What to expect from an exam

students in an exam

Here’s what happens before, during and after an exam, to help you feel fully prepared for your GCSEs or A-levels this summer

While exams themselves are hard to predict, the experience of taking one is almost always the same. So if you know what to expect, hopefully you can ease your nerves.

We'll talk you through how to prepare before you sit an exam, what will happen while you're taking it – as explained by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) – and share some exam technique tips from members of The Student Room.

Before you sit the exam

Make sure you know which exam board’s paper you’re sitting

Every GCSE and A-level exam is categorised not only by subject and paper but also by exam board.

There are six main exam boards in the UK. They are:

  • AQA – England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Pearson Edexcel – England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • OCR – England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • WJEC Eduqas – Wales, also used in England and Northern Ireland
  • CCEA – Northern Ireland
  • SQA – Scotland

Each exam board sets its own specification – that is, the topics that you’ll have been taught and that could potentially come up in the exam.

This means that the questions that could come up on an AQA English Literature exam, for example, would be different to the questions on an Edexcel English Literature exam.

It’s important to know which exam board your school is using for each subject you’re taking so you can make sure you’ve revised the right specification.

student taking exam paper

Take past papers

Past papers are exam papers that students took in previous years, and which the exam boards publish on their websites.

They're a really useful tool for perfecting your exam technique – if you practice them under timed conditions they’ll help you get used to both the paper’s structure and to allocating your time so you can answer the questions as fully as possible. 

This article has lots of advice about how to make the most of past papers, with tips from members of The Student Room.

Don’t make plans to go away during the exam period

You should be available for the whole exam period – from 15 May to 28 June 2023 – just in case anything happens that means changes need to be made to the exam timetable, the JCQ guidance says.

The final day of scheduled exams is 21 June, but 28 June is a contingency day – meaning it’s been set aside as a day that exams could be rescheduled to if absolutely necessary.

“It is important that you’re available and avoid booking any holidays or committing to any plans that you can’t change between these dates,” the JCQ guidance reads.

Make sure you’ve packed all your exam essentials – and that you don’t take in any banned items

There are strict rules around what you are and are not allowed to take into an exam. You should take in:

  • Pens with black ink – you won’t be allowed to write in any other colour
  • If you’re carrying your pens in a pencil case, make sure it’s see-through
  • Any specialist equipment that you’re allowed in that particular exam, such as a calculator – ask your teacher beforehand if you're not sure
  • Water in a see-through bottle

And make sure you’ve left anything that’s not allowed in the exam somewhere safe, ideally outside the exam room. You won't be allowed to take in any items that could be used to access the internet, like mobile phones and smartwatches.

If you do accidentally take any banned items into the exam room with you, let the invigilator know right away - they will be placed out of your reach before the exam starts.

Otherwise, hanging on to any of these items during the exam could get you disqualified from the exam - even if you don’t plan on using them.

multiple choice maths exam paper

During the exam

What will the exam hall look like?

Individual chairs and desks will be spaced out in rows throughout the room, with everyone facing in the same direction.

There will be invigilators standing in the exam hall with you, and a few moving around the room. 

There will be a visible clock in the exam room, so you’ll be able to keep an eye on how much time you spend on each question.

What will happen when I go into the exam hall?

Exam conditions start as soon as you walk into the exam room and don’t end until you’ve left the room – which means you won’t be able to talk to anyone else taking the exam, even while you’re finding your seat.

On your desk, you will have a face-up copy of the question paper as well as any additional papers, such as an answer booklet and additional answer sheets – don’t touch these until the invigilator says otherwise.

The invigilator will ask everyone to double-check that they haven’t accidentally brought any banned items into the exam with them – if you have, you can hand them in now without risking malpractice.

Next, the invigilator will tell everyone to check that they have been given the right paper for the day and subject, and to fill in their candidate details on the front of the answer booklet or question paper and on any additional answer sheets you end up using.

After this, the invigilator will ask everyone to read the instructions on the front of the question paper and to check that they have all the materials they need for the exam.

The invigilator will remind you to not communicate with any other candidates during the exam, and explain that if you need the invigilator’s attention at any point you should put your hand up and they’ll come over to you.

Finally, they will let you know when you can begin the exam and how much time you’ll have until it finishes.

During the exam, the invigilator will be able to help you if you have a problem and are not sure what you should do, if you don’t feel well or if you need more paper. They won’t be able to help you with understanding any of the questions on the exam, though.

What happens at the end of the exam?

The invigilator will finish the exam by asking everyone to stop working and put their pens down. 

If you’ve used more than one answer booklet or supplementary answer sheets, you’ll be asked to put them in the right order with any loose sheets inside the answer booklet - and make sure that you’ve written your details on any additional answer sheets.

The invigilators will collect all of the exam papers. You won’t be able to leave the exam room until all the papers have been collected and the invigilator has told you that you can leave.

Remember that you’re under exam rules while you’re still in the room, so you’ll have to wait a few minutes until you’re out the door to compare answers and chat through the exam.

exam paper preparation

A few tips to help you ace your exam technique

Finally, here are some tips from members of The Student Room that could help you out if you feel stuck in any of your exams.

“Read the entire paper through to the end. That way, your mind is already tuned into the topics that you need to answer, and you can stop worrying about remembering things about any topics that haven't turned up,” suggests username1307314.

“Go for the questions you know you will get right. Doesn't matter if that’s a one mark, or six mark question… Once you've done those easier questions, go for the question with the most marks,” they finish.

“If you are running out of time, look for a question with a lot of marks and with a broad answer range like an essay and make as many notes as you can on it,” comments Jack Sparrow.

And just in case you suddenly get struck by inspiration for a question you’ve already answered “always leave a little space after questions so you can go back to them. Alternatively you can write ‘question six continued’ at the end of the script – the examiners will mark this as normal,” Jack Sparrow adds.

It’s also important to make sure your answer stays on topic to the question: “take time to read the question and highlight any key words if necessary and if you know that you will quickly go off tangent without a reminder,” says PricklyPorcupine.

“Also, sometimes the answer to certain questions are scattered throughout the paper so if you don't understand, leave it and you might find the answer or you might have a eureka moment when you suddenly find the right answer as you are subconsciously filing through all the things you know to find the answer,” they continue.

“Keep answers short and sweet; make it concise with good grammar and spelling plus some key words and some 'impressive' words related to the subject only,” finishes PricklyPorcupine. 

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