Maximising Exam Performance

Read the question

This is such a common tip for exam performance improvement that it seems almost unnecessary to repeat it here. However, it remains one of the top reasons for candidates under-performing – whether multiple choice or written answer paper examinations.

Remember, exams are not about setting traps or catching people out. They are about you showing the examiner you know your subject and you can demonstrate what you know to answer the question.

Do not just read the question – understand the question and look for the meaning and purpose behind it. What is the question about?

This advice applies equally to written paper and multiple-choice exams.

Make sure you read question instructions too so that you are aware of any special format requirements and of compulsory aspects of the paper. 

Plan your answer

We have said several times in this course just how important the format of the exam paper is in terms of allocating time to different questions.

For written answer papers – and especially essay questions – it is extremely important to spend time planning the content of your answers. A plan is a pathway to an organised answer paper and to better marks.

Once you have opened the paper, skim read the questions and make notes or comments as you go. It is possible that you can identify some definite yes or definite no options from the range of optional questions at this stage.

Select the questions you intend to answer and using some rough paper put together a framework for the exam so that you know your time limitations at all times. Populate each time slot with some notes and headings pertinent to each of the questions you will answer.

Within your framework, allow time for reading and making notes and for review at the end. Do not dwell on any particular question, even if it is compulsory, and make sure you balance your time well between the marks available.

Compose your answer

Putting to paper the opening words of your written answer can often be a stumbling point. Whilst it is not necessary for you to repeat word for word the question (this can waste valuable time and energy), to paraphrase it in your opening paragraph can be just what you need to get off the mark.

Write as much as you can but keep your answer concise, relevant, clear and as neat as possible. Make your writing legible, as some examiners may not be prepared to decipher the indecipherable.

It may be useful to underline key words and you must ensure you implement any conventions of the examining body, for example, avoidance of coloured pens, referencing etc.

A final tip is to try and put yourself in the shoes of the examiner. What would you be looking for from an answer paper if you were marking – not writing – it?


Using your copy of a past examination paper (see topic called ‘Exam Papers’) put together a plan for how you would propose answering the questions.

Make a note of how long this takes you.

Practice this process as often as you can so that it becomes a natural first step of an examination.