Exam performance tips

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

Time management in your 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, you 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.
  • Leave the questions you are least sure about until last; you may get some ideas about them along the way.

Carefully, analyse the questions you will attempt. Ask:

  • 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?

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.

Tips for maximising your marks:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Reflect on your performance 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.


  • 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?

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