Exam Technique Tips

Poor exam technique can leave even the brightest GCSE and A Level students with disappointing results.

Even if they have followed our revision tips and have an excellent grasp of the content, many students fail to achieve the results they deserve as a result of misreading questions, running out of time, failing to elaborate on points or misunderstanding command words.

At Justin Craig, we are experts in helping students improve their exam technique.  Whilst each subject differs slightly, here are our top tips for GCSE and A Level students:

Think like an examiner

Doing past papers is key to perfecting your exam technique. Ideally, revise a specific topic first and then answer an exam question focusing on that area.  In the early stages of revision, it’s good to get teachers to mark your papers and give you feedback. If possible, ask your teacher to provide you with model answers and to run through their thought process when answering the question.

As revision progresses, you can gain real insight from marking your own past paper questions. Not only do you have to read and understand the mark scheme, you can learn a lot from analysing your answers and thinking about how many marks you would award yourself and why.

By reading the examiners report, it’s also possible to identify and, hopefully avoid, the pitfalls that students sitting that exam fell into!

Ensure you understand the meaning of command words

Many students fail to answer questions properly due to a lack of knowledge and/or understanding of the key commands words and how they relate to that subject.

For example, whilst many students panic when they see the term “suggest”, it is important to remember that the examiner simply wants you to come up with an idea by applying your knowledge and does not expect you to necessarily know the precise answer.

Use acronyms to help structure long-answer questions

Whilst you may be familiar with acronyms like PEE, PEA, PEAL, which have been used for many years to help students structure essay answers, GCSE and A Level exams have placed increased emphasis on subject specific vocabulary and terminology. The result is a new acronym, PETAL: Point ; Evidence ; Terminology (ie key vocabulary or terms ); Analysis; Link

Practice time management and question planning

One of the key challenges for many students is trying to get all their points across in a limited time.   Rather than diving into the first question of the exam, allocate time to think and prepare. Use past papers to practice and challenge yourself to work quickly and effectively. So before writing anything:

  • read over the whole paper at least once and decide the order you want to answer the questions in – answering your best questions first can really boost confidence
  • having highlighted command words and key terms, make a few notes for each question (eg key points you might want to cover; how much time you have for that question).

For essay questions, the next step is to write a quick plan, including everything you can think of to answer the question.

If additional points come to you after you have started writing, just add them to the plan so you don’t forget about them!

Start with a short introduction outlining your direction/argument and then work through your essay plan. Keep an eye on time and try to be as succinct as possible to help ensure you have time to cover all your points.

Once you’ve written as much as time allows, close off your essay with a conclusion and move onto the next question.

In the case of STEM exams, be sure to show and explain your working, where applicable. Not only could this get you marks even if you get the answer wrong, it may even be required to get the full marks available.

And talking of the answer, make it clear to the examiner! Cross out any errors and put a line under or circle around your final response.

For multiple choice questions, try coding the paper as you scan it and highlight questions into three categories:

a) definitely can do (do these first)

b) tricky/lengthy but doable questions (do these second)

c) tricky/lengthy and not sure about (do these last). This will help prevent you getting hung up on questions.

Don’t leave early!

Whilst tempting to leave early, don’t! Use any spare time to read through the whole exam again and check:

● for any spelling or grammar errors

● whether what you’ve written makes sense or does it need clarification/rewording?

● whether it actually answers the question? Can it be improved in any way?

In the case of calculations, check your working again and make sure it matches your written answer.

Lastly, help the examiner by cleaning up your paper – make it easy for him/her to navigate by crossing out mistakes and highlighting your final answers.

Download our guide for Why Exam Technique Matters – 2024