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Answering exam questions

This guide offers advice on effective strategies for the day of your exams. It includes:

Printable version of this guide (this is designed to be printed double-sided on A4 paper, then folded to make an A5 leaflet).

The stress of working under time constraints in the exam room can make all your good study intentions disappear. However, this is when it's more important than ever to get your ideas across clearly and concisely. That means taking time to think and plan your answers. Thinking beforehand about the strategies you might use in the exam room to plan and write your answers will help you to feel calmer and more prepared.

Try this quick exam day quiz from Chris Doye at the University of Edinburgh to see what good (and bad) habits you already have.

If you are still feeling anxious after reading this guide, and are worried that this will affect your performance, make an appointment with a counsellor. Or attend one of the relaxation sessions run by the Chaplaincy and the Counselling and Wellbeing service

The night before

Be prepared – Make sure you know exactly where your exam will be – the venues may be different for each exam. Gather what you will need to take into the exam room (pens, water, allowed texts, calculator, student card etc). The University of Leeds have produced a useful checklist: Exam preparation checklist.

Some tips to help you sleep...

- Stop revising 90 minutes before preparing for bed

- Relax with friends, music, book, TV etc

- Have a warm bath or shower

- Use a relaxation exercise

- If your head's still buzzing with thoughts in the middle of the night, have a notebook by the side of the bed and write them down

The Chaplaincy offer regular sessions open to all students to teach relaxation techniques. Contact them for more details at chaplaincy@reading.ac.uk.

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In the exam room

Read the instructions carefully – Before looking at the actual questions, read the rubric (instructions). Are there compulsory questions? Marks are often lost by nervous or over-confident students who overlook instructions to "Answer 1 question from Section A, and 2 from Section B" or tackle too few questions.

Work out the timing – Divide your time according to the number of questions to be answered. Split it proportionately if you have some questions (or parts of questions) which attract more marks than others. Allow some time for planning. An example might be: four essay questions each attracting 25% of the total marks in a three-hour exam = 45 minutes per question = 10 minutes planning, 35 minutes writing. Allow checking time for statistics or calculations.

Read the questions carefully. Read through the paper once and then re-read each question. You might think a topic you've revised hasn't come up, when it is there but the wording is unusual. Alternatively you have revised the topic, but the question is obtuse and you do not fully understand it.

Choose your best questions - Mark any questions you might answer, and then check that you fully understand it. Do you have some relevant knowledge, ideas and evidence for the ones you choose to answer? Do not answer a question that you do not understand.

Decide on question order. Some people like to start with the topic they know best to give them a good start. Others prefer to do their best question second, because with one question completed, they can relax and expand on their best ideas and gain extra marks.

See our Video Tutorial on Exam room strategies.

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Maximising your marks

Think about what the question is actually asking. What are you expected to include in your answer? What material will be relevant? The most common complaint from markers is that the student didn't answer the question.

Demonstrate that you are answering the question - In your introduction show how you understand the question and outline how you will answer it. Make one point or argument per paragraph and summarise to show how it answers the question. Shortish paragraphs with one or two pieces of evidence are sufficient. In your conclusion summarise the arguments to answer the question.

Plan before you write – The stress of working under time constraints in the exam room can make all your good study intentions disappear. However, this is when it's more important than ever to get your ideas across clearly and concisely. Take a few minutes to think and plan:

  • Underline the key words in the question;
  • Identify the main topic and discussion areas..
  • Choose a few points/arguments about which you can write .
  • Make a mini-plan which puts them in order before you start writing. You can cross it through afterwards.

Referencing in exams – You should be able to refer by name (spelt correctly!) to the main theorists/researchers in your topic, giving the year of their major works. You do not need to give page numbers or lengthy quotes, except in open book exams. You do not need a reference list.

What to do if your mind goes blank – most students fear this happening. If it does – put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back and relax for a moment. If you're in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far – what happens next? If you have to remember formulae, try associating them with pictures or music while revising. If you really can't progress with this answer, leave a gap. It will probably come back to you once you are less anxious.

For more suggestions, see Revision and memory strategies 

If you are running out of time – don't panic. Look at the questions you have left to answer and divide up your remaining time to cover them all. Be very economical – make one point support it with evidence and then move on to the next point. If you really can't finish in time, briefly list the points you wanted to make – they could pick you up a few marks.

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MCQs, short answer, open book and oral exams

Multiple Choice Question tests should be approached differently to exams that ask for essay-type answers. The answers required are usually more concerned with terms and definitions.

  • Read the directions very carefully before you start.
  • When looking at the questions, always try to work out what the answer is before you look at the possibilities.
  • Use a ruler to make it easier to see where to enter each answer.
  • Answer the questions you know first, mark the ones you are fairly sure of and go back to them - leave the difficult ones till last.
  • Remember that with MCQ exams you could get 100% - pretty much impossible in an essay-type exam! So don't dwell on a question – move on and come back to it if you have time.
  • If you finish before the time is up, go back over your questions and answers to check for reading errors.
  • Have a look at our video tutorial on preparing for multiple choice question exams

Short answer questions usually require a briefer and more descriptive answer than essay questions, which ask you to discuss and expand on a topic.

  • If your questions all ask for short answers with an equal number of marks for each, divide your time up equally for the total number ofquestions. Otherwise allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question attracts.
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the rubric carefully so you don't miss answering part of the question.
  • Each part of the question should show the maximum marks you can get for answering it. Don't waste a lot of time worrying about a part of the question that only attracts a very few marks.
  • Use parts of questions that ask for definitions or explanations to inform the longer, more discursive part of your answer. Don't repeat the information you give in one part of the question in the other.
  • Ifa question asks you to "briefly comment", treat it as a mini-essay - have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.
  • If you have trouble working out how to start answering a question that asks you to "explain", imagine you are telling a friend about the topic. 

See our short video tutorial on Answering short answer questions

Open book exams (i.e. those where you are allowed to take and consult texts into the exam room) may feel less stressful because you know you won't need to remember facts. However, this means the marks you can get will depend on your ability to use this information to build an argument, so be careful to avoid just giving a list of quotes.

  • Don't forget to take the text to the exam room! You won't be able to borrow someone else's.
  • Don't be tempted to waste time in the exam searching the text for new quotes or information. Use it only for quick reference or confirming information or quotes you already know.
  • Plan your essays without referring to the text - otherwise you may be tempted to usea previously planned but irrelevant answer. Remember that what's being assessed is yourunderstanding of the topic, and to show that you must give a relevant answer to the question.
  • Think before you quote - make sure quotes support your argument, not replace it. Note that you will only gain marks for your own arguments, not someone else's words, so don't waste time copying long quotes.
  • Integrate mini-quotes of three or four words so that they occur naturally in a sentence: e.g. The blinded Oedipus' desire to be "far from sight" (1570) reflects both his abhorrence of knowledge, and of others knowing him.
  • If you use direct quotations or paraphrases from your text, you should acknowledge them with page or line number in the body of your answer, plus author's name and year of publication the first time the text is mentioned, just as in an essay. However you don't need to include a bibliography or reference list.

See our short video tutorial on Preparing for open book exams.

Oral exams for languages provoke similar anxieties to giving presentations. In both cases, the more prepared you feel, the less anxious you will be.

  • Act confident even if you aren't. Smile when you enter the room and shake hands with the examiner. Make eye contact during the exam. Ask questions as well as responding to them. Thank the examiner when you leave.
  • Breathe deeply and regularly to calm nerves. Take a bottle of water in case your mouth is dry - slightly warm is better than ice-cold.
  • Take your time! Don't rush into giving an answer before you've thought about what you want to say - you will get confused and make mistakes. Take a breath and think before you speak.
  • Listen to the whole question carefully before you start constructing your answer.It's tempting to latch on to one word that you recognise and start thinking of your answer, but don't- you may miss an important part of the question.
  • Know how to say "Could you repeat that please?" in the language you are being examined in. If you missed part of a question or didn't understand it, ask for it to be repeated.
  • Some people deal with public speaking best by putting on a 'disguise' - dressing more smartly than usual, or wearing glasses if you usually wear contact lenses, for instance. Others feel better if they are more casual and can pretend it's an ordinary situation. Think about how you would deal with this best.

