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National College of Ireland


Exams guide: Exam Strategies

Day of the Exam Checklist

Day of the Exam Checklist

What time does the exam start?

Where is the exam being held?

Do you know where the room is in the building?

What can you take into the exam?

How long does the exam last?

Do you know the expected format of the exam?

How many questions do you need to answer?

Do some questions carry more marks than others?

Check out the Past Exam Papers for further information

Planning and Presentation

Time for Planning

Once given permission to do so, read over the exam paper carefully for 5 minutes – check how many questions you have to answer and what marks are available for each one; give equal time to questions with equal marks. If there are sub-questions, check if you just need to answer one of them or all of them – also check to see if there are questions or further instructions on the other side of the paper. If there is a separate answer sheet for any section of the paper, make sure you use it. In exams requiring calculations, check to see if you need to show all your calculations in your answers. Look out for instructions such as ‘Commence each answer on new page’.

Reading carefully over the questions again, tick which ones you think you can do, then put two ticks next to any you feel you can do the best

Next, plan your time for the remainder of the exam. Give yourself a finish time for each question and stick to your plan - begin with your best question first as this will help build your confidence. But remember, you should answer all the questions required rather than write the ‘perfect’ answer for just one question; two half-answered questions are likely to receive more marks than one fully answered question and one unanswered question. Also try and leave yourself time to review all your answers at the end

For example, in a three hour exam (180 minutes) requiring you to answer four essay style questions. Spend 10 minutes thoroughly reading over the paper and selecting your questions; then spend 5 minutes planning and 35 minutes writing for each question; at the end give yourself 10 minutes to read over your paper and correct any obvious errors

You do not necessarily have to answer the questions in the order they are laid out on the exam paper, just make sure that you correctly label your answers so it’s clear which question you are answering

Before you start writing an answer to a question, box any instruction words (e.g. discuss, compare, analyse etc.), underline the keywords and terms, then spend 5 minutes to draw up a plan; make sure your plan is relevant and answers the question – one of the most common complaints from examiners is that a student didn’t answer the question. Exams are looking for you to select from your learned knowledge and apply it to the particular question you’ve been given – they are not looking for you to write everything you know on the topic, this will be seen as irrelevant

Planning answers can vastly improve the coherence of your exam paper; the organisation and clarity of your answers are no less important than the content 

A basic structure of introduction, main body and conclusion, is a good template to follow for any essay-style exam question – (a) introduction:- explain what you will be saying and why; outline how you interpret the question; and define any key terms or concepts from the question to demonstrate your understanding of the topic (b) main body:- break this down into the key themes of your answer; although examiners don’t expect you to reference in the same way as coursework, where possible try and provide some examples or authors in your answers to back up what you are saying (c) conclusion:- sum up your main argument points from the main body; explain the significance in the context of the question; refer back to the question, ensuring that you have answered it. Only include information that is relevant to answering the question you’ve been given 

Do not leave an exam early – use all the available time to check your grammar and spelling and correct any mistakes. Make sure that your question answers are clearly labelled or numbered

Before finishing, make sure that your name and student number are clearly written on the paper

Exam Stress

Keep Calm

The best way to do well in your exam is to make sure that you are well prepared and that you have done your revision

Day before exam – do something relaxing before going to sleep; pack your bag for the next day and go to bed early

Day of exam – get up reasonably early, have a good breakfast, get all you need together and give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam; make sure to arrive at the right place at the right time

Once you are seated, compose yourself by laying out what you need

Listen to the invigilator’s instructions carefully

If you run out of time for a question, write out a couple of bullet points for the remainder of the question which you can expand upon if you find time before the end of the exam

If your mind goes blank mid-answer, stay calm; try reading over what you have written already to see if this reminds you of what you intended to say. If not, leave it and you’ll probably remember it when your mind is diverted to something else