Back to the blog

How to manage your time in an exam

By Lauren Condon on 1 August 2017Exam adviceTrialsHSCNSWblog

Let’s be real. Exams are pretty awful for a whole bunch of reasons but one of the big ones is the time crunch ⏰ ⏰ ⏰ . You’ve written essays and answered questions in class and at home but there’s something about the time limit on an exam that adds a whole new level of pressure. Not to mention that the idea of writing three English essays in two hours is enough to make even the bravest year 12 freak out.

Anyway, whether you still have the chance to use this for Trials or it’s something you can start working on now for the HSC, here are four big ways to properly manage time in your exams:

1. Know how much time you have for each section

Before you even step foot into the room of despair exam room, there are some steps you can take to make your exam time a little more manageable. You’ve done at least some Trial exams, you can look up past exams and you can talk to your teachers so you have all the information you need to work out how much time to allocate to each section of an exam. Each section of an exam is usually worth the same amount of marks so for once, NESA is making it pretty easy for us.

For example, there are three essays in 2 hours in the English Paper II exam which means you should give yourself 40 minutes to write each essay. For Modern and Ancient, you have three hours and four sections which means that once again, that’s 40 minutes per section. Basically, just take the length of the exam and break it down between your different sections. Easy.

As a bonus, if you know you’re really good at one topic, try and nail that one in a little bit less time to give you more time on a topic you’re less comfortable with. As long as you start with the easier/quicker topic first, you can play around with the timing a bit.

2. Make the most of reading time

Your reading time is usually only 5 minutes (10 in some exams like English Paper I) but you can really take advantage of it in a whole bunch of ways. When it comes to managing your time, use those first 5 minutes to read through the whole exam carefully. As you go, here are some things that you can do during reading time instead of the exam to save yourself some time:

  • Start to think of - or even plan - your answers for anything from multiple choice to essays

  • Pinpoint any topic or question that might be challenging and mentally prepare yourself to leave it and come back to it later instead of just freaking out

  • If you’re given options, like there are two essay topics and you only need to pick one, make those decisions during reading time and commit to them so you don’t waste time deciding later on

  • Read over long questions and complicated instructions twice so you don’t make a mistake in the exam that will cost you some precious minutes to fix up

3. Start with what you can do and come back to the rest

So even though you want to be working on one section at a time to make sure you divide the whole exam up evenly, you could always come across a single question that has stumped you. It literally happens to all of us and can easily derail your time management. It could be one multiple choice question, a maths problem, short answer or even a section of your essay that you just can’t deal with right now.

Well, don’t waste time staring at it!

Put a giant scribble next to it and seriously just move on. You don’t want to miss out on marks in the rest of the section or paper because of one hiccup. Come back to those tricky questions at the end if you can, but the most important thing is to keep working through your exam and give yourself enough time to tackle each section.

4. Practice, practice, practice

TBH the most important part of time management is practice. How boring… we know 🤷‍. But seriously, you are going to need to practice managing time in your exams as much as you need to practice answering the questions themselves. This means, instead of just doing practice questions or practice essays, you actually need to do whole practice papers under complete exam conditions.

It doesn’t matter how perfect your discovery essay is, if you can’t write it in 40ish minutes under a bit of pressure, you won’t be showing those markers any of your great work. Especially after Trials, commit to practising full papers under exam conditions and work on getting the whole exam done well in the time limit. It will really save you a lot of pressure (and a traumatic experience) when you get to the HSC.


Managing your time in an exam will take off so much pressure, it will stop you making silly mistakes in a panic and it will also make sure that you don’t lose a tonne of marks because you didn’t have time to start/finish an answer. It’s one of those little skills that you aren’t going to sit down and study so you really need to pay attention here and just think of how much easier these tips will make your life. Remember to: break up the time in advance, capitalise on that reading time, be ready to ditch anything that is tripping you up and, of course, practice. ⏳⌛️⏳

Try Atomi for free and receive regular updates from our blog.

Learn More