Exam day tips

The big day arrives. How do you make sure it is productive and stress is minimal?

Before the exam

  • The night before
    • Pack your bag for the next day, eat a good meal and try to get a good night’s sleep.
    • If you’re feeling anxious, relaxation techniques can help you to sleep. Try some of the following:
    • Check the latest exam timetable for the date, time, room and what can be taken into each exam (e.g. calculators, notes, etc.). Note any last-minute changes.
    • If your exam is earlier or later than you normally travel to university, check public transport timetables. Ensure you arrive with time to spare.
    • Limit revision to any exam notes or flash cards you have made during your earlier – now is not the time to dive back into your lecture notes.
    • If you want to reassure yourself of your knowledge you may like to try the following:
    • List or recite the main points on a topic and then check your recall against your revision notes.
    • Look over your essay plans, formulae and/or any memory aids you have devised.
    • Remind yourself that you will earn more marks by being refreshed and alert in the exam than by trying to cram another topic. Last minute cramming may make you anxious.
  • On exam day
    • Allow plenty of time in the morning to get yourself ready to leave on time for the exam. Have a healthy meal; preferably with protein and complex carbohydrates such as an egg on toast or muesli. You need something that will keep you going over several hours.
    • Snacks are a good idea to sustain you through the exam, but make sure they are non-smelly, non-messy and quiet to eat! Nuts and fruit bars can keep you going.
    • Dress appropriately for the weather and remember that exam rooms can sometimes be a little extreme in temperature, so be prepared.
    • Make sure you take your student card and appropriate writing instruments (pens, pencils, ruler, eraser, etc.).
    • Arrive in good time. Talking to other students about the exam may reduce your confidence so stick to neutral topics of conversation, or perhaps talk about what you might all do after the exam.

    If you feel tense or anxious:

    • Keep it in perspective. A little anxiety is healthy before an exam because exams are important, and they matter to you. Reassure yourself that it’s okay and you can deal with it.
    • If you have time before the exam, a brisk walk round the building can reduce muscle tension and ‘burn off’ tension.  Moving your fingers and toes will keep muscles loose; deep breathing can reduce anxiety.
    • If you have had a bad experience in an exam before, this may make you more anxious. Try practising some grounding techniques to draw you back into the present place and time.

    One common grounding technique is to think of five things you can see in your immediate surrounds, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

    For more ideas about grounding, watch this short video:

In the exam

  • Reading time

    During reading time, get an overview of the entire paper by scanning through it first.

    • Read the instructions very carefully and work out how many questions you need to answer.
    • Calculate the time you can spend on each answer relative to its mark value. For example, if question 1 is worth 20% of the marks for a 3-hour paper, should spend about 35 minutes on it.
    • Allow yourself 10-15 minutes review time for the end.
    • Decide which questions are the best ones to attempt. Skim the paper again and tick any questions you feel you could attempt. Then go back and read these carefully.
    • Decide the order in which you will respond. The general rule is to attempt the ones worth most marks reasonably early.
    • You could also start with what seems easiest to you. Leave the ones you are least sure about until last; you may get some ideas about them along the way.

    Carefully, analyse the questions you will attempt.


    • What exactly is the question asking?
    • Can it be broken down into parts?
    • Can I restate it in simpler terms?
    • How does it relate to the semester’s work?
    • What information is provided?
    • Are there any clues elsewhere in the paper?
  • During writing time

    As soon as you can, write a few things down:

    • List, in order, the questions you will attempt.
    • Write your time allowance per question.
    • Write out formulae, key terms, lists or plans you have memorised and note which questions you will apply them to.
    • Re-read your question and plan your answer. Don’t rush or feel you have to begin straight away. Some students prefer to write a brief outline of their planned response for each question before they begin writing detailed responses. This may help if you know your concentration wanes over time. Also, if you have a mental blank later, you have your outline to refer to.
    • Stick to your allocated time for each answer – if you get stuck, move on. If, despite your best efforts, you run out of time, jot down notes on how you would have proceeded to solve the problem or answer the question. Point form is fine at this stage.
    • If you have no idea of the answer, don’t leave a blank. Write down anything you can think of related to the question.
  • Tips for maximising your marks in the exam
    • Avoid spending too long on difficult questions for which your answer may or may not be correct. You may run out of time to answer the questions you are more confident about.
    • Be sure to answer the question asked. Answers unrelated to the question will earn zero marks.
    • Answer all parts of the question. Be aware that essay or short answer questions can contain parts. For example, ‘How and why are contemporary romantic films different from those of the classic Hollywood period?’ Discuss both ‘How’ and ‘why’.
    • Try to identify how marks have been allocated. For example, if you are asked to explain four causes of heart disease and the question is worth 20 marks, it is likely that five marks are available for each part.
    • Make sure your writing is legible. Examiners are under time constraints. If they struggle to read our writing, you may not get all the marks you deserve.
    • For mathematical or scientific calculations, check your responses carefully. For written responses check that your ideas are clear and on target. Don’t lose ‘easy’ marks for leaving out a key word or a decimal point.

After the exam

Nothing you do after the exam will change your mark for that exam, so don’t dwell on it. Do something you know you will enjoy.

After you’ve had a break, however, it’s worth reviewing your performance. The aim is not to agonise over ‘what you could have done’, but rather to identify where you could improve your results next time. Reflect:

  • Were you sufficiently prepared?
  • Which areas of exam revision could you improve?
  • Was stress management an issue?
  • Did you manage your time in the exam effectively?

Also, after the exams have been marked, it may be useful to work with a tutor, other students or an Academic Skills adviser to identify where you could have gained extra marks.

What will your exam strategy be next time?

Things to consider

Consider the following if they apply to you:

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an individual appointment, or get quick advice from one of our Academic Writing Tutors in our online drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice