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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:

  • Check the time and place of the exam.
  • Check you have the equipment you need - pens, pencils, calculator, water etc
  • Decide what to wear. Wear layers in case the exam room is hot or cold.
  • Make sure you have your Student ID card!
  • Set an alarm so you have plenty of time in the morning.
  • Eat well and get enough sleep if you can.

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 phone and place it in your bag as instructed by the invigilator.
  • 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.
  • Put your watch in your bag as instructed by the invigilator.
  • Check you are comfortable.
  • If you have any problems let the invigilator know immediately.

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 will take you longer than others to answer.

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

What if my mind goes blank mid-answer?

Re-read what you have written so far and look at your plan. If this doesn't help, simply leave a gap. You will probably remember the missing information when you relax towards the end of the exam. Then return to your answer and finish it.

What if I'm running out of time?

Remain calm. Look at how many questions you have left to answer and work out how much time you have to spend on each question. You will probably gain the most marks if you attempt all the answers rather than spending all the time on a few questions and missing some out altogether. If you have lots of ideas and are reluctant to leave an unfinished question, write them down in pencil so you can return to the question later if you have time.

Advice from an examiner

The tips below may seem obvious, but reading them beforehand 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 sub-questions, check whether you have to answer one of the sub-questions or all of them. Always check the back of the paper for further questions.

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 your time

Plan the time you can spend on each question and allow time for checking at the end of the exam.

Check the marks

Check how many marks are available for each question. If the same number of marks is available for each question, make sure you allocate roughly the same amount of time to each one.

Plan each answer

Plan each answer on a rough-working page before writing it for the examiners. This will help you to structure your answer.

Note from the examiner: Most students believe they get the most marks for correct facts. To 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 answer the question. When you write an examination answer, you need to assess what is relevant. What does the question ask?

Write legibly

Your handwriting is important. Take care to ensure that it is legible.

Note from the examiner: If you know your handwriting is difficult for others to read, train yourself to write more clearly. If writing is so unclear that the words have to be puzzled out one by one, 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. If possible, give an indication of the book or article title.

Give examples

Where relevant, illustrate theory with concrete examples.

Note from the examiner: If there is a ‘stock example' which the textbooks or the lectures always quote, try to give a different example. This shows that you have understood that issue well enough to identify an example for yourself. It is more impressive than simply memorising the stock example.

Use all the time

You should aim to complete your answers well before the end of the exam and use the extra time to check your answers and correct any mistakes.

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