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Top Tips - How to Pass Exams - The Essentials

Updated on February 4, 2016
Prepare for Success
Prepare for Success | Source

There are very good reasons for striving to achieve good exam results, and these are not merely restricted to demonstrating the acquisition and recall of a certain specific set of information.

Good exam grades demonstrate an individual's ability to prioritize, work under pressure, put in consistent effort, gather and summarize information, comprehend and solve problems, organize their thoughts, and express themselves clearly and concisely.

Many employers view good exam grades as a demonstration of a level of dedication and intellectual rigour that will be useful to them in the workplace. You may well not ever again need to use the specific information you learned for an exam, but the set of skills you developed in order to pass it are of value and will stick with you for life.

There are two main processes involved in passing an exam:

  • the study period

  • the exam itself

The study period is extremely important, and if done correctly the subsequent exam is actually usually a matter of technique. However, all the months of hard work studying will not be worth anything on exam day, if you are unable to express the knowledge you have retained clearly and concisely, in the correct format, and under the pressure of limited time. A combination of skills are required to make these two parts a whole and achieve the desired result.

Exam Technique – The Essential Golden Rules

The following are some essential rules for success on the day of the exam. If you are interested in more detailed information, the article “Top Tips - How to Pass Exams – Exam Technique” expands on these.

Rule 1: Turn up in good time, at the right place, and with the right equipment

  • This should be self evident

Rule 2: Do Not Panic - no matter how bad the situation seems

  • Panicking will prevent you thinking clearly and will only make things worse

  • Do whatever is necessary to stay calm: close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply, meditate, or ask to leave and get fresh air if necessary, but do not panic

Rule 3: Read the instructions carefully before starting

  • Know the format, number, and order of questions to answer

  • Know how to make corrections without incurring a penalty

  • Know the marking scheme and any special rules

Rule 4: Read all of the questions slowly, calmly, and carefully before starting

  • Don't let the wording shock you into panic, the questions will be on the subject you have studied

  • Take your time to understand them

  • Don't let a simple misreading due to speed compromise your whole answer

Rule 5: Always check the back page

  • You would be surprised how often a question here is missed

Rule 6: Select your questions based on your known strengths

  • Your knowledge and favourite subjects

  • Where can you be sure of the most marks?

    • Via 10 x 2 point questions, or 1 x 20 point essay etc.

Rule 7: Allocate your time, prioritize, and stick to your plan

  • Allow for:

    • Initial reading of instructions and questions, and question selection

    • Answering each chosen question

    • Checking your answers, making corrections, and dealing with emergencies

Rule 8: Obtain the easiest / most certain marks as quickly and efficiently as possible

  • Minimize the pressure on yourself for the remainder of the exam by building a solid foundation of guaranteed marks.

  • Don't write more than is necessary to get the marks for a particular question

Rule 9: Answer the question which is actually being asked

  • Re-read each question before you start it, and determine which specific part of the subject / curriculum is being tested

  • Ask yourself “What knowledge or skills do they want me to demonstrate?”

  • Give the answer the examiner wants, not the one you want to give

Rule 10: Don't forget to write your name on the paper

  • That would be a waste of all your hard work

Rule 11: Emergencies

  • Have an emergency plan for disaster scenarios:

    • a complete answer rewrite

    • a missed question

    • an obligatory question(s) about which you know little

    • time trouble

  • Work out how you could gain the most marks possible in the given time.

Rule 12: Other Items

  • Show your working (Maths working, notes and essay plans), it may earn you points, particularly if the end result is actually wrong.

  • Don't waste time being distracted by others

  • Remember, if you are finding it hard, then everyone else will be too

Preparation is Half the Battle
Preparation is Half the Battle

The hard work of exam passing is usually done in the initial study period and the preparation phase. Here are the golden rules for studying. For a more comprehensive discussion see the article “Top Tips - How to Pass Exams – Study Technique”.

Study Technique – The Essential Golden Rules

Rule 1: Know the full scope of the subject to be examined

  • Obtain the curriculum / syllabus from the exam board

  • Remember the full curriculum is not always taught

  • Read around the subject where necessary. This puts your knowledge in context.

Rule 2: Start studying early

  • The earlier the better. Make it a part of your life.

  • Regularly review important lessons and concepts throughout the course of study

Rule 3: Understand rather than memorize if possible

  • Recall of memorized facts can fail you in pressure situations

  • If you truly understand something, recalling it is usually not a problem

  • Work initially on comprehension, then later on retention and recall

  • Study little and often from the beginning, and you won't have to cram or prioritize one exam or topic over another at the end

Rule 4: Find something in the subject to be interested in

  • You learn faster and make more lasting memories when you are interested

  • If all else fails, take pleasure in learning something difficult for the sake of it

Rule 5: Understand your learning style - Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic (sensory)

  • Adapt your study to suit. Use a range of styles to see which works best.

Rule 6: Reduce your notes to a list of essential information per subject

  • Categorize and group the information

  • Memorize these essentials and use them as a framework and aide memoire for the rest

Rule 7: Get familiar with the exam format

  • Practise with past papers

  • Practise taking the exam under exam conditions

Rule 8: Practise your exam technique

  • Particularly question selection. Which types of questions do you score best on?

  • Identifying the easy marks

  • Your emergency plans. E.g. spending 10 minutes on a 30 minute question

Rule 9: Work on your weaknesses

  • Studying the things you know well and enjoy is good, but you may gain more overall marks if you work to improve your weak points

Rule 10: Take regular study breaks

  • In a session, parcels of 30 minutes studying followed by 5-10 minutes away will help the information sink in

Rule 11: Divide your study time efficiently

  • Aim to cover everything at least twice

  • Focus dynamically on the areas of greatest reward based on your goals

  • For multiple exams, increasing one exam score by 10% (from a good grade to a better one) may not be of the same benefit to you as converting another exam score from a fail into a pass using the same time and effort

Rule 12: Last Minute Preparation

  • Cramming. Definitely not a substitute for deep understanding, but better than nothing

  • Get everything ready the day before

  • Get a good night's rest and eat well


Remember, both the study period and the exam require different strategies and techniques and it is the combination of the two processes that will lead to success.

Studying for and passing an exam well is just like training for and running a marathon. If you put in all of the necessary hours of hard work prior to the race, the day itself should not be too difficult. Yes, there may be one or two unexpected challenges or difficulties along the way, but your sound preparation should get you through. On the other hand, if your preparation is not up to scratch then you will probably suffer on the day, though you may still struggle round.

Hopefully these essential tips will help you in your quest for exam success.


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