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Preparing for exams

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

In your university degree, you will be assessed by various methods. These are likely to include written examinations. If you are an international student, these may be quite different to the examination or other assessment methods you are used to. For instance, we do not usually have oral exams (except on language courses), and many exams require you to write essays rather than short answers. 

This page outlines some of the differences you may find, and includes some exercises to help you feel better prepared.

Read through the other pages in this guide on Preparing for exams for more information on the best way to prepare for exams in the UK, including links to our video tutorials.

Features of written exams in the UK

Most written exams in UK higher education have some common features. Depending on the academic culture you have previously studied in, these may be different to what you are used to. It will be helpful to know what may be different, so you can see which practices you may need to work on and develop.

  • You will be expected to complete your answers to strict time constraints - these may be much shorter or much longer than you are used to.
  • You may not have to answer all the questions on the exam paper, or the same number of questions in different sections - you will have to check your instructions carefully.
  • You will need to plan to use the time allowed to allocate an equal amount of time to questions with equal marks.
  • You will usually not have access to textbooks or other research material.
  • You will usually not see the question paper in advance, and questions from previous years will not be reused.
  • You will be expected to demonstrate how you can put your knowledge to use - not just that you have memorised the content of your lectures or textbook.
  • Unless the question is purely factual, you will need to include critical analysis in your answers.
  • You will not be expected to include detailed references as you would in your coursework, but you may wish to mention key theorists in your topic.
  • There are very few exams in which you can get a mark of 100%, and this mark is not expected of you. You may find it helpful to look at the mark scheme in your course handbook or the Exams Office guide (link in next section).

What you need to find out

It is really important to know that exams are not all the same - even within the same subject, you may have some exams where you are expected to write essays and others where you are expected to answer multiple choice questions. So make sure you know what to expect by checking:

  • How long the exam is and how many questions you will have to answer.
  • If you will need to answer a certain number of questions from different sections (e.g. 'Answer one question from Section A and all the questions in Section B').
  • If you can take any books into the exam room (e.g. course texts, a dictionary, tables).
  • If you can take a calculator into the exam room, and if you need to have it verified by your department before the exam.

It is also a good idea to make sure you know where you need to go for each exam well in advance: some of them may be in parts of the university campus you have not yet visited.

If you are studying at the University of Reading, all the important information (including what to bring, how the timings work and where to find out what your seat number is) is in the Examination Office's What You Need To Know guide.

Helping yourself to get better results

To get the best result in your examinations, you need to do more than just revise your subject knowledge. UK higher education exams are not a test of how much you can remember and recount from your lectures or your textbooks. Instead you will need to put your knowledge to use to say something interesting and meaningful about your subject. You also need to get used to doing this within the allowed time.

The most effective way to do this is to practise making answer plans and writing timed answers (by hand) for questions for your module on past exam papers.

You will be able to find past exam papers for your subject on the Exams Office webpage. These will not be the same questions that you are asked in your exam, but they will give you experience of how exam questions are worded. If you are taking a new module or course which does not have past papers available, ask your tutor if there are any practice questions.

Tipsheets and exercises

These tipsheets and exercises may also be helpful. Do try the exercises before you look at the answers! 

What to do if you're feeling anxious

Some students get extremely anxious whilst doing exams. It will help to feel prepared – the strategies in this and our other guides and video tutorials aim to help you to do that. If you are still anxious, and are worried that this will affect your performance, do discuss this with someone: your academic tutor, a Study Adviser or a university counsellor. The Chaplaincy also offer sessions at exam time to teach relaxation techniques - these are open to all students.