The key to good exam writing is to take your time. It is tempting to rush in, but taking time to read the paper in full, analyse your questions, and make a short plan will help you to stay on track.
Have an exam timetable
Failure to allow enough time to complete all questions is a common mistake. It can be calming when under pressure to have a timetable in mind.
Think about this before the day of the exam. Use past papers to familiarise yourself with the format.
Take a look at our example of an exam timetable (PDF).
Read the paper in full
Read the paper thoroughly before you start. Make sure you know how many questions there are so you can plan your time.
Look through the questions to see what topics are covered and check the wording carefully.
Don’t panic if your preferred topic is not there; look within the other questions to see if it is “hidden” or if you can apply what you know to these.
You might want to answer the question you feel most confident about first, or do that second when you have started to relax in order to maximise your marks from it.
If you aren’t sure which topic to choose, note down a very quick outline for a few topics, and decide which you can answer the best.
Analyse the question
Receiving exam scripts that do not answer the question is a common complaint from markers. To avoid this:
- Re-read the questions and circle key words
- Analyse the wording of the question
- Work out the type of response required: Is it an essay? Short question? Does it require a diagram?
For detailed advice and activities on how to interpret questions see our Interpreting your assignment (activity).
Plan your answers
To help you produce a well-structured answer, make a short plan before you start to write.
Tips on planning your answers:
- Make a short outline or note down some keywords
- Note down any mnemonics or things that you might forget
- Don’t worry about being neat or really comprehensive at this stage; you don't need to spend too much time on it
- Try making a mind-map to generate ideas
- Create an outline paragraph by paragraph. Take a look at our example of Planning in paragraphs (PDF)
- Be flexible: as you start writing, your thinking will evolve
- If ideas for other questions pop up, note them down immediately
- Cross out anything that you don't want to be marked.
Impress your examiners
Keep your examiner in mind as you write. Your examiner wants you to:
- Answer the question
- Demonstrate your understanding
- Keep to the point – do not simply regurgitate everything you know, but address the question directly
- Be analytical and focussed
- Have some structure.
Take a look at our guide for some ideas on how you might be able to Impress your examiner (PDF).
Write short answers and leave good margins in case you think of something else useful that you want to add later.
Exam questions can be easier to tackle than assessed essays. You can write less for each point, provide less evidence and fewer examples, do not need references or a bibliography, and do not need to give as much background detail.
You should however, be able to refer to the main theorists/researchers by name and date of major works or key reports.
Check your answers
When you have finished, look back through your answers. Make sure you have attempted all mandatory questions and have numbered your answers.
Correct any obvious errors (eg spelling and grammar) and re-write any illegible words.
Check whether you have missed anything out. If you have, add in the extra information and clearly indicate where the examiner can find it eg by adding ^ in the margin or “see additional paragraph”.
Have a disaster recovery plan!
Take a look at our short recovery plan to give you techniques that might help if things aren't going to plan on the day.
As with all your writing at University, make sure you think about how it is structured and about using good academic language and style. For more guidance on these see our Structuring your writing and Academic writing pages.