Maximise your chances of exam success

Your exams are approaching.  You have been planning, revising and studying, so there is little more you can do, right?  Regardless of how much effort you have put in beforehand, your exam performance on the day is also important to help you maximise your chances of exam success.

Here are Dr Ross Galloway’s top ten tips.

1. Read the whole exam paper before doing anything else

It’s the classic exam tip, and with good reason. As the old military maxim says, time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. It will give you an overview of what you’re going to have to do, and your subconscious will start processing the later questions even as you do the early ones.

2. Think about the big picture when choosing which questions to do

Most of your exams will offer you at least some choice of questions to tackle. Don’t pick them just based on which of the opening sub-parts you prefer. Assess the whole question: which ones can you do the greatest amount of?

3. Don’t be put off by unfamiliarity

You read the question. There’s an equation in it that you’ve never seen before. In this situation, lots of people immediately turn the page. Don’t be so hasty! No matter how scary the equation looks, we wouldn’t be asking you to use it if it was unreasonably difficult. Take a moment to assess the question on its merits; don’t immediately reject it just because of an unfamiliar equation.

4. Do the easy questions first

In any exam, there will be some questions you are more confident about. Do them first: it will build your confidence and your momentum, and will give you some marks in the bag before you start thinking about the tougher questions.

5. Stick with the question

If you have a choice of question, select carefully, but then stick with it. One of the most frustrating things we see when marking is when people have a choice of either B.1 or B.2, and they answer both. This is a terrible strategy. Here’s why: suppose you start B.1, and answer 7 marks worth of it. Then you get stuck, have a wobble, and change your mind. You start answering B.2 instead. The first 7 marks of B.2 are completely wasted effort. You are no further forward. It’s only at the eighth mark that you start making any gains at all. That time and effort would be much better spent elsewhere on the paper.

6. Use the clues

Many (though not necessarily all) of the longer exam questions have a running theme: later parts make use of results obtained in the earlier parts. Very often we see students successfully solve part (a) but then apparently reboot their brains and start again from scratch with part (b). When tackling a sub-part in a long question, think to yourself, are any of the previous parts relevant to what I am doing? Can I use those results as a shortcut to help me out now?

7. Be marks-smart

Related to the previous tip, there should be a sensible relationship between the number of marks available for a part, and how much you have to do to earn them. If you’re writing two pages of algebra for a 2-mark part, think to yourself, have I made a slip early on? Have I missed a trick? Is there an easier alternative way to solve this? On the other hand, don’t be too formulaic in how you interpret the allocated marks: 5 marks for a sub-part doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to write 5 individual ‘things’. Questions that require deeper thought can be worth more marks, even if you don’t have to write so much.

8. Look for the back door

Another piece of exam question structuring: many (though again not necessarily all) long questions will be structured with an alternative entry point later in the question, so that you can still tackle the later parts even if you can’t solve the first parts. A classic hallmark of this is being asked to ‘show that’ a given result is true in the early parts of a question. There’s a good chance you can use that result to help with solving the later parts. Keep an eye open for these back doors.

9. Don’t get freaked out by the ‘sting in the tail’

Long exam questions aren’t of uniform difficulty, by design. Very often, the last part(s) will be disproportionately challenging. This is called the ‘sting in the tail’, and is intentionally very difficult, to provide some way to separate out the very highest performing students. If you get to the end of a question and have no clue what to do, don’t let it knock your confidence, and don’t waste large amounts of time struggling with it. Move on, and come back at the end if you have time.

10. Replace then erase

Suppose you make a false start to a question, and change your mind about how you’re going to solve it. Write out your new solution, and only score out the old one after you have finished replacing it: if you run out of time, you may get some marks for the working in your first attempt, so don’t scribble it out prematurely.

Don’t forget: Read the rubric

This won’t directly affect your marks, but is still important. All exam papers have instructions on the front, called the rubric. Read the rubric, and follow it. In particular, if it asks you to write different sections of the exam in separate script books, please do this. If you don’t, it makes the marking process much more laborious (I won’t bore you with why, just trust me on this). Also, that grid on the front of the script book that asks you to fill in which question numbers you have done? Please actually do that. You might not always think it, but the markers are endeavouring to give you as many marks as we can; don’t make our task any harder than it needs to be. Having said that, if you have a memory blank then suddenly realise you have written an answer in the wrong book, just press on. Don’t spend any time re-writing it in the correct book; this is a huge waste of your precious time. We might grumble a bit about it, but we will work around the issue when marking.

Also: Leave yourself some space

If you get stuck, leave space to answer the rest of the question so that you can come back and fill in the gap later on. The order of the questions doesn’t matter and we’ll mark everything in the script (that hasn’t been crossed out), but it’s much easier to navigate script books when the answers to all of the parts of a question are together. Also, the single most confusing thing you can do is split the answer to a question over multiple script books; please don’t do this. If you run out of space in your book, ask an invigilator for spare sheets of paper to fasten into it.

Good luck!