How to use past exam papers to ace your exams

Student looking pleased working on her laptop

Using past papers is a fantastic way to revise, but how do you make the most of them?

"Do every past paper, twice if possible," says TSR member Yellow 636.

Getting your head around past papers is essential. They can show you where you need to improve and how to perfect your exam technique.

And while simply going through them and answering the questions is useful, there are ways you can get even more out of them.

If mark schemes, specifications and examiners' reports all sound a bit confusing, don’t worry. After reading this article you’ll be able to use past papers to really get on top of your subject and nail your exams.

Don't forget to visit our our study help forum to get more advice about using past papers and to read other revision tips students are sharing.

Read more: how to study effectively for your exams

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Where can you find past papers?

Make use of the exam mark scheme

Mark schemes will help you work out where you’ve gained and lost marks, and how well you’re answering the questions.

Sometimes, “mark schemes are so specific, and so even when you know the topic well, you can still do really badly if you haven't done any past papers,” says UnknownAnon. 

Be aware that there are sometimes key terms you need to cover to get marks: “you have to hit exact points and if you don’t it’s 0 marks,” warns ayemariec.

This is why using a mark scheme is essential. It helps you not to lose any marks for questions you’ve understood, but failed to answer in the way the examiners want. 

You should also use mark schemes to identify weaker areas that you need to brush up on. 

Read more: the revision timetable you'll actually stick to

Get familiar with the exam structure

Past papers help you get used to the structure and typical wording of the exam paper.

It’s really important you know what to expect so that there aren’t any surprises on the day. Get to know the structure for each of your subjects, and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is the paper divided into sections? 

2. What choice is there over which questions to answer? 

3. How much time should you be spending on each section? 

4. Have you covered all the topics in your lessons?

You might find that you’ve been taught how to answer questions on one topic. Make sure you know which you’re covering so you don’t try to answer the wrong questions on the day.

Read more: students who got A*s at A-level explain study, learning and revision tips everyone can follow

Read the examiners' reports

“Focus on exam practice by reading the examiners' report,” says YounesB. 

This is great advice, and he isn’t the only one who follows it: “I also printed off examiners' reports for some chemistry papers to see what common mistakes are, and what you're not supposed to do,” says chantellerose. 

Each year, comments from people who mark the exams are collected together and published in a report. These make really useful resources as they let you know what examiners are looking for, and common mistakes made by students sitting the exam. 

By reading through them, you can learn what not to do and the mistakes to avoid.

Read more: how do I revise when I'm really lazy? 

Use the exam board specification

Have a look at the exam board's specification, and try to link areas of the specification against the questions in the papers.

“I think it's really useful to make notes from the specification on their website. I do the same exam board and I know they can only ask what is on the specification,” says Katniss15.

Students taking exams in 2022 are able to access advance information for most GCSE and A-level exams, which often consists of a list of the topics that will be assessed – there's a bit more on advance information below, including where you can find it. 

In regular years, examiners try to cover most of the specification each year in their questions. They will also vary the issues they ask about each year. It’s pretty dangerous to rely on ‘question spotting’, but you may well be able to try to predict exam questions by identifying certain topics that appear again and again – or some that haven’t been asked about for a while. 

teenager studying on the floor

Get a little help from your friends

Group revision is really useful for getting a complete picture. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees when you’re going through your own work. 

Plan answers to several papers, then compare them with each other. “It can be useful to take a question with the mark scheme and make a model answer,” says Katniss15. 

Go through your answers together and check them against the mark scheme. That way you’ll be able to highlight where you're all doing well and what still needs work.

Read more: how to do the best preparation for your GCSE and A-level mock exams

Will GCSE and A-level exam papers in 2022 follow the same structure as previous years?

Students taking GCSEs and A-levels in 2022 can access advance information about most subjects, which has been released by exam boards to help students focus their revision. 

So, how does this advance information affect the ways you can use past papers? 

For all the subjects that have advance information, the exam boards have confirmed there will not be changes made to the structure of the exam papers – meaning you'll be able to confidently use past papers to prepare for your exams without worrying that any changes will be made. 

The subjects that do not have advance information may have some adjustments made to the usual structure of their papers. These subjects are: 

  • GCSE English Literature
  • GCSE History
  • GCSE Ancient History
  • GCSE Geography
  • GCSE Art and Design
  • A-level and AS-level level Art and Design. 

You'll be able to find out more about any changes being made to each subject's papers on the relevant exam board's website. 

This article on advance information has links out to the relevant exam boards – which is where you can reliably access accurate advance information and other adjustments – and links to more detailed articles about specific GCSE and A-level exam boards and subjects. 

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