Maximising marks in the exam – a few tips!

With exams looming on the horizon, here are some steps you could follow to ensure maximum performance later in the year. Remember planning is key…


 Relationships: Family and friends should be aware of your exam timetable, revision timetable and how much you value success in your course of study. These key players will always be supportive and have remained close even during the most challenging times in the past.

Working area: You must have a clearly defined study space (library, college, home) with easy access to folders and books with a minimum of possible distractions. You are going to be doing a lot of concentrated reading and writing and your attention must remain focused.

Time: Once you have your exam timetables, work through your personal timetable, allocating blocks of time for revision of each of your subjects. If it is properly constructed, you should be able to balance your work, social and leisure commitments. Ensure that you follow it!

Subjects: You must be organised in each of your subjects. You must clearly understand the course objectives, the topics in the course and the format of the exam. Have plenty of past paper to hand so you can remind yourself of the demands that lie ahead.

Health and Fitness: Intensive study and exam pressure can sometimes lead to students ignoring their physical health. Your revision timetable should include times for meals, relaxation and regular exercise. Think about walking to school twice a week if you normally take a bus or using that bicycle stored in the garage. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind…

Attitude: Exams have a torturous history and reputation, but, in fact, they could simply be seen as opportunities to spend a number of hours writing about issues with which you are familiar and skilled at analysing. Remain confident that your knowledge, skills, coursework and revision programme will enable you to provide thoughtful, informed work during the exam. Take them as an opportunity to show an examiner how much you’ve learned over the past years.

The Preceding Weeks

In the weeks leading up to the exam, the following strategies are recommended:

  • Rewrite the course in your own words.
  • Each of the topics in your course can be broken down into sub-topics centred around concepts and areas of knowledge. On the basis of your own various sources of information, you are going to rewrite the course in your own words according to the sub-topics. If you really understand something, you can write it in your own words without assistance. This should be short and succinct.
  • If you are unable to summarise one of the sub-topics in your own words, this is a signal that you have not understood it. Check the text, your notes and readings, or at least ask someone so that you are able to summarise your own words.
  • The process of rewriting course notes can improve your ability to remember things, since it requires more brainwork than just repeatedly reading prepared material. You may also find that précising is easier to stick with than reading, especially if your attention wanders during long periods of reading. Simply put, active memorisation works much better than passive memorisation.
  • Aim to have your personal written summary of the course finished about a week before the date of the exam. Since you no longer have to refer to texts, etc., this document will be all that you need for revision purposes. Identify and memorise key concepts, definitions, phrases and diagrams.
  • Look at copies of previous exam papers, which are available in the library; these are excellent for showing you the level of questions to expect.  Attempt to write outlines of possible answers to these questions. If you are undertaking a new course with no existing exam papers, think about the different topics within the course.

Days Leading Up to the Exam

  • Ensure that you are familiar with the details of the exam requirements, including date, time and venue.
  • Summarise your summaries into the key points, diagrams and issues associated with the sub-topics.
  • Develop your own abbreviations and shorthand; practise jotting down key formulae, diagrams and definitions associated with the sub-topics.
  • Continue to think about these summaries without your notes.

Exam Day Has Arrived!!!!

  • On the morning of the exam, stay quietly confident and scan your abbreviated summaries.
  • Ensure that you have all the requirements – including a spare pen.
  • Don’t allow anyone to distract you.
  • If you are overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the exam or by a particular question, practise this breathing meditation technique:

This technique involves closing your eyes and emptying your mind of any thought but that of a bubble of air nestling in your stomach. Breathe out and visualise this bubble rising to a point within your forehead. Breathe in and visualise the bubble returning via your nose to its original spot within your stomach. Repeat this a number of times, deliberately ejecting any other thoughts that may attempt to crowd in. When you open your eyes again, your mind, body and spirit will be rested and you will feel more in control. Many people laugh at this type of meditation and say that it does not work. However, their pessimistic nature ensures that if they try anything like this it will not work.

The Exam – It’s All Technique!

Here are some ideas on what to do in an exam. Follow these steps and always remember – Don’t Panic.

  1. Read all the questions and where you have a choice, decide what questions to answer.
  2. Note. You should read the instructions on the front of the exam paper that detail how many questions you should answer.
  3. Read the question.
  4. Note. Make sure you understand the question.
  5. Analyse the question. How many points should be made? (look at the marks available)
    • Mark the main subject of question with a red marker pen (or underline in red);
    • mark what to do with a blue marker pen (or underline in blue).
  6. Note. See the details below on trigger or command words on what to do (for example list/name, state, describe/detail, outline, compare/contrast, define).
  7. Highlight the allocation of marks.
  8. Note. There is no point in spending 30 minutes or two pages on a part of a question that is only worth <= 5 marks.
  9. Answer the question.
  10. Structure the answer.
    • If the question is in parts, then answer it in
    • Write clearly:
    • Note. Bad or unclear handwriting will lose marks because the marker cannot understand the answer.
    • Space out the answer:
    • Start each answer on a new page and number it
    • Make use of bullet points if this helps to organize your response.
    • If the answer requires a diagram, then label the diagram

The answer:

  • If you start to ‘dry up’ on one question, leave a space and move on.
  • Note. You are likely to gain more marks on the next question than you will by struggling on with the present one.
  • If you feel your answer is incomplete, leave sufficient space below, so you can come back to it later and keep it all togethe
  • Use examples to illustrate your answer (if appropriate).
  • If you start to run out of time, write short, accurate notes instead of sentences.
  • Make sure you follow all the points listed above.
  • Read the answer. Does it make sense and will an examiner understand it?
  • Note. If you find that you have remembered more information, then complete the answer in the space you have left.

What To Do In A Question

Look for instruction or command words in the question, such as ‘describe’ and ‘explain’. These tell you the type of answer to give. Common instruction words are:

List/Name Give a list or name facts required rather than sentences
State Give the relevant fact(s) briefly and to the point
Describe/Detail Give a full account with examples of the procedure, term, etc., specified in the question; also asking for full sentences
Outline Briefly give the essential points
Compare/Contrast Point out similarities and differences, advantages and disadvantages, of the terms mentioned in the question
Define Give the exact meaning of a term, principle, procedure, etc.
What is meant by …? More than just define – give a definition, but go on to give some explanation and discuss the significance and limitations
Explain why … Give the reason(s) for; requires an explanation, examples and full sentences.

Dr. Gordon Esler is the author of this Blogpost