You’ve to write a tough competitive exam in six months, and you’re about to make a plan for it.
What’ll be some of your first steps in making this plan?
Gathering tips on how to prepare for tough exams?
Or, finding out what material others study?
These are some of obvious first steps, no doubt. But, before these, you got to answer to yourself few fundamental questions to make sure you’ve a realistic go at the exam. These are:
Are you motivated enough to ride through the rough phases?
Are you willing to put in the hours, and not rely on some magic formula or shortcuts?
Is there a supportive environment for you?
Without a yes to all three, it’ll be difficult for you. Let me give a parallel.
Have you heard of a mountaineer summiting Mount Everest in a 60-mile wind blast or without an oxygen cylinder?
There are very, very few who’ve done it without supplemental oxygen, but they’re extreme outliers who first simulated without-oxygen condition on similar peaks several times before attempting Mount Everest. And not to say, they took extreme risk, which could’ve proved fatal.
It’s almost impossible to summit 8,000+ meter heights without few fundamental things (called filters) such as supplemental oxygen, acclimatization, and favorable weather sorted out. Each of these is a must-have, though not enough, for summiting. Beyond these filters, mountaineer’s skills, fitness, and perseverance-tampered-with-realism – propellants, among others, determine whether she/ he makes it to the summit or not.
Filters & propellants are intuitively similar to hygiene factors & motivators of two-factor theory for the workplace. It says that hygiene factors in a workplace are maintenance factors such as salary, fringe benefits, work conditions, and vacation absence of which will lead to dissatisfaction. That’s basic without which things just won’t work (similar to filters). Whereas motivators such as challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, responsibility, and involvement in decision making leads to positive satisfaction and higher achievement (similar to propellants). You have a chance without some of the propellants, but not without filters.
Similarly, in tough exams too you need to check off certain filters before you can have a real shot at them. And you need to check off all the filters.
All of them!
Without further ado, let me come to what these are.
From my experience of successfully taking more than half a dozen ultra-competitive exams of national and international repute, and from my interactions with others who have succeeded in similar exams, I believe that there are three filters you need to check off when you’re planning to write a tough exam:
This is the most important.
Imagine you’re taking on a challenging task (could be anything, and not just an academic pursuit) which requires putting in four hours daily over the next six weeks. Since the task is challenging, you’re going to stumble at least few times.
Ask yourself: in the face of these stumbles, will I be able to carry on with the intensity I started out with?
You won’t, if you aren’t motivated enough.
If you aren’t motivated enough, you’ll get deflated by those stumbles, your intensity will drop, or, worse, you’ll quit midway.
2. Hard work
If you’re motivated but not working hard, then you’re building air-castles. Even the greatest achievers (in any field), who on the face of it seem to be doing things effortlessly, are extreme hard-workers.
Charles Darwin started collecting specimen of plants and animals at a young age, and it took decades of work before he came up with his masterwork, The Origin of Species.
Mozart labored for more than ten years before he could produce noteworthy work.
Michael Jordan has probably been the hardest-working basketball player ever.
And Will Smith has reached where he is more because of his exceptional work ethic.
The same story boringly plays out again and again for every person who has achieved something of note. Though from a distance, their performances look effortless, which we mistakenly assume to be the result of natural ability, and not hard work.
To quote Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to have traveled faster than sound in 1947, from the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning experience … The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they are the best.
So if you’re not studying hard enough, then you’ve little chance of cracking those tough exams.
3. Supportive environment
Usain Bolt sprinting in the latest Puma running shoes (not spikes) will fail to win the race no matter how motivated he is or how hard he has trained.
Got the point!
An ecosystem which comprises of the best tools of the trade, coaching/ mentoring, and a supportive environment, therefore, is as important as the other two filters – motivation and hard work. In case of academic pursuits, this ecosystem will comprise of access to quality study-material, access to teachers and/ or mentors, and a supportive home-environment.
Read Growth Mindset Example: Eustace’s Record-Breaking Jump from Space [Video] to learn how the three filters were ticked by Alan Eustace.
It’s only the beginning, though
Checking off the filters alone, though, is not enough for achieving your goals. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Like a mountaineer needs propellants such as mountaineering skills and fitness as well and employees in a workplace need challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and involvement in decision making as well, you also need propellants as well.
Small exercise for you
To round it up, do this exercise in your mind, and answer the question in the third bullet point before reading further:
Imagine three sieves arranged vertically with some separation between them in the following order – top sieve has the widest opening and the bottom, the narrowest.
Now, imagine pouring some gravel onto the top sieve. Naturally, but for the largest pieces, most of the gravel will pass through. Likewise, slightly smaller pieces will be retained by the middle sieve, and only the finest particles in the gravel will pass through all three.
Here is the question: is there any correlation between the three sieves and the filters we discussed earlier?
What do you say?
The three sieves are akin to the three filters. Just like the finest sand, you need to pass through all of them before you can accomplish big goals. Though, there will always be few outliers, just as few mountaineers summiting Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, who will defy all logic and succeed without qualifying one or more filters. But then those will be outliers – extreme, and risky too.
If you’re starting out or have already covered some distance on your journey towards a challenging academic pursuit, first see if you qualify the three filters. If you do, then work on propellants. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to go far.
Question: What filters have you come across when taking on tough academic pursuits?