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Preparing for exams

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

The best possible way to feel less anxious about exams is to be prepared. That means doing your revision, getting used to writing by hand, practising writing timed exam answers, and getting yourself informed about what to expect when you get to the exam room. The less you leave to the last minute, the more relaxed you'll feel, freeing yourself up to focus all your energy on getting the results your deserve. So thinking beforehand about the strategies you might use in the exam room to plan and write your answers will help you to feel calmer and more prepared.

The night before the exam

Check all your information – Make sure you know exactly where your exam will be – the venues may be different for each exam. Gather what you will need to take into the exam room (pens, water, allowed texts, calculator, campus card etc). The Exams Office have various guides for students that will tell you everything you need to know,.

Some tips to help you sleep...

- Stop revising 90 minutes before preparing for bed and find a way to relax - perhaps with friends, music, book, TV etc

- Avoid smartphone, tablet and laptop screens for an hour before you plan to go to bed. The type of light used to illuminate them can disrupt your sleep rhythms.

- Have a warm bath or shower and try a relaxation exercise.

- Lavender oil, herbal sleep tablets and camomile tea may be helpful but try them before to see how your body responds.

- Avoid too much alcohol or caffeine, and sleep medications especially if they've been prescribed for someone else.

- If your head's still buzzing with thoughts in the middle of the night, have a notebook by the side of the bed and write them down

Student Wellbeing, RUSU and the Chaplaincy all offer relaxation sessions around exam time.

In the exam room

Read the instructions carefully – Before looking at the actual questions, read the rubric (instructions). Are there compulsory questions? You can lose more marks by answering the wrong number or wrong combination of questions than by answering the right number of questions badly.

Work out the timing – Divide your time according to the number of questions to be answered. Split it proportionately if you have some questions (or parts of questions) which attract more marks than others. Allow some time for planning. An example might be: four essay questions each attracting 25% of the total marks in a three-hour exam = 45 minutes per question = 5 minutes planning, 35 minutes writing, 5 minutes checking through. Allow extra checking time for statistics or calculations.

Read the questions carefully. Read through the paper once before you choose your questions and then re-read each question. You might think a topic you've revised hasn't come up, when it is there but the wording is unusual. Alternatively you have revised the topic, but the question is obtuse and you do not fully understand it.

Choose your best questions - Mark any questions you might answer, and then check that you fully understand it. Do you have some relevant knowledge, ideas and evidence for the ones you choose to answer? If you do not understand a question, it's best to leave it.

Decide on question order. Some people like to start with the topic they know best to give them a good start. Others prefer to do their best question second, because with one question completed, they can relax and expand on their best ideas and gain extra marks.

Maximising your marks

Think about what the question is actually asking. What are you expected to include in your answer? What material will be relevant? The most common complaint from markers is that the student didn't answer the question.

Structure your answer - Even though you're writing under time pressure, you should still think about the best structure to communicate your ideas. In your introduction show how you understand the question and outline how you will answer it. Make one point or argument per paragraph and summarise to show how it answers the question. Shortish paragraphs with one or two pieces of evidence are sufficient. In your conclusion summarise the arguments to answer the question.

Plan before you write – The stress of working under time constraints in the exam room can make all your good study intentions disappear. However, this is when it's more important than ever to get your ideas across clearly and concisely. Take a few minutes to think and make a mini-plan:

  • Underline the key words in the question;
  • Identify the main topic and discussion areas..
  • Choose a few points/arguments about which you can write .
  • Make a mini-plan which puts them in order before you start writing. You can cross it through afterwards.

Referencing in exams – You should be able to refer by name (spelt correctly!) to the main theorists/researchers in your topic, giving the approximate year of their major works. You are not expected to give page numbers or lengthy quotes, except in open book exams, and you do not need a reference list.


When you're writing under time constraints, you don't have the luxury of working up to your point! In each paragraph, make your point early and clearly, then give your evidence and analysis to support it, and end with a concluding sentence that shows how the point responds to the question.

What to do if your mind goes blank – most students fear this happening. If it does – put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back and relax for a moment. If you're in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far as if it was a story – what happens next? If you have to remember formulae, you could try associating them with pictures or music while revising - then use the associations to bring them back in the exam. If you really can't progress with this answer, leave a gap. It will probably come back to you once you are less anxious.

If you are running out of time – don't panic. Look at the questions you have left to answer and divide up your remaining time to cover them all. Be very economical – make one point support it with evidence and then move on to the next point. If you really can't finish in time, briefly list the points you wanted to make – they could pick you up a few marks.

What not to write

Don't try to shoehorn in something interesting just because you have revised it. If it isn't relevant to the question it can lose you marks.

Don't repeat a memorised essay just because it seems to be on the right topic. The question may be asking for a different approach.

Don't use text speak or colloquialisms.

Don't say "I think" or "in my opinion". Instead have ideas that are supported or opposed by your evidence.

Above all, don't be tempted to write a note to the examiner explaining how you missed the lectures on this topic because your housemate stole your alarm clock….

After the exam

Beware the post-mortem – it's natural to want to discuss how it went with your friends, but keep it in perspective. Exams are dramatic events, and the temptation is to describe them dramatically – "The easiest/hardest/fastest exam I've ever done!" No two exam experiences will be the same – that doesn't mean you are wrong and they are right, or vice versa.

Between exams, you might find it helpful to practise writing exam answers using past papers. However, it may be more beneficial for some students to relax and rest between exams, than cramming in last minute revision for the next one.