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.

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. 

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 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.

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.

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.

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