How to Answer Exam Questions

1. Practice Past Papers

There really is no better way to get exam ready than by attempting past papers. Most exam bodies should have past papers available online but your teacher will get you started on these in class.

This process isn’t just about preparing an answer for a specific question, it’s about understanding how you approach a question in an exam, how to structure your answer, the timings you should assign and what information will get marks.

2. Read All Questions Carefully

The stress of the situation can cause you to misread a question, plan your answer out, start writing your response and then realise you made a mistake and wasted vital time. Even though you generally won’t be writing answers to every question on the paper, reading all questions thoroughly will ensure you make the right choices and can highlight how much you know about the topic.

Don’t forget to attempt all questions that you have selected. However, be careful of MCQ questions with negative marking. If you’re not sure of the answer you could cost yourself some valuable marks.

3. Manage Your Time

This is where you need to be strict on yourself. Once you have assigned a time limit for each question, you MUST move on once you hit it or you won’t be able to give the next question your full attention.

Remember to leave yourself some time at the end to go back over your answers and add in little notes or pieces of information about the topic. You never know, this could help bump you up a grade!

4. Structure Your Answer

Don’t just jump into writing your answer. Take the first few minutes to plan the structure of your essay which will save you time when you are delving into meaty parts. Always stay on topic; if you’re discussing the role of women in society as portrayed by the author in Of Mice and Men, don’t digress and start outlining other themes in the book for example.

Most essays should have an introduction, three main points and a conclusion. A lot of students see a conclusion as a final sentence to finish the piece off. A strong conclusion give an A grade student the chance to shine by bringing everything together and fortifying their opinion.

5. Explore Both Sides of an Argument

Building your argument in the main body of your exam answer will give your overall opinion credibility.English language questions, for example, encourage you to explore both sides of an argument and then conclude with a critical analysis of your answer.

Many questions you approach will look as though they seek a straightforward answer but in reality they want you to fully outline a structured essay. Don’t fall into the trap of providing a one-sided view, get your hands dirty and open your mind to other possibilities.

6. Review Your Answers Thoroughly

Smart students can still make the mistake of handing their answer book in without checking through what they have written. Proofread your answers as much as you can to correct any spelling mistakes and add any extra comments you think are worth mentioning.

You will be surprised what you can spot in those last few minutes. This is your last chance to throw in that quotation, list other relevant points or even draw a quick diagram. Now is not the time to drop your game, show the examiner what you’re made of!

10 Do’s of Exam technique

1 Get your timings right

One of the biggest challenges facing students every year is getting the timing right so that you have enough time to answer all questions you need to. Come up with a clear time guide and write it on the front cover of your exam paper showing the actual time you should be starting each question. Then, in the middle of the exam you will be able to look at your watch and easily see how many questions you should have done at that time.

2 Bring everything you need

It may sound simple but a lot of stress can be avoided by making sure you’ve everything you need to do the exam the following day. Make a check list the night before each exam.

It’s a good idea to bring some snacks in to the exam hall. Bananas and cereal bars are good. Avoid bringing noisy foods such as crisps that will distract everyone else!

3 Get the basics right

Okay, you’ve heard it a million times before but make sure you get the basics right. Read the questions carefully, underline key parts, and put your exam number on your answer booklet. Get familiar with the layout of the exam paper. Some papers are tricky and complicated instructions could throw you on the day. Know the meanings of the key question words. 

4 Understand Scheme of Evaluation

The evening before a subject go through that subject topic by topic. Look at a question, try answer and then view the marking scheme to see if you would have gotten full marks.

5 Do the easiest questions first

There is no reason to do the questions in the order they are printed in the exam.  There are a couple of reasons for this; firstly, getting the first question done well will help calm you and get you focused for the rest of the exam. Secondly, Often you will get an easy question done quicker so you will be ahead of schedule form the start. It also means that by the end of the exam you will likely have more time to spend on the more difficult questions.

6 Jog your short-term memory

The night before the exam is not the time to be trying to get your head around new concepts. You should be cramming keywords to jog your memory. Hopefully you will have distilled your notes into a couple of summary sheets. Go through these and try and tie the information together.

