Preparing for an Exam Phase 5: The Exam

Preparing for an Exam Phase 5: The Exam looks at how to approach an exam with a thought-out strategy.

Exam day. You sit down, take your writing equipment out, and put everything else on the floor. Helpless. You stare down at the paper.

“Begin,” announces the exam supervisor. The room fills with the sound of rain as each student turns the first page. Soon you hear the scratch of pen on paper. But not from your desk.

You sit, frozen, staring at the paper in front of you whose questions you know the answers to, but you don’t know whether you should answer them now, or after you’ve read the paper from cover to cover, or maybe you should draft something first, wasn’t there an essay question?



You planned your study, found someone whom you studied with each week, and also studied three times a week by yourself. You ate healthily each day and slept enough each night for the past month so that your brain would be ready to perform at its peak.

But you have no strategy.

All the study in the world will not prepare you for cold feet on exam day.

Tip #10: Strategise

My last but most important tip is to create a strategy to complete the exam.

During perusal

Most exams will have a few minutes for perusal at the start, during which time you can read but not write on the exam paper. Use this time to:

  • check that all the pages are there;
  • read through instructions carefully so that you do not miss anything in the exam;
  • allocate time to each question; and
  • work out in what order you will complete the questions.

Read through the instructions

follow directions

Instructions are important and are there for a reason – to tell you what to do.

You will waste exam time if you do not read the instructions properly and realise halfway through that you’re answering the question wrong.

Allocate time and stick to deadlines

Ask you lecturer if you can see past exams. If they all have the same format (question type, size, mark allocation etc.), sit down before the exam and allocate an appropriate amount of time for each question.

Do this in the actual exam during perusal time and be strict about sticking to the time frames you’ve allocated so you stay on track throughout the exam. Doing this will make sure you finish on time.

An important thing to remember is that if you’re stuck on something, move on and come back to it later; getting stuck on a question that’s worth 5/100 marks is not worth not getting time to answer a question that’s worth 30/100 marks.


My rule of thumb for allocating time is to give the question with the most marks the most time. These questions are generally harder because they have more content, and therefore need more time to complete. You should complete this question toward the beginning of the exam to make sure you finish it.

To see how I allocated time for each question in my recent Corporate Writing and Editing exam, see my Hump Day (entry 2) post.

Order the questions appropriately

Begin with answering a few easy questions to kick your brain into gear.

If the exam is large, and there are several questions that are not worth many marks, you should scatter these throughout the others to break up the long questions. Doing this will change the pace and stop your brain from becoming sluggish from answering many long questions in a row.

Finish with a few easy questions as well to rest your brain. Doing this can help clear your mind and make it easier to pick up on any mistakes when you read through your answers.

Answer all questions

Answering every question, even ones you’re not sure the answer of, is very important, because this maximises your possibility of gaining marks.

Read over your work

Reading through your answers is also important, so try to leave time at the end to do this; sometimes you can think of the answer more easily when you’re not under a time pressure, which makes it easier to pick up your mistakes after you’ve finished the exam.


Congratulations – you finished the exam. And hopefully stress-free.


Previous post: Preparing for an Exam Phase 4: Prepare Your Body


Images sourced from:

Gonzalez, Olivia. 2012. “Stressed.” Image. Accessed September 23, 2014.

Ryan, Declan. 2013. “Keep Calm and Follow Directions.” Image. Accessed September 23, 2014.


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