Past papers are invaluable. You cannot get enough of them. But most people don’t use them properly and just do the same thing over and over. And you know what that means? Yes, it becomes almost pointless after a while.
Why Are Past Papers So Useful?
Initially you need to use them to get you used to the level that you are going to face in the exam.
If you don’t use them at all, you are in for a shock when the exam arrives. Some people wait until they are revising before they start looking at them but you should be using them all year round.
You need to become familiar with the types of question that they are going to ask you and to get used to the level of difficulty. You need to practise many things that cannot be left until just before the exam.
For example, you need to have practised many ‘dummy runs’. This means doing a paper under exam conditions (or as close as you can) and seeing how long it takes you. You should be aiming to leave some time at the end to check over your answers.
You need to have a certain level of intensity and urgency about you in an exam. If you are too laid back, you may run out of time. If you are too tense you may also run out of time. If you haven’t practised timing yourself how will you know if you need to push it a bit more or slow down?
Past papers point you in the direction of where you should be focussing your study. Examiners can ask you on anything from your syllabus but if you go through enough past papers you might find that certain topics focus upon certain areas time and time again.
Other Things You Can Do
As I mentioned above, most people only do the past papers like an exam. But there are many other things you can do with them that will again add variety to your study routine.
Analyse the past papers for the types of question that they ask. It’s not just simply enough to have good subject knowledge but you need to be able to use different techniques to answer, for example, short answers versus long answers. At some point you need to be aware of the different types of questions that you are going to get asked and work out how best to answer them.
Go through several years of past papers looking only for questions on one topic, then collate them and look for patterns. Do they start with easy one mark questions, do they build up the marks and finish with a hard question, are the questions the same every year or every 2nd or 3rd year?
Instead of writing the answers, occasionally just go through them mentally. How would you do each question, what are the steps you would take? This is to practise recognition and get you thinking quickly.
Go through the questions as fast as you can. Set yourself an unrealistic time limit and see how many you can get through in that time. This is about the only way that you can create some sense of pressure to simulate the exam. It can also help you develop some intensity if you find you are constantly running out of time.
Do papers from different syllabuses. This is important. After a while you will become too familiar with your own syllabus’ papers and doing them over and over for the sake of it will do you no good. In fact, if you do the same papers over and over, you start to think you are better than you actually are and the first time you see a new question is in the exam. And that means trouble!
Questions from other syllabuses will be worded differently, in a different format and might focus upon other parts of the course. It will get you thinking if nothing else, which is what we need to happen.
Having said all that, doing the same papers more than once can be beneficial too. For example, if initially you only get say 50% correct, keep doing that paper until you get over 90%. And take this as a sign that you are improving. The good thing about doing this is that you will start to expect to get high marks. But once you get the really high grades, move on to something else. Don’t keep flogging it when you know the answers.
Look for past papers from your syllabus but the old syllabus for example from before 2009 for A-Level students. Again, these will just be worded slightly different and get you thinking. Questions from old textbooks can have the same effect. Even if they seem too difficult or you might not get asked it in an exam, it is still worth doing it.
A new one I just thought of, read the marking schemes and try to guess the question.
Reading marking schemes is beneficial anyway, it shows you how concise and to the point you can be and the types of answers certain questions require.
About the Author
Kevin Boyle is a full-time A-level Chemistry Tutor with 15 years experience and a proven track record with students of all abilities. As an online chemistry tutor, he works with students across the UK, equipping them with the skills they need to excel in their exams.