7 Prepare your body

Two 3 hour exams a day, day after day will leave you feeling drained both mentally and physically. You need to prepare your body as well as mind for a lot of activity. Stuffing yourself with high sugar drinks and sweets will be fine for the first hour but you’ll be completely out of energy by the middle of the exam. Instead, try to eat slow energy release foods such as bread, pasta, porridge and fruit.

8 Ask the invigilator

If you’re stuck on the meaning of a word or can’t understand what a question requires you to do. Put your hand up and ask the invigilator who is supervising the exams. More often than not they’ll help you or point you in the right direction.

9 Look at the marking scheme

Keep an eye out for the marking scheme that shows how many marks are being awarded for each part of a question. If there are only a small amount of marks going for a part of a question then there is no point on writing a long answer, your time is better spent on parts with higher marks.

10 If you’re running out of time

Supposing you find yourself with the time for only one question but two questions are left to do. The best thing you can do here is to do the first half of both questions. You gain way more marks in the first half of a question than at the end. Also if time is tight bullet points can be a great way of getting the information down as quickly as possible.

10 Don’ts of exam technique

1 Don’t panic

Easier said than done we know but it’s important to try and keep level headed throughout the exam. One of the main reasons for stress at exam time is the lack of control. Students get stressed because they don’t know what is coming up.

One of the best things you can do to calm yourself is to visualize yourself in the exam hall. Reading the paper and picking out the questions you are going to do early on will help calm you as it removes the stress caused by the unknown of what’s coming up.

2 Don’t worry about being penalized

Lots of students worry about making mistakes and worry about spelling words incorrectly. Remember you’re being marked positively not negatively so everything you write is getting you marks.

3 Don’t leave out questions

From experience, the main reason students underperform in exams is not because they answer questions badly but because they leave out questions. As a rule of thumb, every long question you leave out will drop you by a grade.

4 Don’t run out of time

Easier said than done I know but managing your time in the exam is vital if you are not to leave out questions. Your teacher will probably give you a breakdown of how much time to spend on each question.

A good trick is to write your question schedule with actual times onto the cover of your answer book while the papers are being handed out. This way, if you look at your watch and it’s say 11:10 you know exactly how much of your exam you should have done.  Also, make sure you stick to your schedule, so many students run overtime perfecting answers maybe gaining 3 marks at the expense of not doing a whole 50-mark question.

5 Don’t be tired

Staying up late the night before an exam is not a good idea. You’ll end up so tired in the exam you won’t be able to work anything out.  Try and keep a regular sleep cycle so that you’re fully awake and ready to work when the exams start at 9:30 each morning.

6 Don’t get stuck on a question

If you get a particularly hard question don’t sit there panicking about it. The best thing you can do is having a quick think about it, mark it with a highlighter and move on to another question. The chances are that by the time you come back to it your subconscious mind will have already set you up to make an attempt at it.

7 Don’t bother looking around the exam hall

One of the most common things students do, especially in exams they find difficult, is to look around and try to see how their classmates are doing. There is really no point in doing this and it is likely that seeing others furiously writing away will only serve to stress you further. Concentrate on your own exam and try and keep your focus on your own paper.

8 Don’t dwell

Once you finish an exam don’t spend half the day worrying about what went wrong and how you could have improved it. Chatting to friends after every exam will only fill you with frustrating regrets. When you hand up your paper, forget about that subject. You’re next focus is tomorrow’s exam.

9 Don’t leave an exam early

There is always something you can do to improve your answers. Read back over your work and make sure you’ve answered all parts of all questions. Try to read your answers as if you were the examiner and you were correcting someone else’s work. Remember the changes you make in these last few minutes could bring you up a grade.

10 Don’t panic

This tip is so important we’ll say it again. If a really hard question or paper comes up it’s likely every other student in Ireland will find it hard too. Very often the marking scheme will be made easier for harder exams. Stay positive and give each exam your best and everything will work out.