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Exam strategy tips and tricks

By Danielle Barakat on 21 March 2019NSWblogExam adviceStudy tips

For some of you, it’s a really confusing time of year because the term is coming to an end, and you won’t have any assessments till about week 6 of next term, which also means that you now have time to get your notes up to date, do a bunch of practice essays and questions, and just get yourself organised.

But unfortunately for some of you, the last two weeks of term means back-to-back exams 😢.

So we have decided to tackle some exam tips and tricks to make sure you come out the other end with as many band sixes as possible:

Check the marks allocated to the question

There’s no point answering a question without looking at the number of marks allocated to it. You won’t know how much to write, what to focus on or the type of response the marker is looking for which means you could be totally off base and could waste 10 minutes you don’t have.

If it’s a 1-mark question, that means your answer should be no longer than a few words or a sentence and it requires minimal time. Whereas a 6-mark question requires more time and some planning, followed by a mini-essay style response including intros and mini paragraphs. Even in maths, if the question is only worth 2 marks and you have done 4 pages of working, you are definitely not on the right track.

Start at the beginning of the paper and do it in order

This may be an obvious point but it will surprise you the number of people who do not do the paper in order. Some might say that this is the best strategy, but for us at Atomi, we think the best way to approach the paper is in order because this allows your nerves to settle before approaching something worth 25 marks, like an extended response, which luckily isn’t the first question of an exam (unless it’s English paper 2).

Doing the multiple choice or short answer questions first is also really helpful for your long responses because some of the content used in those first couple of questions may be repeated and used again in your longer answers. Win!

There are, however, a couple of small exceptions to this rule. They are:

1. If you can answer a question straight away, do it

If you’re sitting in a maths exam and question 8 requires a bit more work than question 9 and you know you can bang out question 9 quickly, of course, you can skip ahead to that question. The same goes for multiple choice; if you see a few questions that you know the answers to straight away then yes, feel free to skip ahead and answer those first. This acts as a mini confidence boost so definitely take advantage of that.

2. Skip things you don’t understand straight away

The same goes for the opposite. If you’re super stuck on question 4 then the best thing to do would be to skip it and come back to it. If you’re spending way too long trying to figure out how to answer a question and it’s killing your momentum and confidence, and wasting your time then come back to it later.

Which brings me to my next point...

3. Don’t forget to go back and attempt any questions you missed

This is super important. If you have skipped a question, be sure to highlight it or write it down somewhere so that you don’t actually forget to go back and answer it. By the time you have done the rest of the paper and are ready to reattempt these questions, you may find that your juices are flowing enough to put together a response. Remember it’s always better to guess a multiple choice question, show some kind of working or write literally anything you can down as opposed to leaving a question blank (NEVER DO THIS). You may be able to pull out some marks after all.

Read every question, slowly, and twice

One of the most common mistakes students make in an exam is that they skim read the question in reading time, and then as soon as they can start writing they answer the question without re-reading it to make sure they are correctly doing so. Do not fall into this trap. Make sure you read the question slowly and underline the key parts of the question that you’ll have to answer in your response. Even read it twice to make sure you have read it properly and haven’t misinterpreted anything. Identify the glossary key term (i.e. explain, evaluate, describe, etc) and make sure your response is directly addressing that.

Plan your answers

This is super important. There’s always time to quickly plan out an answer before putting pen to paper. This is particularly important for questions that are worth more than 5 marks. Get down your main points and organise them so that when you do start writing, you have a logical and well-structured answer. 2 minutes of planning can make a huge difference to the quality of your answer, and you’re more likely to remember to include everything if you have quickly mapped out your response first.

Don’t spend too long on this though. No more than 4 minutes.

Don’t make rash decisions. Think first

When you’re in a situation where you have an option of what question to answer, such as picking a creative writing stimulus, be sure to actually have a good think before randomly picking the one that may sound like the easiest at first. You need to consider what you know, the quotes you have, the facts you’ve memorised and make an educated decision based on what you think you can best answer. Jot some ideas down for each option and then make a well-informed decision.

Take breaks

Yes, you’re in an exam. But you are also under a lot of stress and are in a high pressured environment. You do not want to freak yourself out. The best way to avoid this is to take regular breaks. It’s important to lift your head, have a sip of water, crack your knuckles, flick your pen around, have a bit of a shake off, take a couple of deep breaths, and start again. Yes, these need to be super short, but just enough to centre yourself and let your brain remember what it needs to.

Watch the time

Don’t be the guy that looks at the clock for the first time when there’s only 20 minutes of the exam left, only to realise you’re nowhere near finishing. You haven’t studied and prepped for so long to get into the exam and make a silly mistake because of poor time management. Know how long your exam is, know how many marks it is, know how long you should roughly be spending on each section and constantly check the time to make sure you’re on track. This is why you did all those timed practise papers when you studied… 😱

Check your answers

Once you think you have finished the exam and there are a couple of minutes left at the end, use them to check your answers. Go back over your multiple choice and make sure you’ve answered all the questions and have coloured in the correct bubbles. Have a re-read of your short answers and extended responses to make sure you’ve answered the question directly and that you’ve used the right evidence and facts. Even make sure your negative signs are in the correct spots in your maths working. And, please please please check the back page and make sure you haven’t accidentally skipped 4 questions… (this happens more than you may think).

What to do if you’re running out of time

If your time management hasn’t exactly worked out and you find yourself running out of time, it’s time to introduce some bullet points in your answers. This is definitely not the recommended solution and is definitely not suitable for your standard answers, but if you’re in a crisis then getting something down is much better than getting nothing down. So dot points your answers if necessary.

At the end of the day, the key to smashing exams is being in control. In control of your environment, your time and your answers. This will ensure you’re on the path to getting band sixes this year.

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