With less than two weeks to go until exams end, it’s not too late to perfect your exam technique….
Here are eight tips from Alice Theobald, who tutors English online at www.mytutorweb.co.uk and has just finished studying English at Magdalen College, Oxford:
1. Know the paper
Before you go into the exam, know the format of the paper and the structure of the questions inside out and back to front. Know how many questions you have to answer and the rough length of each. Look at past exam booklets that tell you how much you’re expected to write and practise using the answer boxes as guidelines. You’ll be surprised at how little space you’re given. As a general rule, stick to these limits. Then save time to check what you’ve written, rather than writing more.
2. Keep a cool head
Revision entails learning large amounts of material; exams involve recognising how best to use that information in a relevant way. So you’ll need to be selective. Taking deep breaths and keeping calm will help you to do this.
3. Read and re-read the question
If you’re under pressure, it’s easy to misread questions. Or, worse yet, to fail to read them altogether (i.e. make sure you check both sides of the paper for questions!). Underline key words and phrases and use these to prioritise information. If you’re asked to compare and contrast, leave enough time to do both. By sticking to the exact terms of the question, it will help with time-constraints, so restrict your points to those with most relevance. And remember – the ideal essay answer is like a tapestry: it weaves together points to form a bigger picture.
4. Start with the end in sight
Novelist George Eliot once wrote that ‘Beginnings are always troublesome’. They also count for a lot. So make sure your paper is legible and inviting to read from the start. In your opening, state exactly what you’re going to do, foreground its significance and then get going. Show the examiner that you’re in control of your material. By all means hint at bigger ideas (the best way to do this is to contextualise your answer within a wider framework), but don’t let this distract you from the question.
5. Take your time
This seems counter-intuitive. The clock is ticking and there are students who pick up their pens immediately. But don’t let this pressurise you to charge ahead with an answer you haven’t thought about properly. You will rarely feel like you have enough time, but if you take a few minutes at the start to think about what you need to say, your answer will flow more readily once you get writing. It will also mean you’re not trying to plan as you go along – and you’ll save yourself time in the long-run.
6. Remember your audience
It’s a lot easier to finish a paper if you bear in mind that someone else will be reading it. You’re not trying to get down everything you know – that would be impossible, even for the brightest students. The examiner should be able to follow your logic and see proof that you’re fulfilling the assessment objectives. Your prose should be clear, not cryptic.
7. Stick to shorter sentences
The best ideas are expressed simply. Short sentences are easier to follow and ensure the examiner won’t get lost in your thought-process. They will help you to organise your thoughts, too. Each sentence is a building block in your larger argument. Make a point, support it with a quotation, analyse it, and move on.
8. Remember your paraphernalia
Being ready is about more than just revision. Come prepared with tissues, water, pens and highlighters. You don’t want to waste time in the exam going out for them. Biros are often easier to write with than scratchy ink pens. There’s also less chance they’ll smudge. A watch is crucial too. It’s often helpful to place it in front of you on your desk so you can keep an eye on the time as you write (top marks for time-efficiency).