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Exam writing techniques

The best way to do well in exams is to make sure you are well prepared and have done your revision. For help, see our advice on Revision strategies and memory techniques.

Exam Preparation Checklist

The night before:

  • The night before get enough sleep and eat well
  • Check the time and place of the exam.
  • Check you have the equipment you need - pens, pencils, calculator, water etc.
  • Make sure you have your Student ID card!
  • Set your alarm clock to allow you plenty of time in the morning.
  • Decide what to wear. Be comfortable and wear layers in case the exam room is too hot or too cold.

On the day:

  • Eat a good breakfast.
  • Check you have all you need for the exam before leaving home.
  • Arrive at the exam room in good time.
  • Get some fresh air on the way if possible.
  • Turn off your mobile phone.
  • Take water to the exam room.

In the exam room:

  • Check again that you have all you need. If you have forgotten something important - inform the invigilator.
  • Check you are comfortable.
  • If you have any problems let the invigilator know NOW.
  • Put your watch where you can see it.

Answering Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

Answering MCQ exams is very different to essay based exams. Often the marks are evenly weighted for all the questions, however, some are bound to take you longer than others to answer.

  • Read the instruction carefully.
  • Read through all the questions quickly answering all the ones you definitely know first and leaving the hard ones until last.
  • Try to think of the answer before you look at the choices.

What should I do if my mind goes blank mid-answer?

Reread your answer to see if this prompts you to remember and try looking back over your plan. If this doesn't work, don't worry - leave a gap and come back to it later. You will probably remember it when you relax. This often happens towards the end of the exam and you can return to your answer and finish it.

What if I run out of time?

Don't panic. Look at how many questions you have left to answer and then work out how much time you've got left to spend on each question. You will probably gain the most marks if you attempt all the answers rather than spending time doing one ‘perfect answer', so set yourself deadlines and be strict. If you have lots more ideas and are reluctant to move on try jotting these down in pencil so you can return to the question later if you have time. If you know you always tend to run out of time in exams then it's a good idea to practise doing past papers in exam conditions.

Tackling Exams - Advice from the examiner

The tips below may seem obvious, but reading them through now will help you to remember them when you are in the exam room.

Read the instructions

Make sure you are clear about how many questions you need to answer. If questions are divided into multiple sub-questions check whether you have to answer any one of the sub-questions or all of them. Check the back of the paper for further questions/sections.

Read all the questions carefully

Read through all the questions before deciding on the best combination. Make sure you understand what the question is asking you. Underline the key words or phrases.

Plan the time

Plan the time you can spend on each question and allow time to re-read at the end of the exam.

Check how many marks are available

Check how many marks are available for each question. If the same number of marks is available for each question, then make sure you allocate roughly the same amount of time to each. Don't spend so much time answering your 'favourite question' that you write only scrappy notes for the other questions you choose.

Plan each answer before you start writing

Jot down skeleton answer-plans, on a page which you will later cross out as rough work, before writing the actual answers to be read by the examiners. This will help you to make sure your answer is clearly structured.

Note from the examiner: Most students believe, incorrectly, that the overriding criterion is the number of correct facts in the answer. On the contrary, the logic, clarity and organisation of the work are at least as important as its content.

Answer the question

Make sure you answer the question that is on the paper and not the one you hoped would be there!

Note from the examiner: The commonest fault in any written work is a failure to keep to the point and not to answer the question. When you write an examination answer or an essay you are engaged in an assessment of what is relevant. What does the question ask?

Write legibly

Your handwriting is important and you must take care to ensure that it is legible so that it can be understood.

Note from the examiner: If you know your handwriting is difficult for others to read, train yourself to write more clearly. We have to mark large numbers of scripts to a tight timetable; if an examiner finds himself going cross-eyed trying to make out the words of one script, it will be very difficult for him to assess the answers at their true value - apart from the irritation, if writing is so unclear that the words have to be puzzled out one by one then it is hard to put the separate words together in one's mind and grasp the overall meaning.

Name the key thinkers/experts

When you discuss ideas/techniques associated with specific individuals, mention their name and if possible give an indication of the book or article title.

Give examples

Illustrate theory with concrete examples. (This is a point which obviously depends on the topic and may be inapplicable to some topics).

Note from the examiner: If there is a `stock example' which the textbooks or the lectures always quote, give a different example if you can. Quoting a stock example just shows that you have remembered it. Quoting a different example (provided it is a true example of the issue it is used to illustrate) shows that you have understood that issue well enough to identify an example for yourself; it is much more impressive.

Use all the time available

You should aim to complete your answers well before the close of the exam but it is wise to use any extra time you have to check your answers and correct any mistakes.

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