See our short video tutorial on Preparing for oral language exams.

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Seen exams

For some exams, students are given the question ahead of the exam, giving them time to research and prepare. Students are usually not allowed to take in texts or notes to these exams.

If you are given a 'seen' exam paper, it's very tempting to try to write and then learn an essay by heart. This is unlikely to give you the best result. You might think of a seen exam as being the opposite of a memory test; if you try to learn an essay by heart, you will inevitably make some errors in rewriting it, and if you haven't taken the time to understand the topic you won't be able to correct them coherently. You will also be writing to a specified time in the exam room, and writing by hand. This means that you will not be able to write the same amount, or in the same way that you would if you were working at your computer at home. You may also be marked more strictly on a seen question as the element of guesswork that goes into revising for unseen papers has been removed.

It can be useful to do some preparation before you receive the question: for example making sure you have all the relevant lecture or seminar notes and have filled in any gaps in your understanding. If you have a solid understanding of the basics before the seen question is released, you will be able to research your answer more efficiently. The important aspects of preparing good essays will still apply: so avoid simply regurgitating notes from lectures or seminars, but instead demonstrate that you can build on the basic knowledge by researching the specific question that has been set.

Students sometimes prepare for seen exams in small groups, but this can be an extremely risky strategy, laying you open to accusations of collusion and plagiarism if parts of your answer look similar to those produced by others. It's best to avoid this by not discussing your research or essay plans in detail - the process of preparing for a seen exam should be your own.

An effective way to approach revising for a seen question is to read, analyse and research the essay title as normal. Once you have researched your essay title, write a plan using your notes so you can see the connections and flow of ideas, then you can use this plan to refer to in your revision. Now write a draft essay (by hand) checking your plan and notes if necessary. Next write it again, this time keeping to the time you will have in the exam and without too much checking of your essay plan or notes. Finally write another version without checking your plan at all. If there's something you can't recall or reconstruct that you need to discuss, mark it in the essay and fill the gap afterwards as usual. When you go into the exam, have the expectation that you're going to write a new essay on a topic you're familiar with, rather than trying to memorise the old one. This will make your writing fresh and engaged, and much more coherent. It will also give you the chance to make new connections and include material you might not have included the first time round.

For more tips, have a look at our video tutorial on Preparing for seen exams.

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What not to write...

Don't try to shoehorn in something interesting just because you have revised it. If it isn't relevant to the question it can lose you marks.

Don't repeat a memorised essay just because it seems to be on the right topic. The question may be asking for a different approach.

Don't use text speak or colloquialisms.

Don't say "I think" or "in my opinion". Instead have ideas that are supported or opposed by your evidence.

Above all, don't be tempted to write a note to the examiner explaining how you missed the lectures on this topic because your housemate stole your alarm clock….

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After the exam…

Beware the post-mortem – it's natural to want to discuss how it went with your friends, but keep it in perspective. Exams are dramatic events, and the temptation is to describe them dramatically – "The easiest/hardest/fastest exam I've ever done!" No two exam experiences will be the same – that doesn't mean you are wrong and they are right, or vice versa.

Between exams, you might find it helpful to practise writing exam answers using past papers. However, it may be more beneficial for some students to relax and rest between exams, than cramming in last minute revision for the next one.

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For more advice on preparing for exams, see

Planning your revision

Revision and memory strategies

Download a printable version of our Study Guide on Writing Exam Answers. (These guides are designed to be printed double-sided on A4 and folded to A5.) 

Assessment by examination in UK Higher Education - advice for international students

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