Exam Periods: Everything You Need to Know About University Exams (and a Few Helpful Study Tips)

Concentrated students of different ethnicities writing an exam

Exams are just as much a part of university as lectures, experiencing new things and a well-rounded student life. In this article, we set out everything you need to know about this part of your studies, from different examination formats to exam schedules and useful study tips. This will help you see exams not as a terrifying nightmare but as a challenge you can overcome!

What is an exam period?

An exam period is the time during your studies when you sit exams. Exam periods happen every semester and are generally not too popular with most students. Indeed, many students experience stress and strain during exam periods, particularly because exams are packed together in a tighter time window and have less defined requirements compared to exams at high school.

When are university exams held?

Whether you choose to study at a public or private institution, the German university calendar is divided into semesters. Unlike in many English-speaking countries, German degrees are usually broken down into semesters rather than years. The number of semesters in a degree program depends on your chosen course of study. Each semester is then broken down into two phases: the teaching period and the teaching-free period. Although no classes are held during this time, this does not mean that you are completely free to do as you wish. That is because the teaching-free period also includes the exam period – which puts your understanding of the material covered in your lectures and seminars over the last semester to the test. Other names sometimes given to the teaching-free period, such as “recess” and “semester break”, are therefore somewhat misleading.

The exact dates of the teaching and teaching-free periods, how long these periods last, and whether examinations are spread across the entire teaching-free period depend on your university and course. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
At public universities such as LMU Munich, the teaching period in the Winter semester runs from mid-October until mid-February (duration: 14 weeks). Lectures in the Summer semester begin in mid-April and end in mid/late July (duration: 15 weeks). In between these semesters are teaching-free periods, which is also when examinations are held. Whether exams take place at the start or end of the teaching-free period, or are spread across the entire break between semesters, depends on your program of study and chosen courses.
By contrast, private universities often have different semester dates. At Munich Business School (MBS), lectures in the Winter semester – also known as the Fall semester due to the time of year – run from early September to the end of November. Lectures in the Summer semester (also known as the Spring semester) start in late January/early February and run through to the end of April. As a result, each teaching period lasts for around three months, while the teaching-free periods in summer and winter can vary in length. Unlike at public universities, the exam period at Munich Business School always takes place at the start of the teaching-free period. This means that December and May are always set aside for exams. [Note: The teaching and teaching-free periods listed here relate to bachelor’s and master’s programs at MBS. On the MBA program in General Management, classes take place all year round, with the exception of a recess in August and over the Christmas break in December.]

What types of examination are there?

In most cases, an exam will be a written examination in which your knowledge on a given topic is tested through either open, essay-style questions or closed, multiple-choice questions.
However, there are many other examination formats, including:

  • Oral exam: Your knowledge and expertise is tested in a conversation with your lecturer.
  • Presentation: You work on a specific topic, either independently or as part of a group, and then give a concise yet informative presentation of your findings in front of your fellow students. Presentations are often used to measure attainment during the teaching period.
  • Project work: You work as part of a team of students to tackle a complex task. This includes detailing approaches and concepts you develop in pursuit of a solution and/or giving a presentation on your project.
  • Term paper: A term paper is an academic essay on a specific topic. Writing a term paper takes time, with many students using the entire teaching-free period to prepare their paper.
  • Online exam: Online exams are usually completed remotely with the help of computer-assisted technologies.
  • Thesis: Your thesis is the final paper in your bachelor’s or master’s program and is a final opportunity to demonstrate everything you have learned during your studies. It places a particular focus on how you use sources, follow academic practices, consolidate information and develop your own concepts.
  • Colloquium: A colloquium is a focused, academic discussion between you and a lecturer and can take different forms. It often accompanies a thesis and involves defending your research questions and results under scrutiny from your supervisor.

One thing all of these types of examination have in common is that they must be completed within a specified time window. The duration of an exam depends on the examination type and the course content. For example, oral exams are usually shorter than written exams. Written exams usually last around 60 to 90 minutes on average.

When should you start to study for an exam?

Now that you have an overview of the basic details of when exam periods take place and what university exams might involve, you’ll definitely be wondering about the best ways to prepare and when to start studying for exams. Unfortunately, there isn’t a universally applicable answer to these questions. You should start studying as early as you think is necessary to feel prepared by the time your exam comes around. Exactly how far in advance depends on the amount of material you will have to cover, how well you feel you understand the topic, the examination type and the number of exams you will have to sit in total.

There’s only one evergreen tip we can give you: it’s better to start studying sooner rather than later! We’ve all been in situations when time has passed much faster than we expected. At the start of each semester, everyone feels the same, as the exam period seems far away in the distant future to begin with. All of a sudden, though, you notice time racing by and course reading piling up, and you soon struggle to see the wood for the trees. Stress is inevitable with this approach. However, instead of cramming to force the course content into your head at the last minute just so you can pass the exam (sometimes known as “bulimic learning”), it’s better to revise what you have learned in lectures and seminars as you go, including by completing homework and compiling notes. Although this naturally means more work during the teaching period, it will save you time when it comes to the exam period, as you will already be familiar with the teaching content (and therefore also the exam content).

What is the best way to study for an exam?

You’ve probably already guessed what we’re going to say: there’s no universal recipe for perfect exam preparation. However, we have put together 10 tips for studying for exams to help you make this challenging part of your studies less stressful, more productive and – we hope – even more successful.

1. Make a study plan.

It’s always worth making a study plan, especially if you have several exams ahead of you. Start by drawing up an overall schedule of your upcoming exams and other fixed appointments (such as dentist appointments, gym courses, birthday parties, and so on). After that, you can move on to micro-planning. For each exam, make a list of what you need to study and roughly how long it will take you. You can then spread the learning material over your study plan. However, it’s crucial to retain a degree of flexibility and build in a buffer in case you don’t get through the content as fast as first thought. Set yourself targets every morning before you study and check whether you have achieved them at the end of the day.

