How to Manage Your Time in an Exam: 10 Expert Tips

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Image shows rows of students in an exam hall.

Of all the odious things about doing exams (and I can think of an awful lot of them), two parts of the experience, in my opinion, vie for the title of most unpleasant.

The first is Achey Hand: that feeling, an hour or so in to any essay paper, that your poor, sore hand is probably crippled forever, and cannot possibly write one single more word without the attention of a doctor with a special qualification in muscle exhaustion. The blistered lump on your middle finger, meanwhile, is probably beyond all help. The second is the feeling of unmediated horror that will overcome most of us, at one point or another, upon realising that something has gone very wrong. Whether it’s answering too few questions or the wrong questions; or simply misreading the question you did answer – this is perhaps the most toe-curlingly horrid experience one can undergo in an exam. And of course, there are plenty of lesser evils in second, third and fourth places, like: the girl in front of you with the stress-induced nosebleed (please!); the realisation, five minutes before the end, that you could probably have done a better job of 5b than 5a; the invigilator who catches you trying to squish in a last sentence after the exam’s over.

Image shows rows of empty desks in an exam hall.
Exams will feel much less frightening when you have good strategies to handle time pressure.

Unless you’re a mad adrenaline addict, you probably won’t enjoy exams. That’s a fact. They’re simply not fun. Perhaps the actual-getting-it-over-with is a bit better than the weeks of flash cards, past papers, and essay plans that precede; and starting on the last question of the last paper, your freedom only a glimmer away, is one of the best feelings ever; but, to me, most of the other parts of the process seem designed specifically to terrify and enrage. And of course, paradoxically, the reason they can be so unpleasant is that they’re often incredibly important; a two, or three-hour time-slot that might be your only chance to show off everything you’ve learned over the past few years. The most successful students might get in a pickle about exams, just like the rest of us; they might dread them for weeks, and have days where they feel like doing anything but revision – but often, they see the task in a more practical light. Exams are fundamentally a test of your ability to make the most of the time available to show off as much as possible, and collect all the points you can. The key to nailing them is of course to know your stuff beforehand – but it’s just as much about working efficiently and in an organised way; staying cool and calm to avoid silly mistakes; having a system that makes you feel confident and stops you from panicking. Here, we’ve gathered some tips for doing just that.

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Before the exam

1. Know what you’re up against before you go in

Image shows a room with a door labelled 'exam room B6.'
If your school campus is large, knowing exactly where your exam will be is also vital.

At school, I often felt like the teachers must think we were all incredibly dim, so often did they repeat phrases like ‘THREE QUESTIONS. You must answer THREE QUESTIONS. ONLY THREE! BUT NO LESS THAN THREE. Have you all got that?!’ Er… yeah! We’ve been going through past papers for three whole months. I think we all know by now how many questions we’ve got to answer… But I was wrong. In his History I.B. exam, a boy in my year who seemed to get top marks at everything he did only answered two questions. Having stressed himself out completely, and stayed up late revising the night before, he’d misread the front of the paper, and against all common sense thought the format must have changed. Now, this was clearly the direct result of nerves, and a desire to start writing quickly in order to make the most of the time available – but because of this mistake, he missed out on the grade he deserved and wanted. And someone will do this in almost every paper – I’ve done it twice, and most people I know have done something like it at least once. It seems silly, but the way to avoid it is to make sure you know exactly what you’ve got to do before you go into the exam room – it’s very unlikely that the format will change without you being told, so alarm bells should ring if the paper doesn’t look like what you expected. If you were expecting three questions and it looks like you’ve only got to do two, take a deep breath, read the instructions again – maybe even check with the invigilator – and don’t leap in without being absolutely sure of what to do.

2. Practise writing quickly

Image shows a student sitting at a desk, writing.
Getting your writing speed up, while keeping your handwriting legible, is well worth the effort.

If you don’t do practice papers before an exam, you might be surprised at how difficult it is to write quickly and legibly. Messy handwriting is a very good way to annoy the person marking your paper before they’ve even started; but equally, you don’t want to undersell yourself by not finishing your answer. This might sound like overkill, but pens make a huge difference: I find I can scrawl a lot quicker with an ink pen than a biro, because I don’t have to press down on the page. Do a past paper a few days before and time it really strictly – work out a way to write quickly and neatly so that you don’t waste your first exam cracking this.

3. Be realistic

Know before you go into the exam what sort of answers you can realistically write in the time you’ve got. If you’ve got 45 minutes for an essay question, does that mean you can fit in an introduction, three main points and a conclusion? Know the amount of detail and sophistication you’ve got time for. Don’t make the mistake of setting the scope of an answer too wide, and then not being able to finish it – something concise and complete will read much better than something broadly conceived and unfinished.

In the exam: keeping on top of things

4. First: read every question carefully

Image shows a stone carving of a man reading a book.
Even the carvings of Magdalen College know the value of reading carefully.

