Mastering Exam Technique

Exam Technique

What is Exam Technique?

I hear it over and over from students that they need help with exam technique. They feel that they are losing marks somewhere in exams that they shouldn’t be. Somehow they cannot get the marks that they deserve.

Quite often students can have great knowledge of a subject but still not get high marks. This means that they do not know how to translate their knowledge into marks, which is a big part of exam technique.

Exam Technique is Translating Knowledge into Marks

This means that you need to stop making silly mistakes, be able to identify what the question is asking you and be able to write good clear answers. All of this has been covered in the Study Skills tutorials. So this exam technique stuff can be practised over and over, it has to be part of your study routine.

If you study how I have recommended, then you will be good at exams. Everything I suggest is always with the exam in mind as that is what you are assessed on.

There are also a few other little things that you can do technique wise on the day of the exam that will assist you and possibly save you some marks here and there.

In the exam it is really all about giving yourself the best chance to get as high a grade as possible. The study and revision is the hard part. Once you have done this, the exam is just a case of not doing anything crazy.

But once you get good at this you can take it one step further and squeeze extra marks out the paper that you wouldn’t normally get when revising at home. The situation, the nerves and the fact that it is the exam, can work in your favour.

Below I have summarised what I think you should work on that will improve your exam technique.


Everything that they ask you is based upon something that you have done.

You must believe this, as it is actually true. If you think this way then it will transform your approach to questions and you will lose a lot of the fear. In fact, this is the most common complaint that I hear….”that was a weird exam”. Almost word for word, every single year!

Remember…exam questions just test you on a basic concept every single time. You just need to identify it.

If the exam was based on something that you haven’t done, then what is the point in even studying?

Silly Mistakes

If you can stop making silly mistakes you will save yourself so many marks. This should the first place you look at in your overall exam process to improve your marks quickly.

Take your time when you read the question. Just make an effort to slow down. Put your pen down and give yourself a chance to think logically. Read the question several times. Do not just start writing.

Look for those trigger words, look for clues and mentally form a structure for your answer. Once you have done this, you should be on the right path.

You must leave time at the end of the exam to go back through the paper looking for silly mistakes. This will also save you many marks.

Answering Questions

General advice on how to write better answers is difficult as there are so many different types of question across different subjects.

But! You always need structure and clarity. Every single answer must flow and be easy to read. If it is a mess, you leave yourself open to the examiners discretion.

As we have looked at before, the main part of answering questions is done mentally very quickly. So just by studying properly with concepts and recognition in mind, you will improve drastically at this part.


It all comes back to how long you take to do an exam and the rhythm that you have.

Generally, you should be fairly intense ready for the exam. Almost controlled aggression. If you are too laid back you will run out of time. But also, when you have a sense of urgency or intensity, it can sometimes enable you to magically pull answers out the air.

So, this all means that you go slow at the start of the question when you need to be careful and then increase your pace at other times.

My aim was always to do the exam as quickly as I could but without sacrificing any quality. This takes practise. It doesn’t actually matter if you do it in half the time given, as long as you have done it well.

If you are very well prepared then you should do it a lot quicker than expected. You then of course have time to go back over it again. In fact, if you don’t go over it at least once then you are throwing marks away.

The “Magic” Technique

This is mentioned in the Saving Marks tutorial in more detail. Briefly, I recommend reading through a question from start to finish before you start to write anything. This ties in with slowing down, doing the exam in layers and it also has many other benefits.

You could read through several questions before you even begin the paper to give yourself a bit of time to relax.

The Order

Another thing that you can do is vary the order that you do the questions. Most people start at question 1 and finish at the end. You don’t have to do this.  

A lot of people will say get stuck on a question and only move on after wasting a lot of time or eventually answering it, which is a great way to make sure you run out of time!

If there are different sections in your exam, you may find that you prefer a latter section to the first one. This means it could be more beneficial to you to start with the latter section.

At the start of the exam you are not at your best. You may be nervous and it takes a bit of time to get comfortable. If you start at question 1 and it’s a beast then it could harm your confidence instantly.

On the other hand, let’s say, question 5 is one that you could do easily, then why not start with that and build some confidence?


Another technique is to do the exam in “layers”. By this I mean do it more than once. You’re probably now shouting, “do it more than once!” “Are you insane?” “Have you taken leave of your senses?” “I don’t even want to do it once never mind 2 or 3 times!”

It’s actually crazy to start at question 1 then work your way to the end in exactly the time given for the exam. It makes no sense.

You could go through it fairly quickly at first, either mentally noting answers or writing one word that could prompt you later on (see Saving Marks tutorial for more on this).

You could then go back to the start and start writing in the answers properly. This means that you have really done the exam twice. The more times you do it, the easier it is. Imagine doing a past paper once and getting 50%. You then do it the next day and the day after that and you should improve each time. This theory applies here too. It’s all about familiarity.

Or you could just keep repeating this process until you run out of time. The idea is that each time you “start again” you will improve something. You might find a silly mistake or notice that you misread something or find that you could have added more detail. You are building up your answers each time until you think it is as good as it can be.

Warm Up

Would you start playing a sport without warming up? Well you might, but it’s best not to, you might pull a muscle or at best you won’t be very sharp for 10 minutes.

Exams are the same. You have to do something before you go in, otherwise it could take, 10-20 minutes until you are actually working at your usual level. Remember you will be nervous too.

In that 20 minutes you could have made a lot of mistakes and it will vary depending on how you feel and your mood on different days.

Instead, just read over some notes for 15-20 minutes on the morning of the exam. That is it. The aim is just to warm up. Not to test yourself or to learn anything, just to get the brain focussed upon that subject.

Warning! When you do this, you might panic a bit and think that you can’t remember anything. I have had this a lot. It’s just nerves. If you have done the preparation, you must trust yourself and that once you start it will all be good.

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.