Exam Techniques, Tips and Tricks


February 19, 2015

A Winning Formula

Thinking back to the time when I took my GCSEs, I remember the restless sleep the night before; standing outside the school gym in alphabetical order and my classmates clutching their revision guides desperately hoping to cram in more over the next 5 minutes. 

There can’t be many students who look back on exam term with fond memories, and there’s no one who’d say they didn’t find it somewhat stressful and overwhelming. After all, years of study will be assessed over the next hour or two, so it’s time for you to shine! Which in itself is enough pressure.

Over the next few years I discovered a formula, some exam techniques, tips and tricks that helped me through my A-levels and University exams. You may find them useful, you may not!  If you have any others to add, please leave a comment below.

Preparing for the exam

Make a Revision Plan
I know what you’re thinking, “this tip always comes up!”, I know it does, but there’s a reason for that - it’s a very good tip! Making a plan will help you stay on track and keep you focused.

Sitting down and making the plan itself can be a daunting exercise. You will be mapping out the start of your revision in half-term and Easter holidays when your exams are months away! But trust me, it is well worth organising your time and starting early.

Try and make the plan yourself, be realistic and allow for regular breaks. Try and plan to study 2-3 different subjects a day so you don’t get bored, and break down the hours in the day by the number of topics.

If you’re struggling, attempt to make the plan yourself, then ask your teacher or tutor to help.

Engage with the subject
Sitting there reading through your notes over and over is not exactly the best way to revise. The more you engage with the subject you're revising, the more you’ll remember! Get creative, make timelines, mind maps, summarise your notes on cards, make up mnemonics (rhymes, acronyms, phrases, images etc. anything that helps you to remember).

I still remember the mnemonic I made for remembering the first 10 elements in the periodic table:

Hybrid Hedgehogs Like Being Boastful Carpenters Nibbling Oxo Flavoured Nectarines

It isn’t particularly good... but it means something to me because I made it up - hence why I still remember it! The first two letters of each word are the same first two letters of the element.

Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Neon

Get your verbal, visual and auditory muscle memory working! Get active. Have a go at making your own mnemonics!

Get your hands on lots of past papers
Ask your teacher and/or tutor to give you as many past papers as possible, and work through them. Afterwards, look at the mark schemes to understand what the examiners are looking for.

If you are stuck on a question don’t be afraid to ask your teacher or tutor for help!

Another great way to get more exam question practice is for you and your friends to write questions for each other and discuss the answers together.

In your last week of revision you should just be doing timed practice papers, get yourself used to the time constraints and working within those limits. “Exam term” will mean LOTS OF WRITING. Start practising now, it sounds silly but you need to “train your hand” to write for longer, as it can be tiring and your handwriting must be legible for the examiner.

The day before the exam

Get a good night's sleep
If you’re up past midnight the night before cramming, then I’m sorry to say, but you’ve already failed. Last minute cramming doesn't work, you will be tired and stressed the next day during your exam, making it very difficult for you to perform at your best.

Try and go to bed a little earlier than usual, especially if you have more than one exam the next day. If you can't sleep, don't panic. The most important thing is to let your body rest, just close your eyes and focus on your breathing.

Eat protein not carbohydrates
Eat brain food, foods that will slowly release energy. Try eggs and fish (maybe not together!) Stay away from coffee and energy drinks like Red Bull. Filling yourself up with sugar is a bad idea, you may feel energised for an hour or so but then you will experience a sugar low and become very lethargic.

Look over the facts
The day before the exam is not a time to cram in new information; you won’t remember it. Instead, look over the key points in your notes – I suggest making flash cards with the answers on the back. Test yourself, test your friends and refresh your memory.

Exam Technique

Spend a few minutes reading the questions, plan which ones you are going to do, especially if it’s an essay topic with a few options. Plan how much time you have for each question e.g. is a mark a minute?

Don’t be tempted to answer question 1 because you feel you know more about the topic, it could be a really really tough question. Look at Question 2 too, it could be a harder topic but a much easier question. Once you have chosen, make a small plan of the main points you will make. This will help you keep on track and organise your thinking.

Write your plan in your answer booklet, and once you’re done with it cross it out with a single line. This is a great tip if you happen to run out of time as you may get a few marks from the bullets in your plan.

Look at the marks. Is it a 5 mark question? They would probably like you to make 5 key points. Jot these down in your plan; there is no point in writing a long answer that only makes 2 points.
Read the question properly. Seems obvious I know, but you will feel tempted to jump ahead due to the time pressure and make assumptions. Read the question twice if you have to! Also scan ahead. Sometimes there are clues in the next question which can help with the previous question, so you could gain a bit of insight into what the examiners are looking for.

Answer the easy questions first
Do the easiest questions first. This doesn’t just mean the 1-2 mark questions at the front of the paper.... Look ahead, there will be certain topics you are really confident with. Do these first.

By answering the easy questions first you will gain some confidence and feel less panicked about the harder questions later on. It is a great feeling to have gained a few easy marks at the beginning. Also, easy questions will take you less time to answer, as you don’t need as much thinking time. This will leave you with some extra time to answer the more tricky questions later on!

Move on, don’t get stuck.
If there is a question you can’t answer, move on. There are easier marks to gain in this time, you can always go back to it. It may be a case of writers block, and you’ll be amazed what comes back to you in half an hour!

Show your workings
Another obvious one, but due to time constraints many students don’t write down their workings. Showing your workings is especially helpful in maths, economics, science etc. where you’ll have longer equations, bringing in a few answers from previous questions.

You may come to the wrong answer at the end, but your method may be correct so you’ll gain a few marks, which is better than none! If you don’t show your workings, the examiner can’t give you any credit for what went on in your head.

“I’m running out of time!”
Imagine that you’ve kept an eye on the time and realised you only have enough time to answer 1 of 2 questions left, what do you do?

Most of the marks to be gained in a long/large mark question are earned at the beginning of the question.

Answer: Do the first half of both questions!

If you don’t even have time to write sentences, then write bullet answers. If you don’t have time to do the equation, then bullet what calculations you would do. Examiners can give you marks for your method.

Don’t ever leave the exam early
Firstly, I have never left an exam early and I really can’t think of a reason why you ever should!

If you have powered through an exam and finished a little early, then take this time to go back through your paper and check your answers.

-          Have you explained your workings?

-          Written the correct units? e.g. minutes, kilos, moles, Celsius? -  This is a great time to check any calculations

-          Check the key points in your answer, do they correlate with the number of marks?

- Does your introduction set out the journey your essay will cover, and your conclusion look back at the original question?

motivational penguin

I hope you’ve found these exam techniques, tips and tricks helpful! Good luck from us all here at Tutorfair :)