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To plan or not to plan in an exam?

By Tom Lenton on 18 December 2017UKblogExam advice

With the notable exception of freestyle rap, almost no great work in recorded human history has been produced without some sort of plan (and I bet even freestyle rappers plan a lot of their material in advance)🎙 .

The reason for this is relatively simple but it might still blow your mind. Yes, the reason is that plan’s work. We even have a saying for just how good something is when it goes ‘according to plan.’ Plans give certainty to your work, and they give direction. In the context of an exam where you’ve got a bunch of syllabus dot points or assessment objectives that you need to tick off in your head, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

Planning is the cornerstone of any great answer. Heck, we even planned how to write this blog post so it would make as much sense as possible to you.

So what follows is basically our walkthrough guide to the perfect plan.

Do I or don’t I?

So what’s the point of planning when we know pretty much what we’re going to say anyway?

Well, that’s the first myth we need to bust: you’ll never know everything you’re going to write. You might have memorised an English essay or two but even they would need to be adapted to the question. And besides, for most subjects you won’t be remotely close to having a memorised answer – you’ll know some sources and some evidence and then be expected to smash together a 6 mark answer on the spot.

Long questions can be pretty intimidating and jumping into them head first without knowing the structure and logic you’re going to use can often work out badly. It’d be like rocking up to the Olympics and just winging the diving. You might even do really, really well, but you’re probably not going to do as well as the person who’s been smashing the same routine day in day out and planning what they’re going to do 💭 .

Making a plan also means that you’ll have gone through the essay once in your head before you even start writing. Just think about how many times you’ve written an answer, re-read it and then realised you’ve forgotten chunks of information, or realised it doesn’t really make sense and that you wish you could rewrite it. Planning also helps you estimate how long you’ll need in order to smash your answer as well, and that means you know where to focus your energy to maximise your marks.

So, we plan because it makes our end job easier, more efficient, and better. That’s as good a reason as any to do it in the pressure cooker environment of an A-Level exam!

How do I plan?

In the exam room when push comes to shove, there’s no such thing as the perfect plan. You’ll sit there and write things and cross things out and it’ll look like an ugly mess, and in all likelihood if you look at the plan a day or two later you’ll have serious doubts about your sanity 😩 .

But none of that matters – what matters is that in the moment you have a plan that sets you up for the next few hours. Whether you have no idea what to write, or you know all the content and you just need to organise it, you’ll have manage to do a few things:

  1. Figure out your main idea for your answer💡
  2. Figure out what body paragraphs you need to write

In reality, this shouldn’t be more than a few words. There’ll probably be arrows flying around the page as you stick together your random ideas and start forming logic between them ↖↗↘↙.

Just remember all the material you can, and see how you can put it together to construct an answer. Memory dump things you might have crammed and are afraid you’ll forget. Drop a quote or a word or two that you really like right next to the words you’ve highlighted from the question. Bear in mind, you’d rather waste three seconds writing that stuff down now at the start of writing time, rather than waste three minutes trying to remember important things when you’re really struggling for time!

So, a few seconds of thought about the logic and structure of your answer is all that’s required – but it is a must to making sure you nail the marking criteria and really show your knowledge being applied.

How much time should I spend on it?

Planning isn’t some massive exercise you have to burden yourself with – it’s a memory check and a logic organiser. Since you’ve no doubt studied yourself almost into oblivion, you already have the content locked hard in your brain. In reality, with a plan, you’re just organising all that content to produce a maximum effect for when you wow the markers.

So, in figuring out how much time you need for your plan – do it on a needs basis.

However, five minutes is a good rough guide for most loooong essays. You don’t have to spend that long, and you can always spend a bit longer if you need it. That being said, don’t do it in 20 seconds, and also don’t spend 15 minutes on it.


So make sure you make a plan, but also don’t stress yourself to bits and spend too long making a neat and perfect plan. After all, a plan is just a guide. It tells you what you need to write and how long you’ll need to write it.

Just make sure you do one!

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