How to use past exam papers to ace your exams

Using past papers is a fantastic way to find out how your revision is going, where you need to improve and for getting to grips with exam technique. With exams fast approaching, we've put together this handy guide to help you revise using past papers.


Past papers are an important tool for revision. “Do every past paper, twice if possible,” says Yellow 636.
Getting your head around past papers is essential, as they help you to understand the way your subject is structured. While simply going through past papers and answering the questions is useful, you can get so much more out of them.

If mark schemes, specifications, Chief Examiner reports and past papers 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.

“I think my Easter holiday will consist of drowning in past papers,” says chantellerose. Here’s how to swim not sink.

1. 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. Asurat explains that this is why using a mark scheme is essential. It helps you not to lose any marks for questions you’ve understood, but haven’t answered the way the examiners want.

You should also use the mark scheme to idenify weaker areas that you need to brush up on.

More on TSR:
Find TSR's collection of past papers here
How many past papers is enough for a module in maths?
I've lost all motivation to revise!

2. Learn the structure of the exam paper

Past papers help you get used to the structure and wording of the exam. It’s really important you’re familiar with them so that there aren’t any surprises on the day. Make sure you get your head around the structure for each subject, and ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is the paper divided into sections?

2. What choice is there?

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

4. Have you covered all the sections 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.

3. Read the Chief Examiner’s Reports

“Focus on exam practice by reading the Examiner’s 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.

What is the Chief Examiners Report? Each year, comments from people who mark the exams are collected together and published. These are really useful 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 what mistakes you need to avoid.

More on TSR:
2016 A-Level Exam Threads Directory!
2016 GCSE Exam Threads Directory
Manisha's study vlogs

4. 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. Chantellerose also uses the specification to make sure she’s on top of all the topic and understands everything.

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 find certain topics that appear again and again - or some that haven’t been asked about for a while.


5. 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 everyone is doing well and what still needs work.

Have you found past papers for your subjects? TSR has a bank of them here. As guitaristemily says: “time to get downloading.”