How to Do Your Absolute Best in Exams: the Definitive Guide Written by an Exam Ace


People who like exams are few and far between.

They’re a necessary part of life, but they put us under immense pressure and can sometimes feel as though they’re designed to catch us out, or make us feel stupid. Because of this, many students crumble in an exam environment because nerves get the better of them. But exams don’t have to be scary, or fill you with dread. With the pressure of so many exams and so much material to learn and recite, you may feel you lack control of the situation at times; but follow these tips and you’ll soon find that there’s plenty you can do to grasp the bull by the horns and increase your chances of exam success.

In the run-up to the exam

To do well in an exam, you need to lay the best possible foundations for success. In the months and weeks leading up to the exam, boost your exam performance by doing the following.

Revise, learn new things and revise some more

Image shows a young woman reading on a beach.
Revision doesn’t have to be painful.

You know what they say: “To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail”. No matter how well you think you know a subject, never rest on your laurels. Revision is a vital part of exam success, no matter how tedious it may seem, and even if you think you know a subject inside out, you can still enhance your chances of exam success by using ‘revision’ time to cover new, related ground. This will enable you to impress in the exam by dropping in extra facts and insights that other students in your class may not have covered. We’ve already covered effective revision techniques for the sciences and the humanities in separate articles, so have a read of those before you start revising.

Sit some practice papers

Get hold of some practice papers and sit them under exam conditions, giving them to a teacher to mark afterwards. You’ll probably have some mock exams organised by your school anyway, but extra practice never hurts. This will help you become accustomed to the format the exams will take, allowing you to get the hang of timings and enabling you to start to predict the styles of questions you can expect in the real thing. By studying the patterns of which questions appear again and again, you may even be able to predict what questions you’re likely to get on the day (be careful with this, though, and don’t plan your revision based entirely on it; exam-setters are wise to students doing this, and may throw a curveball by not including a particular question or topic, or adding a new style of question). What’s more, sitting practice papers will also expose any gaps there may be in your knowledge, so that you can focus more of your revision time on these areas.

Study the mark scheme and syllabus

Find out exactly what the examiners are looking for by having a thorough read of the mark scheme for each of your subjects and noting what sorts of things are awarded extra points (and whether points are deducted for anything). Looking at the syllabus should also give you an indication of the full range of topics you may be questioned on, so that nothing comes as a surprise when you turn over the question paper. At this stage, if you spot an area that you think needs work, ask a teacher for advice.

Immediately before the exam

If you followed the above tips, by the time you reach the 12 to 24 hours before your exam, you should be feeling confident with your level of knowledge, as well as how to deploy that knowledge effectively. Your focus now switches to physical and mental preparation for the exam itself.

Get a good night’s sleep

Never ‘pull an all-nighter’ the night before an exam. Sleep plays a vital role in converting knowledge from short-term to long-term memory, meaning that the things you’ve learned start to sink in while you’re sleeping. What’s more, it’s important to get a good night’s sleep so that you don’t have to contend with flagging concentration levels and lethargy in the exam room.

Eat brain food

If you’re in a morning exam slot, ensure you have a good breakfast before you set off. Porridge is a good thing to have as it releases its energy slowly, keeping you going throughout the morning and stopping hunger pangs from distracting you during your exam. If you’re in an afternoon exam slot, have a good lunch beforehand – ideally one containing proteins, such as eggs or fish. Don’t rely on the stimulants and sugars found in drinks such as coffee or Red Bull to get you through; their effects quickly wear off, and won’t last long enough to see you through the whole exam.

Read up on the exam rules and regulations

To avoid unnecessary extra stress on the day, it’s a good idea to be completely au fait with what’s allowed and what isn’t. For example, if you want to take a bottle of water into the exam room with you, you’ll almost certainly have to remove the label. Now’s the time to ensure that you have regulation equipment where necessary – for example, if you’re sitting a maths exam, check what kinds of calculator are permitted and for which papers.

Adjust your mindset

Don’t approach your exam with a negative mindset. There’s nothing worse than telling yourself “I’m going to fail”, “this is going to be awful” or “I’m not ready for this”. Thoughts like these can become self-fulfilling prophecy, so instead, try to fill your mind with positive thoughts. You’d be amazed at the power of positive thinking in an exam situation, and you’ll find that it increases your confidence and makes you better able to tackle the questions, no matter how difficult they may be. Tell yourself “I can do this”, and see the exam as an intellectual challenge and an opportunity to show off how much you’ve learned during your years at school, sixth form or university.

Last-minute revision

Have a last-minute skim through your subject crib sheets just before you go into the exam, so that the topics are fresh in your mind and you’re in the frame of mind for tackling this particular subject.

In the exam

The moment has arrived, and now it’s your chance to shine. Keep a level head and read on for some indispensable tips for effective exam technique.

