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Secrets of Successfully Sitting Exams, by A K Whitehead.

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Many people work hard studying various subjects to sit for examinations in them. Fine. Hard work is usually a necessary condition for passing exams. Unfortunately it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition! Exam technique can be almost equally as important. It can make all the difference between success and failure or between poor grades and good grades.

As students, we often complain about the examination system. That is usually because we feel the pressure of an uncertain outcome. But like all systems we need to understand its mechanics in order to make it work for us.

What follows is largely concerned with exams needing written answers, rather than mathematically-based subjects.

Frustrating Examiners.

This section applies as much to writing course work as to examination answers

When you consider writing essays, also consider the person who will have to read them. He/she has a psychology. Make it work for you, not against you. Most examiners do their job well and effectively but...

Exam assessors usually have a mountain of scripts to wade through. They like to get through them faster rather than slower, with relative ease rather than difficulty. When they find a script which facilitates the two former objects, they are delighted and their disposition towards the writer soars.

A great frustration is caused by having to dig into the essay to discover whether or not the student has given a correct or acceptable answer. Sometimes this job is very difficult. The examiner has to read and reread the essay to discover what is actually being said. Sometimes an actual decision has to be made by the examiner as to whether a correct answer has, in fact, been given, because the composition is so obtuse.

Some method is needed which will avoid this situation and which will improve the examiner's disposition towards the writer.

Writing Effectively.

Writing effectively in exams is really not that difficult. There is a simple technique which can be used and adopted to virtually every type of question.

The technique is to divide your essay into three (unequal) parts: 1. An introduction, 2. An expansion of 1, and 3. A conclusion. Numbers 1 and 3 are quite short and basically say the same thing except in rather different ways.

1. The introduction is critical and is a short version of the answer. This lets the examiner know immediately that you know what you are talking about. It require slight differences of emphases depending on the actual wording of the question.

For example, a question which asks something like "What are the factors which influence..." needs an introductory answer which starts something like: "The factors which influence so-and-so are... " And you mention them in descending order of importance. A question of the type: "Discuss such-and-such..." needs an answer which starts something like: "When discussing such-and-such one needs to take account of..." and then mention the major points which you consider to be important and which you are going to discuss.

There may be other variations in the phrasing of the question, but the approach you adopt needs to be always the same: present the examiner with what is effectively a concise answer to the question. It usually takes no more than a few lines, maybe a dozen at most. He/she will jump up and down in excitement at having found someone who not only knows the answer but who can also actually make it explicit.

2. The expansion of the essay is simply a development to show that whatever you said at 1. is correct or relevant. This takes up most of the essay. Use a new paragraph for every new point. Don't be afraid to be pedantic. End each of these paragraphs by relating what you have said directly back to the question. e.g. "Hence it can be seen that..." and so forth.

If, during the course of writing your answer, you suddenly remember a really major point which really should have come earlier, just "knit" it in as if this is where you always intended it to go. Thus: "Of course, a further point which needs to be given especially emphasis at this juncture is..." Try and make it seem the most natural place to put it. The examiner may think it better put elsewhere, but he will not usually penalise you for that.

3. The conclusion will be little more than a restatement of the introduction - but you do need a conclusion. During the writing of the essay you may have thought of some other points not mentioned in the introduction. If so, be sure to mention them in the conclusion.

Read Before You Write.

Always spend at least six/seven minutes out of a three hours exam reading the question paper. Read it three times. The first to get a general impression. The second to mark any question which you can reasonably attempt. The third to check that your second reading decisions were accurate - sometimes, in the face of nervous tension, they are not. This is time well spent. As an invigilator, one often groans within at seeing student grabbing their pens and beginning to write before the clock has stopped chiming the hour to commence!

Dividing Time.

Unless some questions have unequal shares in the total marks possible, always divide your time equally between the questions. There are severe diminishing returns to each extra minute spent on the present question - more could be added to the overall total by going onto the next.


As already said, don't throw away your hard work during the year through bad or non-existent exam technique. With good technique it is, in fact, possible to do rather well with skimpy knowledge (although one does not advocate the practice!), whereas it is commonplace for students to underachieve by neglecting their technique.

About the author: A K Whitehead B.A., M.Phil., Cambridge University Certificate in Religious Studies (+ many other exam successes on the way) He has also set and marked and invigilated numerous examinations.
Web Site: www.christianword.co.uk Conditions Of Use: This article may be reproduced physically or electronically providing that it and this end statement is not altered in any way without express permission.

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