How to do better without knowing more

You may have been revising solidly for months and know everything that can possibly be known. Or you may be relying on last-minute cramming. You may even be winging it on the day of the exam. 

Whatever your preparation, there are some simple tips to make the most of whatever knowledge you have and to make sure you don’t throw marks away because of dodgy exam technique. Mr. Langley, TSR’s tame teacher, takes you through the key points.

Answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question.

Don't answer the question you wish was there.It sounds obvious, but any examiner will tell you that this is the biggest mark loser. It’s just so tempting to see a key word or phrase and just spew out everything you can remember about it. 


  • Keep checking back at the question to keep yourself on track
  • For essays and longer answers, use words from the question regularly
  • Make sure your last sentence addresses the question explicitly

In your exam, don't forget to:

  • Let the examiner see your working out. Put it on the actual exam script, not on a corner of the question paper.
  • Provide the main definitions and explanations that got you to the answer.
  • If it's an essay, plan it carefully with an introduction and a conclusion that goes back to the question. Try to explain the points you make and support them with evidence and examples.

Be positive

Some stress and nerves before an exam is understandable and no bad thing in most cases. But if you go into the exam certain that you’re going to fail, there’s a real danger of panic and resulting brain-freeze. 

Don't worry! Just:

  • Familiarise yourself with the exam room, the journey to and from school or college, waiting for the exam to start and so on. This will help you deal with the real situation
  • See the exam as an opportunity to show what you know – try to enjoy it

Good timing is everything

You can’t really complain if you do badly because you haven't revised much or don't understand things but running out of time is an agonising way to lose marks. You may know everything there is to know, understand every question and possess all the skills needed for an A* but if you mistime the exam these abilities mean little.

Make sure you: 

  • Know exactly how long the exam is, how questions are structured and marks allocated. Also the start and finish times of the exam. Knowing these things lets you work out exactly where you should be in the paper at any point during the exam.
  • Practise the different types of answer in the time allocated as part of your revision. Practise whole papers to get a feel for the length of different answers.
  • Keep an eye on your timings as the exam progresses. If you are in danger of overrunning on one question, think about leaving it, moving on and them coming back to it later.

Show the examiner how clever you are

It's not just about getting the right answer. Marks are often available for how you think the problem through. But if the examiner doesn’t know how you arrived at an answer, they can’t give you credit.