Skills Hub

Exam-writing techniques

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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. For online assessments it is especially important to plan your time during the assessment period and to ensure that you stay focussed on your exam (see our pages on dealing with distractions).

Choice of questions

You may be given a choice of questions to answer. Make sure you:

  • Read all your options carefully before choosing
  • Don't pick a question which contains any terminology you do not fully understand
  • Write down a few notes and ideas if you are torn between a couple of questions- this should help you see which questions you could write a better answer for
  • Underline any command words or limiting words in the question to make sure you focus on the specifics of what you are being asked.

Essay Style exams

These exams will often give you a choice of questions to answer, all of which require an essay style response to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. You will be expected to provide evidence to support the points you make, and structure your response and communicate your thoughts in a clear, concise and logical way. Pay careful attention to any word limits or other instructions provided on the paper.

Short answer exams

With a short-answer exam paper, you are likely to have several questions to answer. Questions which carry more marks will require more detail and more of your time. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to answer these

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.

 Working with formulas and equations

Write down any working out in a clear logical order- it could get you some marks even if your final answer is wrong. If you find yourself running out of time and unable to work through to the answers, write down which formulas you would have used to get there. 

Tackling Exams - Advice from the examiner

The tips below may seem obvious, but reading them through now will help you to remember them when writing your exam.


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 most common 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?

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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