In most exams these days, you’ll have to select to answer one or two from a range of questions. Before you leap in, take a deep breath and read every question carefully. Don’t skim-read, and don’t dismiss an option before thinking about it for at least a few seconds. Examiners have a nasty habit of dressing simple questions up in bewildering language: don’t miss a gem because it’s been confusingly-worded. Similarly, once you’ve chosen a question: MAKE SURE YOU READ IT PROPERLY. A bit like doing too many or too few questions, misreading a question (especially a long answer one) can result in you missing out on marks that you deserve to get. No matter how brilliant, inspired, or interesting an answer is, if it answers the wrong question, it’ll probably be a disaster. Make sure you avoid a nightmare by reading everything carefully.

5. Divide your time up

Before an exam, when you’re double- and triple-checking how many and what sort of questions you’ve got to do, make a plan of how long you’re going to spend on each thing – and then make sure you stick to it. Students who do well in exams always know how they’re going to approach a paper, and how to portion out their time so that they don’t run out.

Image shows a sculpture in Paris made of dozens of clocks.
Sticking to your plan while stop time constraints from feeling overwhelming.

How you structure your time will of course vary according to the way you work, and the sorts of questions you’ve got to answer. Start by working out what carries the most marks, and how long you’re going to need to get those marks: if you’ve got to do three essays and thirty short answer questions in the space of two hours, you don’t want to spend ages on a difficult short question at the expense of the essays.
When you’re planning how to spend your time, make sure you assign some time at the beginning for planning, and at the end to check and finish things off. If I’ve got to write three essays in a three-hour exam, I spend fifteen minutes at the beginning reading the paper and jotting down three short plans, and then fifty minutes writing each, with fifteen minutes at the end to read and check. However, I know people who find it much easier to launch in immediately and write the bodies of their essays in forty-five minutes each, and then leave a few blank pages at the end of each essay to come back in the last forty-five minutes and write three conclusions. Before the exam, try a few different ways of answering and find out what works best.
Crucially, whatever your plan is, you must stick to it religiously. If you know you’ve got twenty minutes each for three answers, DO NOT, whatever you do, let yourself spend twenty-five minutes on the first. It’s always incredibly tempting to give yourself just another few minutes to try and squeeze one last point into your conclusion, but have the discipline to resist, because a rushed final answer will probably do more damage than an excellent first one can make up for. If you’re really tempted to spend a little more time than you’re allowed on a question, leave a blank page after your answer, and determine to come back to it at the end if you can.

6. Start with something you can really do

Image shows students sitting an exam.
Figure out which approach is best to keep you calm and focused in an exam.

Some people like to launch straight into the hard stuff: to get a question they’ve been dreading out of the way, knocked on the head, leaving lots of time at the end to do everything else at a more leisurely pace. I like to start strong: with a favourite topic, or a question I know I can nail – doing something like that early, I find, makes me feel confident – I can do this. I also tend to leave the questions I’m dreading most until the end, and allot a little more time to attempt them: getting everything else out of the way so that I can concentrate on my nightmare question. This is very subjective, though: again, it’s all about experimenting before the exam to find a method that suits you best.

7. Plan long answers

As I’m sure you’ve been told a million times before, plan your long answers or essay questions, because this will enable you to write quickly and confidently, and construct better answers. But remember, your plan won’t get marked. I don’t hold with this idea that you should spend half, or even a third of your time planning – use all the time possible on actually writing, to show off how well you can express your thoughts. Frequently, new ideas occur to you as you write, that you’d never have thought of while planning. Don’t spend ages deciding exactly what you’re going to say at the expense of actually having time to say it.

8. And if disaster strikes…

If you go totally blank and find you can’t answer something, realise you’ve answered the wrong number of questions, or discover you’ve misread the question, do not panic. Quickly write down what you’ve done in your script, so that the examiner can see what’s happened, and then use the remaining time to write a new, or alternative answer in bullet-points. Get in as much information as you can; hopefully, whoever marks the paper will be sympathetic and realise that this sort of thing can happen to anyone. If you can show them that you’ve realised the problem and tried to correct your error, and that you do know your stuff, they’ll most likely be kind, and try to give you as many marks as they can.

Other bits ‘n bobs

9. Ask for new scripts before you need them

Image shows an invigilator talking to a student.
No one really looks this happy to talk to an invigilator.

If you’re a cramming-it-all-in, mad-hurry, writing-at-the-speed-of-light sort of person, it can be incredibly frustrating waiting for the invigilator to shuffle their way over to you with more paper. If you know you’re going to need more paper in a few minutes’ time, stick your hand up while you keep writing; not only will it save you precious minutes, but stop that feeling of panic when you think the invigilator, moving at a snail’s pace and seemingly almost blind, is never going to notice your sweaty, anxiously-waving hand.

10. Don’t leave early

The temptation to leave an exam early (especially if it’s your last one, or you’ve got another later on the same day) can be almost irresistible: freedom, and an escape from the palpable tension of the exam hall. But whatever you do, resist. Sit and re-read what you’ve written; double-check all of your answers; check your spelling and rewrite any illegible, hastily-scrawled words. Twenty minutes hanging about outside the exam room, waiting for your friends to finish, or in the library preparing for the next one, are fairly inconsequential, but you can guarantee that if you leave early, you’ll immediately realise you’ve missed something important or done something catastrophically wrong. Your two hours are precious! You’ll never get it back, but you will have endless time to waste after you’re done.


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Image credits: banner; exam desks; exam room; writing; carving; clocks; students in exam; invigilator