Exam Tips

It’s perfectly normal to be a little nervous about examinations – that means you care about your results! However, being prepared is the best way to minimize stress before an important test. 
Whether you are sitting school entrance exams, GCSEs or A Levels, we already know that revision is essential, so here are three extra tips to help you feel 100% prepared as you enter the exam room.

Access the Assessment Criteria

Although individual schools that produce their own exams often keep their expectations and marking criteria out of the public realm, most formal examinations have set assessment criteria that remain the same from year to year. Get online, ask your school, or contact the exam board if necessary, to access this document. While it may not be “the answers” as such, the assessment criteria explain exactly what you need to do to achieve each grade available. You still need to learn how to compose answers that meet these requirements, but that’s going to be a lot easier once you know what you are aiming for.

Grade descriptors are written for examiners, not students, so if you haven’t studied the assessment criteria with your teacher at school, ask a tutor, parent or friend to help you to “decode” the information. Once you have developed a thorough understanding of what is being asked of you, apply the mark scheme to your own exam practice or any sample answers you can find. This will consolidate your understanding of the rubric, and make you even better prepared to meet the expectations on the day.

Read and Highlight the Questions

Unless there is an official rule preventing you from doing so, take highlighters into the examination and use them to highlight the keywords from each question before you begin to think about your answer. This will help in a number of ways. It will calm you at the beginning of the exam and give you something straightforward and practical to do to get started; it will force you to really read the question; it will focus you on the key topic of the question and set your mind up to be “on-task” when you start planning an answer; it will create a concise version of the question, that you can glance at for a quick reminder of what you should be writing about, whilst you work.

Practising highlighting past exam questions is the best way to learn what to highlight: you will find what helps you the best. As a general guide, highlight the theme or topic the question asks you about, eg. photosynthesis, the causes of World War One, Hamlet’s feelings towards Polonius. Also highlight the word or phrase that indicates what type of question you are being asked/what type of answer is required, eg. How, Who, When, What methods, etc. You should also highlight essential numerical information, for example, “Re-read paragraph 5”, “Give 3 reasons”, etc.


Well before the exam, you should know what the paper will look like in terms of type and number of questions, how many marks are available, and how long you will have to complete the test. Once you have this information, calculate approximately how long you will have per mark, and keep these timings in mind as you practise answering questions. (Remember to account for any reading time you will need. For example, an unseen English paper worth 25 marks, lasting an hour, can be roughly broken down into five minutes’ reading time, two minutes per mark and five minutes’ checking time.)

Aiming to write to these time suggestions, eg. completing 3-mark answers in 6 minutes, will help you to avoid running out of time in the exam, or writing answers that are too brief to gain full marks. This method will also help you to fit short bursts of revision in using appropriate time allocations when you don’t have time to practise a full paper.

Remember that dividing your time per available mark means those minutes allocated need to be used for everything. That means thinking, planning and checking, as well as writing your answer. Allocate 5-10 minutes of checking for the whole paper if you can. You will probably find that simple, 1-mark answers won’t take you long, freeing up an extra minute or two for more challenging, longer answers that will require more planning.

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By Alexandra Wood Wilkinson 2021