2. Establish a daily routine for the exam period.

Fixing a framework, such as getting up and going to bed at regular times, will help you expend less willpower and have a positive impact on your biorhythm. Our ability to concentrate decreases over time, so it’s important to learn in blocks and integrate regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time management method and divides study periods into 25-minute sessions, separated by five-minute breaks. After around five sessions, you take a longer break. You should try not to exceed a maximum of seven hours of study per day.

3. Eliminate sources of disturbance and distraction.

Removing all sources of distraction is an effective way to stay as focused as possible in your learning blocks. Switch your cellphone to flight mode or put it in another room; use noise-canceling headphones to avoid being disturbed by sounds around you.

4. Create a pleasant learning atmosphere.

If you want to maximize your productivity, it’s important to study somewhere you feel comfortable. That might be the university library, a study space you’ve booked with your classmates, or a desk in your apartment – it all comes down to your personal preferences. Wherever you choose, you should study in a tidy, well-lit environment. Disorder around you while you study will create disorder in your mind and soon lead to distraction. If possible, you should surround yourself only with the materials you need to study.

5. Eat and drink properly.

In stressful situations, we often forget to eat (healthily, at least). We tell ourselves we only have time for a snack in the afternoon and a frozen pizza for dinner; there’s just no time for anything else. However, when these thoughts arise, we have to remember not to underestimate the importance of good nutrition in exam periods. After all, studying and revising requires a lot of energy. We need to supply our bodies with the energy our brains need by eating enough, and eating well. There might not be a “super food” capable of magically improving your grades, but you can certainly focus on “brain foods” that help to improve your ability to concentrate and be at your best. Wholegrain foods, potatoes and vegetables all have a positive effect, as do foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts, spinach and tofu. In addition to solid foods, it’s also vital to drink plenty of fluid to help supply oxygen to the brain.

6. Identify your learning style and apply appropriate study methods.

People learn in different ways. In the 1970s, a researcher called Vester identified four types of learners:

  • Visual learners: If you are a visual learner, you will learn best by observing things or looking at diagrams.
  • Auditive learners: If you are an auditive learner, you will learn best by listening to course content.
  • Haptic/kinesthetic learners: If you are a haptic learner, you will learn best by experiencing or doing things. Movement will help you to learn.
  • Communicative/intellectual learners: If you are a communicative learner, you will learn best as part of a group, which provides an opportunity to engage critically with the course content.

Most people are a combination of several types of learner. In many cases, ensuring variation and finding ways to integrate different senses are keys to successful studying. When you start revising for exams, it’s worth trying out different studying techniques to find out what type of learner you are. This can help you save plenty of time while revising. For example, if you know you are an auditive learner, you can read the course materials out to yourself, or maybe even record yourself to listen back later. Preparing cue cards is an effective way to study for different types of learners. Visual learners can use the cards for summaries and mind maps, while haptic learners can assign the cards to different objects in the room and run through them while learning (known as the Method of Loci).
In addition to trying different learning methods, it is also helpful to figure out when you are most productive. Do you prefer to study in the morning, afternoon or even in the evening?

7. Maintain a healthy balance between study and recreation.

As noted above, it’s important to take regular breaks while studying so that your brain can process the information it has absorbed. In shorter breaks between study blocks, you could stand up, look out the window, meditate briefly or listen to music. However, longer breaks are also important. Nobody can study for 12 hours a day. Plan at least one thing you enjoy into your schedule for each day to give you space to clear your mind. Physical exercise, such as taking a walk or engaging in sport, is highly recommended as an effective way to give your brain a rest.

8. Have the confidence to ask questions and make connections with your fellow students.

Let’s say you’re studying for an exam and come across something you don’t understand. What do you do? Ideally, of course, you would have clarified this during the teaching period (when it’s also important to ask questions) – but even when you’re revising for an exam, it’s not too late to ask questions. In addition to professors and lecturers, your fellow students are a useful source of support with questions. Forming study groups also has other advantages: by arranging fixed dates and times to revise together, you’ll create a sense of solidarity and eliminate ways to avoid studying. You’ll also motivate each other, dispel your fears and work through problems together. It can be helpful to make contact with students in more advanced semesters of your program, especially in your first semester, as they can share their experience and provide tips.

9. Set yourself motivational yet realistic goals.

You might find your motivation sapping away during the exam period, especially if you have several exams to sit. It’s important to keep your eyes on the prize to drive you on. Longer-term goals, such as earning a good final grade to take you one step closer to securing your dream job, can be particularly strong motivation. You can visualize your goals by creating a poster. Hang it somewhere near the desk where you’re studying so you always know where you’re aiming while you’re deep in revision. Make sure your goals are actually attainable. For instance, if you have to sit eight exams in a single semester, the lack of preparation time makes it unlikely that you’ll actually achieve top marks. It’s important to bear in mind that falling short of high expectations is highly discouraging and helps to create a negative undertone. By contrast, achieving realistic expectations can inspire you to boost your self-confidence. Giving yourself a little reward, perhaps after each exam you sit, can help keep your motivation levels high.

10. Get plenty of sleep.

Last but by no means least, you should try to get enough sleep during the exam period. This might sound paradoxical at first, because you will need as much time as possible to study. However, sleeping is similar to taking a break. Your brain needs enough sleep to regenerate and process what you have learned. If you think your brain is lying dormant while you’re sleeping, think again. While you sleep, your brain is busy networking new knowledge, which means that getting enough shut-eye can help you retain new content. If you start a day of study, or even the day of your exam, without getting enough sleep, you certainly won’t achieve as much as if you’d gone to bed two hours earlier.

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