In the UK at least, exams are an increasingly important part of assessment at every level of education. You may be expected to take exams or tests at entry to secondary school, at 16 and 18, on entry to university, at university itself, and again if you wish to enter a profession. They are a fact of life.
Fortunately, taking exams—by which we mean ‘knowing how to behave in exams so that you give yourself the best chance of passing them, and especially passing them well’—is a skill that can be learned. This page provides some tips.
Before Your Exam
Before your exam is not strictly part of the exam—but what you do beforehand has a huge influence on how you will feel during the exam.
For example, if you do plenty of revision beforehand, then you will feel more confident, and better able to answer the questions.
There is more advice on how to revise in our pages on Revision Skills and Revision Skills and Learning Style.
It is crucial that you know the details of your exam well in advance.
You need to know where and when it is happening, and what time you need to be there. You also need to check how you are going to get there. If it is not somewhere that you go regularly, consider doing a ‘dry run’ to check how long it will take you.
In most places and cases, excuses such as ‘I misread the timetable’, ‘My bus was late’, ‘I overslept’ or ‘The car wouldn’t start’ are not considered reasonable excuses for missing an exam—and you will not be given any leeway, or allowed to take the exam at another time.
Unless you are very unwell, or someone has died, you need to be at the exam hall at the appointed time of your exam.
It is also worth finding out what to expect on the day. For example, how large is the hall? Will you be with students doing other exams that may finish at different times? Are you allowed to leave the room when you have finished, or if you need to go to the toilet?
Your exam venue—your school, university, or the place that is holding the exam—will almost certainly have published all this information in advance. Check their website, or the information that you were sent when you entered the exam.
This information is not so crucial—but it does help you feel more comfortable about what exactly will happen on the day of your exam.
You also need to know what you need to take—and what is not allowed.
For example, do you need to wear particular clothes, such as a uniform?
Do you need pens, or a calculator? Does your equipment need to be in a transparent container, such as a clear pencil case or plastic bag?
Can you take your phone into the exam room and keep it with you? If not, you might want to consider taking a separate timer or watch.
It also follows that you should get everything you need ready the night before, to avoid any stress on the day.
This includes checking your mode of transport. If you are going by car, check that you have plenty of fuel. If you are cycling, make sure you have no punctures, and that your bike is ready to go. If you are using public transport, check that there are no planned delays, or replacement bus services that might delay you.
During the Exam
In an exam, there are a number of important points to remember.
This has been said many times, and will be said many more:
Whatever happens in your exam, don’t panic!
Nothing, repeat nothing, will be improved by you panicking. Stay calm and carry on, as the saying goes.
1. Read both the instructions and the questions—and then read them again
This cannot be stressed enough: most of the most common problems in exams stem from either not reading the instructions and not doing the right number of questions, or by answering the wrong question (that is, the question that you would have liked to see, not the question that was there).
Read the instructions slowly and carefully, and make sure that you know what you are doing.
In particular, check how many questions you need to answer, and whether they have to come from different sections of the paper.
Then you can turn your attention to the questions. Read them all carefully, and make sure that you really understand what they are asking. You should only even consider picking up your pen once you are sure you know what you are doing.
At this stage, it is also a good idea to check how long you will have for each question. For example, if you have to write three essays, and the exam is three hours long, you will have an hour for each question. If you need to answer 15 questions in two hours, then you should have reached at least the eighth question with an hour to go.
2. Decide which questions you want to do—and then start with the easiest
The next step is to decide which questions you want to do—assuming that you are allowed to choose, of course. If not, then you just need to get started.
It is generally best to start with the easiest questions, whether you are choosing or doing them all. This will give you a confidence boost early on.
Help! I can’t answer any questions!
Hopefully you will be able to answer lots of questions, and can pick the ones that best suit your knowledge. However, what do you do if you find you can’t answer any questions on your exam paper?
First, and most important, don’t panic. That really won’t help.
Stupid as this may sound, check the exam title and/or number. This will reassure you that you’re in the right exam! More than one student has entered the wrong room under the stress of exams, so it can happen.
Once you’re sure that you really are in the right exam, you just have to get on with it. You could leave—but a blank paper will get you no marks at all.
It is far better to write something than nothing.
Start by looking for just one question that you might know something about, and get planning. It will only improve.
Finally, remember that if you are having a nightmare, everyone else will also be struggling—and that means that all the marks will be low. You could even end up coming top!
3. Plan your answer—and keep your plan with your exam answer
For essay questions, it is wise to plan your essay in advance.
This includes briefer essay-type answers as part of a longer question. Take a few minutes to write (in pencil, at the top of your answer sheet) a broad outline. This should include the sections you will use, and the main points you want to make in each one. Once you have finished, you can cross through your plan with a single diagonal line.
It is a good idea to check your finished essay against your plan, just to make sure that you have included every point you wanted to make.
Why keep your plan on your exam paper? Because if you run out of time, the examiner can see what you intended to write, and may give you some credit for your ideas.
4. Check the timing, and work to the deadline
We said above that you should check how long you have for each question or block of questions, and divide up your time to match.
It follows that you need to keep an eye on the time. Crucially, if you start to fall behind, you need to speed up.
For essay questions, when you reach ten minutes or so before the end of the allocated time, start to wrap up your essay. You need to move on to the next one and give yourself enough time to complete that too.
You will get more marks for doing the right number of essays, even if they are a bit rough, than for one perfect essay.
5. If you get stuck, move on to the next question
Sometimes you find that you just can’t answer one question. This is especially likely to happen in science or maths subjects, especially if you need to do a calculation—but it can happen in any subject.
If it does, just move onto the next question, and come back to that one.
First, you will again get more marks for completing more questions. Second, there’s a reasonable chance that you will find that you can do the question after all when you come back to it.
6. Once you’ve finished, read your answers over and check them
Finally, once you have finished your paper, you will hopefully have at least a few minutes left to read over and check your answers.
This is well worth doing, just to make sure that you haven’t made any obvious errors in writing, grammar, or flow.
Of course, if you don’t have time, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it shows that you had lots to say, so that’s good.
For more ideas about what NOT to do in an exam, it’s worth reading our page on Avoiding Common Mistakes in Exams.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
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A Final Thought
Being good at sitting exams is something of an odd skill. It doesn’t really translate into anything else in life, except possibly an ability to stay calm under pressure.
However, it’s a skill that most of us need to use at some point, so it’s worth developing.