questions. I went through each question and decided which are the ones I could best answer, and provided bullet points of the potential things I could write for them. You must take your time at this point, and choose a question that you think you’ll really enjoy to write, and have enough to write about! I’m so glad I took this time after reading the exam questions, as I know this beginning part of any exam can be so stressful. I felt a lump at my throat when I opened the exam paper – I was so nervous! So by devoting an hour to deciding what question I wanted to do, and making brief plans, this helped at lot. It also proves that there are actually a lot you can potentially talk about, so if you open paper and think ‘oh my goodness, I cannot answer anything!’, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much you actually can do if you take a deep breath and go through each question. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
  • An essay a day: For my exam, I devoted a day to each essay. I aimed to get each essay done by 6pm and then went through them that night. By devoting a day to each essay, you’re making fully complete essays instead of drifting from one to another. But others may prefer to do that – ultimately it comes down to how you prefer to work.
  • Be concise: Try and be as succinct as you with your writing – know when to stop! I always write way too much for my essays; infact, for my 1500 word ones I ended up writing near 3000 words, so had to devote a lot of time to getting rid of words – time that I could have spent getting the sleep I needed! So, by trying to keep to the word count this prevents you wasting any time trying to chop out words that needn’t be there in the first place.
  • Alone: I personally like to be alone when writing an essay, especially under these circumstances. By removing yourself from your peers it means that there are no risks of your anxiety being high – if you do speak to people on your course, do not take too much notice about what they are writing. At the end of the day, their essays will be different to yours and theirs makes no difference on you. Just write your own essay, and don’t worry about what anyone else writes. Focus on yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box: Thinking out of the box shows that you’re thinking about the question from a different point of view. The examiner is very likely to get the same information over and over again, so by providing a new angle which is argued well will make you stand out for all the good reasons!
  • Relax: Try and relax during this exam. It’s only 48 hours, and will be over quicker than you think. The good thing I guess is that everyone in your class will be completing it in this time, so you’re not alone! Just keep focused, and write as well as you can during this time.
  • Snacks: Have some snacks with you, or some fruit to keep your energy levels high during the exam.
  • You: Make sure you remember that you are a human and not a machine! Have  food and regular breaks – go outside for fresh air, I found this really helpful as it lets you reflect on your thoughts etc.

After the exam, make sure you relax; whether that is watching a movie, going out for some drinks, whatever it is, reward yourself! 48 hour exams are tough and extremely mentally and physically demanding (well for me anyway), so well done for getting through it! I really hope you find these tips helpful, and if you want any more advice or guidance just drop me a line!

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