Science has proved that a moderate level of anxiety actually maximises your mental
performance. So don’t be worried about being worried, it’s normal!
Producing an outline answer plan for a question really is time well spent in your
exam, even if it doesn’t seem it. Not only will it ensure you’ve taken time to carefully
consider the structure and content of your answer, by referring to it as you write
your answer it keeps you on track and stops you going off at a tangent, plus it ensures
you don’t forget in the heat of the moment any of the points you wanted to make.
Never pad out your answer with irrelevant detail. The person marking your paper won’t
be fooled and all you might succeed in doing is making it more difficult for the
person marking your paper to clearly see the points you’ve made that actually do
A very common mistake is to write all you know about a given subject simply because
you’ve seen reference to it in the question’s requirements. This is unlikely to gain
you many marks. You need to make sure you always answer the question that’s actually
been set, not the one you’d have liked to have been set.
Remember – you don’t need to be perfect and know everything in order to pass your
exam. You just need to know enough, and enough is often only 50%. So you probably
only need to get half of everything right to pass – and that doesn’t seem so bad,
does it? Keep the panic at bay by reminding yourself of this regularly.
Correct time allocation for each exam question and mark is crucial. Never, never,
never overrun on one question at the expense of another. This is a discipline you
need to learn before your exam, because it is just soooo tempting to spend an extra
5 or 10 minutes on a question you like that’s going well – but this is a big mistake
that may cost you your exam pass.
Correct time allocation in your exam means allocating the same amount of time to
each mark available. In very simple terms, if you have 60 marks available and 60
minutes to attempt your exam, that’s one minute per mark. So in this example, if
a question is for 5 marks, only spend 5 minutes on it and not a moment longer.
Always remember to state the obvious in any answer you produce. It may seem blindingly
obvious to you and therefore unnecessary to say, but there will still be marks available
for it. Don’t throw away easy marks!
When attempting a question, always RTFQ – “Read the Full Question”. Read the question
through once to get a general feel for it, then re-read it more slowly and underline
the key words and phrases. Make sure you read what is printed on the page and not
what you would like to see printed on it! Not answering the question actually set
because they’ve misread the question itself is one of the most common and costly
mistakes made by students.
Before the Exam
Get organised well before your exam, preferably a week before. Make sure you know
exactly when and where your exam is being held, check your journey routes and options,
find any documentation you need to gain access to your exam, and pull together all
the tools you need (such as pen, pencil, calculator etc.). You really don’t want
to be doing this on the morning of your exam day, when you’ll already be anxious
When sitting outside the exam hall waiting to go in, don’t try to learn new things
or test yourself. Simply glance through your revision notes and remain positive by
reminding yourself you’re as prepared for the exam as you can be.
The only performance that matters in the exam is your own. Don’t get distracted by
what other students are saying or doing before or in the exam – it’s irrelevant,
and will only shift your attention away from what you need to be concentrating on.
It may sound obvious, but always aim to arrive early at the exam hall. Build in a
contingency to your travel plans to allow for unexpected delays. You’d be amazed
how many students arrive late for their exam and potentially ruin their chances of
success. And some examining bodies won’t allow late arrivals in, either for a period
of time after the exam starts, or sometimes at all!
You may not feel like eating on the day of your exam, but do try to get something
down, even if it’s only a light breakfast. Otherwise you might regret it during your
exam, when your concentration is affected by hunger pains and a low blood sugar level
that saps your energy.
Avoid last minute “cramming” and don’t work late into the night the day before your
exam. You won’t learn anything new at this late stage that’s going to make any difference
and in fact you could damage your chances of success by tiring yourself out before
you even get to the exam hall. Tell yourself you’re not going to forget everything
you’ve learned in one night, and put the books away at a reasonable time, wind down,
and get some sleep.
During the Exam
It’s quite normal to find that when you sit down at your desk in the exam hall, your
mind has gone completely blank and suddenly you can’t remember anything you learned
at all! Don’t worry – you’ll find that once you start reading the questions the contents
will act as prompts for your memory and all you have learned will come flooding back.
If you’ve had to memorise certain facts and figures for an exam, consider quickly
jotting these down on the exam paper or scrap paper as soon as you’re told you can
start your exam. This then frees up your mind for other activities and gives you
an immediate confidence boost.
When you open your exam paper and start reading through the questions, take no notice
if those around you start writing immediately. This is not a sign they know more
than you – in fact, it’s a sign they know less, in particular about how important
using the correct exam technique is.
Always follow the exam instructions to the letter. Do exactly as they say, not what
you’d like to do. If your exam asks for you to attempt one question from section
A and two from section B, make sure that’s what you do. You’d be amazed how many
students fail to follow instructions, perhaps attempting two questions from A and
one from B, and fail their exam as a result. In this example, you wouldn’t get any
marks at all for your second answer from section A.
Don’t restate the question as the first part of your answer. You’ll get no marks
for it and you’re wasting valuable time that could be better spent chasing marks.
If you are unlucky enough to get to your exam late and are allowed in, settle yourself
as best you can at your desk, take a few deep breaths and then start reading the
paper. Recalculate how many minutes you should spend per mark based on the new time
available to you and then stick to those time allocations. Do not be tempted to answer
fewer questions using your original time allocations due to there now being less
Always attempt the question you think you could answer best first. First impressions
do count, so get the examiner on your side up front with a good banker of an answer.
They might then feel more inclined to give you a bit of latitude with the rest of
“Think first, then do” is a good description of how to attempt exam questions. Never
feel pressured or panicked into getting pen to paper straight away. Always take a
few moments to consider the question and its requirements. Consider what areas of
the syllabus the question might be covering, what issues, concepts, theories or knowledge
the examiner might be testing. Jot down notes to help your thought processes. Only
then start writing your answer.
If you feel yourself getting into a blind panic during your exam, you need to nip
it in the bud before it destroys your chances completely. Put down your pen, sit
back, and take 60 seconds out to breathe deeply. Focus only on your breathing and
push all other thoughts away. After a minute, return to your exam and if you still
can’t solve the problem you’re panicking about, simply skip over it and move on.
Taking time out to do this might seem like a waste of valuable time, but it could
stop the free-fall you’re in and helps you regain a sense of perspective.
Make sure that you always include clearly cross-referenced and detailed workings
when attempting computational type questions. The examiner can then give you credit
for the method you have used even if you inadvertently make a mistake with the math.
After the Exam
After your exam, avoid holding a lengthy post-mortem about how you think you performed,
particularly where you still have more exams to take in the same sitting. What’s
done is done – now is the time to look forward, not back, and concentrate on the
If you have other exams to sit after the one you’ve just completed, a good way of
switching your attention to the next one is to review your revision notes for that
subject straight away. But do make sure you build in a little relaxation and rest
time as well, otherwise you’ll be tired and past your best come the next exam.