Read every question thoroughly

Before you begin the exam, read the whole question paper very carefully, and then read it again. It’s vital that you understand exactly what’s being asked of you before you make your final selection of questions to answer. Choose the questions you think you can score the most points in, and remember that these may not necessarily be the ones that appear to be on the topics you know most about.

Plan what order you’ll tackle the questions in

Image shows a series of pins stuck into a roadmap, marking out the plan of a journey.
A plan doesn’t need to be long and complicated, but it’s foolhardy to set off without a direction in mind.

Don’t waste lots of time on planning what order to tackle the questions in; a quick mental note to yourself will suffice as you’re reading through the question paper. Circle the questions you plan to answer. Tackle the easiest questions first, as this will mean that you’re quickly able to score points early on, ensuring you have a base level of marks before you start dealing with the trickier questions, which may take longer to complete.

Write an essay plan

Essays can quickly become unstructured in the pressure of an exam environment, when your inclination may be to ‘brain dump’ by writing down as much as you know or can remember about the topic. Beware of doing this; use your time effectively by only including relevant material, as concisely as possible. To help you do this, make a very quick essay plan before you start, outlining a rough structure and areas you want to cover. Don’t forget to include an introduction and a conclusion that pulls everything together.

Answer the question

Questions may be worded slightly differently to how you might expect, which may lead to an initial panic when you think you don’t know what you should be writing about. You’ll almost certainly find that once you read through it again, you have the knowledge to be able to tackle it effectively. Don’t make the mistake many students make, though:  answering the question you want to answer, rather than the one being asked. No matter how brilliant your essay, you’ll get little credit if it’s answering a different question. Don’t forget to note instructions such as “analyse” or “compare and contrast” and ensure you do as instructed.

Deploy quotes from other people and sources where you can

Without relying solely on the words of other people, you’ll impress in an exam if you can quote what others say about a particular topic and quote from original source material. This means that your answer, rather than being vague, will be sharp and well-informed, showing the examiner that you’re very familiar with the literature involved and comfortable using it to back up your arguments.

Don’t include more examples than you need to

You may be able to rattle off half a dozen examples to illustrate a particular point, but you don’t need to include all of them. One or two examples briefly cited will be enough to support your point, without wasting valuable time.

Don’t just regurgitate facts

Examiners see the same facts repeated all the time, so if you really want to impress, you’ll need to do more than just regurgitate. Show that you’re in command of the facts by deploying them intelligently, using them to illustrate your points and offering pertinent insights.

If you get stuck…

…try tackling a different question and then go back to the one you were stuck on. Focusing on something else for a bit should help clear your mental block and leave you with fresh inspiration for the problem question.

Closely monitor time

Image shows sand falling through an hourglass.
If you are running out of time, jot down bullet points of your ideas; you may be able to rescue some marks.

Plan how much time you’ll spend on each question according to how many marks are available for each question, and ensure you stick rigidly to these allocated times. If you don’t, you risk running out of time, and marks may sometimes be deducted for incomplete answers. Conversely, it’s not a good idea to leave the exam room early. If you find you have time left over, use it to read through your answers and possibly add extra paragraphs if additional points occur to you. If you’ve finished way before everyone else, there may be a reason for that – so study the questions and your answers carefully to ensure you’ve not missed anything important, and ensure you’ve answered the required number of questions.

Allow time for reading over your answers at the end

It’s best to allow time within each allotted question time for reading over your answer to check it makes sense, and to correct any ‘typos’ you may inadvertently have made.

After the exam

Phew – it’s over! Let’s end with a few final tips on what happens next.

Don’t look back

Image is of the painting 'Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld' by Jean-Baptist-Camille Corot.
Orpheus was allowed to take his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld as long as he didn’t look back to check she was with him. He couldn’t resist glancing over his shoulder, and lost her forever.

However tempting it is, don’t try to do a post-mortem of your exam performance. You can’t change what you wrote now, and stressing over what you should or shouldn’t have written isn’t going to do you any favours. Don’t, whatever you do, look back over your notes for that paper. It will only fill you with insecurity and doubt, possibly hampering your performance in other exams that you may have looming. Put your notes for that topic away in a drawer, without opening them, and forget about them.

Relax and re-focus

The chances are that you’ll have a run of exams rather than just one, so after each exam, factor in a bit of relaxation time and then turn your focus to the next subject.

If it went really badly…

We’re our own worst critic, so the chances are that the exam went a lot better than you thought it did. But if, on results day, your suspicions are confirmed, all is not lost:  you can always retake a paper as a last resort. And if you feel that the mark you’ve ended up with is bafflingly lower than you feel it should have been, you can also pay a small admin fee to have the paper remarked (which may push the marks up high enough to gain you a higher grade – but beware that it might also push your marks down). The secret of exam success lies primarily in diligent preparation, effective exam technique and a positive mental attitude. We hope you’ve found these tips useful; if you have any you think should be on this list, feel free to let us know in the comments section below. Good luck!

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Image credits: banner; beach map; hourglass; Orpheus