Teachers, parents, year advisors, department of education pamphlets, even your school diary gives you advice about what to do when you sit down to take an exam. Read the paper before starting. Read each question twice. If you have a hard question, break and come back to it. Start with the easiest questions. This is all good advice.
However even by following this advice there may still be situations in which you find it hard to get all of the marks available in a paper. Maybe the subject is challenging, or you run out of time, or a question just plain stumps you. It happens. When it does, you still want to maximise the number of marks you get.
What we want to focus on here are some exam tips which might be a little more situational, but which can help you squeeze a few more marks out of your test paper.
You can cram before the exam
Cramming is not an effective study strategy in and of itself, but there is one thing it can help with, and that's pre-loading information into your short term memory. If you keep a little book of formulae, quotes, important dates or names, or any other clear factoid you need to remember for an exam, reading over this right before going in can help you remember them once you're in there.
There's a limit to how much you can carry in this way. It'll only be a few things, and they need to be short, discrete facts, not things like an entire historical timeline, or a summary of a text you've read, or how to graph a cubic function. It works best as a refresher for facts you've already studied and are already in your head, and you're just bringing them to your active memory as preparation. And it helps greatly if you've used this little booklet as a memory aid before in your study.
But if there's one particularly troublesome equation you just know you're going to forget in the heat of the exam, stick it in your active memory right before going in, then jot it down once you're in there, and that might help you squeeze a few extra marks out of a key question.
Annotate the test paper
During the reading break at the start of an exam, it's pens down. However once writing time starts, you might want to go through and highlight key terms in a question, or even annotate the question. Some questions get quite long and involved, and identifying keywords in an essay prompt, or critical directions in a technical question, can help you remember that they are there.
Let's say you have a maths question. You're running a pool installation business and need to give a quote to a customer based on the most cost efficient dimensions of a pool with a desired volume. So you need to calculate the smallest surface area for that volume. One of the ways you could lose marks on this question is by forgetting to remove the top surface from the shape you are calculating. Another is by forgetting to convert your surface area calculation into a dollar value quote as the question asks.
How do you protect against this? Highlight the bit of the question that says "Give your answer as a dollar value". Add an annotation saying "Don't forget to remove the top!". Then, when you review the question after answering it, you will spot this annotation, and remember to include these steps. This could save you missing out on a mark or two by having your working missing a step, or your answer in the wrong format.
Use your scratch paper
You are always given, or at least allowed, scratch paper, note paper for working out and planning. A lot of students don't like to use it, thinking it is better to put answers directly down on paper so as not to waste time copying from draft to final answer. Now you certainly don't want to pre-work every question in draft form before bringing it over to your answer sheet, as that really is a poor use of time. However your scratch paper has other uses.
It's great for really quick essay planning. Writing an essay without a plan is a difficult exercise. It only takes a couple of minutes to knock out a really sketchy dot-point essay plan on a bit of scrap paper, but it makes a huge difference to your writing when you know what the whole argument is going to be, which evidence is needed where, and how to tightly focus your paragraphs and plan ahead for linking sentences. It also makes it easy to rush finish an essay when time runs out, as we discuss later on.
That's not its only use. If you have particular formulae, terms, or other facts you are worried you will forget during the exam, jot them down on scrap paper right out of the gates. That way it's there as a reference when you need it, and you don't have to spend the exam trying to keep that bit of knowledge in your head while working on other questions.
If you need to skip a question, note it on the scrap paper so you remember to come back to it if you have time. If you finish a question, but aren't sure of the answer, note that down so that again, if you have time, you can revisit it.
Have a schedule - and stick to it
You should have a plan for how long you intend to spend on each section of the exam, and milestones for where you intend to be after one hour, after two, half way through the time, with half an hour to go. It is very, very easy to spend too long working through the first part of the test paper, lose track of time, then suddenly find you've got an hour of work to do in the last half hour of the exam. That's when you rush and lose marks for careless mistakes, or for just not finishing.
If you're doing a maths paper with forty questions in three hours, you should probably aim to have the first half of the paper finished before the half way mark on the clock (since you need extra time at the end for checking, and for longer or more involved questions late in the paper). So let's say you want to be at Question 26 by the 1.5 hour mark. That means you want to be a little over half way through those 26 questions by the 45 minute mark, let's say around Question 14. Which means you probably want to be around Question 10 at the half hour mark.
Write down this timetable, and then keep an eye on the clock. If you are struggling with a particular question that's taking a while, see where you are on the clock. Are you on, or even behind schedule? Then ditch that question, move on, and come back to it later. If spending another five minutes trying to get one or two extra marks out of Question 21 means you won't have time to attempt Question 38, which is worth five marks, that's a net loss of marks. If you have time you can come back; if you don't, you'll be glad you moved on.
If you have to, give partial answers
In most cases questions are not worth just one mark. In an essay you gain marks progressively as you tick off more boxes on the marking criteria. In maths and often in the sciences you get marks for working, even if you don't get the right answer. Obviously you get more marks if you complete the entire question, but you can get some marks even if you don't, and if you are low on time, or stumped, those couple of marks might be worth going for.
Be aware of how essays are marked in your subject, and then, if you need to, focus on ticking off the lowest requirements for marks. Having a fantastic introduction is not going to get you as many marks as just putting down an essay plan. If you're low on time, you'll generally go better finishing your essay in dot-point, essay plan style than finishing your current paragraph to perfection, skipping the next two and not having a conclusion. An essay plan shows the marker what your total argument was, and where the essay was going, and that gets you marks. You'll lose some marks for not having fully fleshed out and well presented paragraphs, but you'll lose less marks that you would if the marker doesn't even know what your other points were going to be.
In many maths questions, if you get the right formula down, and progress through the working, you pick up some marks, even if you don't get to the answer. See how many marks a question is worth. If a question is worth four marks, it's probable that one of those will be for the answer and the other three will be for progress towards the answer. Work as far through the question as you can, even if you know you can't get the actual answer. If you have a question that requires you to find the point of intersection of two curves by graphing them, and you don't know how to find the intersection, you can still graph the curves. This is the first step in the solution, so you'll still get some marks for this progress towards the answer.
When you sit an exam your goal should be to maximise the number of marks you pick up. In an ideal world you would have plenty of time, perfect knowledge, and can answer every question, check every answer, and be confident you got everything right. In the real world there will usually be something that derails that plan, either an unexpected question, or a challenging one, or running out of time, or just blanking on something, or maybe you just forget something during the writing of the answer, or misread a question. It happens to everyone from time to time.
These tips will help you minimise some common little mistakes, and squeeze as many marks as possible out of an exam if things don't go according to plan. Every extra mark you can pick up helps you out, so if there are some easy marks you can hold onto, make sure you identify them, and grab them.
If you feel like you could do with a little extra help, connect with one of our expert Subject Specialists to boost your confidence before the exam.