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How to get extra marks on your biology exam

Thomas Bell

Jul 3, 2020

Imagine for a moment that you’ve just arrived at your biology exam. One of the things you’ll probably be thinking is ‘how can I get the most marks possible on this exam??’. There are a few different things you can do in order to maximise the marks you get. One of the most important is something that you’ll actually do prior to the exam itself – studying and revising the different topics that will be in the exam, so that you’re familiar with them. This gives you a strong base to answer the questions from – it means that you’ll tend to be familiar with the different questions being asked, and can concentrate on solving them rather than trying to remember what they’re referring to.


Once you’re actually in the exam, there are a few certain ways of maximising the amount of marks that you‘ll get.

Evaluate the question

It’s always a good idea to evaluate a question before actually answering it – you want to try and work out how detailed an answer is expected, and how long it should be. The wording used in a question can help with this – if a question asks you to ‘describe’ a concept, then that usually indicates a short, concise answer defining the concept. But a question that asks you to ‘explain’ a concept is asking for something more detailed, and in that case you’ll be expected to talk about more than just a strict definition. A question that asks you to ‘discuss’ a concept is asking for a lot of background detail and supporting information – this wording is likely to be found in questions requiring a paragraph or more, or essay questions. The amount of space given for the answer can also give a hint of the level of expected detail. If you answer the question and there’s a lot of space left over, that suggests that you might need to include more detail in your answer.

Answer a bit, rather than not at all

If you find there’s a question in the exam that you’re not sure of, don’t leave the answer blank. Look for parts of the question that you do know something about, like particular concepts or topics. Even if you can’t answer the question in full, it’s still a good idea to answer it partially by explaining what these concepts or topics are, or what they involve. This is because marks are usually given for different things in one question, and you can often pick up marks by explaining relevant concepts even if the whole question hasn’t been answered in full.

"Marks are usually given for different things in one question, and you can often pick up marks by explaining relevant concepts even if the whole question hasn’t been answered in full."

On the other hand, if the answer is left blank, then it’s not possible to pick up any marks for that question, even if the marker is feeling generous. For a multiple choice question that you’re not sure of, a similar principle applies – answer the question with your best guess, even if you’re not 100% sure about it, because you could be right, and will pick up the mark for that answer. If you leave the question unanswered, then it’s not possible to pick up any marks from it. 

Show your working

For questions that require some level of working to arrive at an answer, like genetics questions involving Punnett squares, it’s important to show your working. This demonstrates to the marker that you understand how to work through the question, and they will often award marks based on the working as well as the actual answer. This also means that it’s possible to pick up marks on this kind of question even if the final answer is incorrect, since you’ll still have demonstrated that you understand how this kind of question is worked out.

Choose your essay question wisely, and plan

Biology exams often have essay questions, sometimes quite extensive ones. In some cases the majority of the exam may be essays, with very few shorter questions. If your exam does have an essay component, then the first thing you’ll probably need to do is choose an essay question, since in most exams there will be several options. It’s a good idea to pick a question involving a topic you know well – if you’re a bit rusty on genetics for example, but are very familiar with how ecosystems work, you would probably choose to write an ecosystem essay rather than a genetics one.

Once you’ve chosen a suitable question to write an essay on, it’s a good idea to plan out the essay before you start writing it. To plan the essay, you generally use bullet points to summarise the general structure – the different paragraphs, and the topics that you’ll be covering in each. A good rule of thumb is that there is usually one main idea per paragraph. This plan should only take a few minutes or so, and can really help with putting the essay down on paper, because it gives you a definite structure to work with. Check out our tips on using the PEEL method for paragraph structure in essays. 

Hopefully you’ve found these tips helpful for preparing for your biology exam, and if you have any further questions not covered here, feel free to log in with one of our Biology Specialists to discuss them, anytime.

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