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Preparing for exams

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

While many exams require you to write essay-style questions, there are various formats that you might be asked to respond to. Short answer questions, for instance, often appear in disciplines where it is important to have both factual knowledge and the ability to apply it to real-life situations. You may need to practise using your time for answering in a very specific way for this kind of question where different sections attract different proportions of the overall points available.

This page looks at the particular kinds of preparation that will be helpful for specific types of exam. If you have a type of exam that is not mentioned here, do come and chat to a Study Adviser.


Short answer questions

Short answer questions usually require a briefer and more descriptive answer than essay questions, which ask you to discuss and expand on a topic.

Revising for short answer questions…

  • Short answer questions typically ask you to "explain", "define" or "list". Make sure you know which are the key terms and theories for your topic that you might be asked to communicate in these ways.
  • As you're revising each topic, write a sheet of important points and summaries to get used to identifying and explaining significant ideas.
  • Make sure you know the terms frequently used in short answer questions and understand what theyare asking you to do.
  • Look at past exam papers for your topic to see how short answer questions are typically posed, and how many marks each part attracts.
  • Practice writing succinct answers.

Answering short answer questions...

  • If your questions all ask for short answers with an equal number of marks for each, divide your time up equally for the total number ofquestions. Otherwise allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question attracts.
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the rubric carefully so you don't miss answering part of the question.
  • Each part of the question should show the maximum marks you can get for answering it. Don't waste a lot of time worrying about a part of the question that only attracts a very few marks.
  • Use parts of questions that ask for definitions or explanations to inform the longer, more discursive part of your answer. Don't repeat the information you give in one part of the question in the other.
  • Ifa question asks you to "briefly comment", treat it as a mini-essay - have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.
  • If you have trouble working out how to start answering a question that asks you to "explain", imagine you are telling a friend about the topic. 

Multiple choice questions

Multiple Choice Question tests should be approached differently to exams that ask for essay-type answers. The answers required are usually more concerned with terms and definitions.

Revising for multiple choice questions...

  • Concentrate on terms and definitions. To learn things by rote, write information on a card and stick it somewhere you will look often e.g. by the kettle or in the bathroom. Look at it for a day or so every time you pass by.
  • Test yourself on facts.Try testing yourself about ten minutes after you're read something - if you remember it then, test yourself again after a day.
  • Practise with past test questions if possible. Don't worry too much about timing, but get used to using strategies for working out best answers.
  • Look out for other possible questions and answers while revising. If you have any past test questions, think about the kind of questions that are asked.

Answering multiple choice questions...

  • Read the directions very carefully before you start.
  • When looking at the questions, always try to work out what the answer is before you look at the possibilities.
  • Use a ruler to make it easier to see where to enter each answer.
  • Answer the questions you know first, mark the ones you are fairly sure of and go back to them - leave the difficult ones till last.
  • Remember that with MCQ exams you could get 100% - pretty much impossible in an essay-type exam! So don't dwell on a question – move on and come back to it if you have time.
  • If you finish before the time is up, go back over your questions and answers to check for reading errors.

Open book exams

Open book exams (i.e. those where you are allowed to take and consult texts into the exam room) may feel less stressful because you know you won't need to remember facts. However, this means the marks you can get will depend on your ability to use this information to build an argument, so be careful to avoid just giving a list of quotes.

Revising for an open-book exam

  • Open book exams focus attention on your understanding of the topic, and your ability to communicate it. Concentrate on this when revising, rather than trying to remember facts.
  • If you are working from a literary text, make a list of significant events in the order they occur in the text. Learn the order so you will be able to find them quickly in the exam room. If you know your text well, you won't waste time searching through it.
  • Make sure you know what is allowed and what isn't. You may not be allowed to mark pages with bookmarks or tags, or the amount of annotating may be restricted.
  • Check that you have the correct edition of an allowed text book. Earlier or later editions may be quite different.

Answering questions in an open-book exam...

  • Don't forget to take the text to the exam room! You won't be able to borrow someone else's.
  • Don't be tempted to waste time in the exam searching the text for new quotes or information. Use it only for quick reference or confirming information or quotes you already know.
  • Plan your essays without referring to the text - otherwise you may be tempted to usea previously planned but irrelevant answer. Remember that what's being assessed is yourunderstanding of the topic, and to show that you must give a relevant answer to the question.
  • Think before you quote - make sure quotes support your argument, not replace it. Note that you will only gain marks for your own arguments, not someone else's words, so don't waste time copying long quotes.
  • Integrate mini-quotes of three or four words so that they occur naturally in a sentence: e.g. The blinded Oedipus' desire to be "far from sight" (1570) reflects both his abhorrence of knowledge, and of others knowing him.
  • If you use direct quotations or paraphrases from your text, you should acknowledge them with page or line number in the body of your answer, plus author's name and year of publication the first time the text is mentioned, just as in an essay. However you don't need to include a bibliography or reference list.

Oral exams

Oral exams for languages provoke similar anxieties to giving presentations. In both cases, the more prepared you feel, the less anxious you will be.

Revising for an oral exam for a language course...

  • Listen to, or watch a radio or television channel in your chosen language. Even if you don't understand all the vocabulary, get used to the rhythm and expression of the language.
  • Practice with another student studying the same language (or better still, a native speaker). Set yourselves a topic and talk to each other for a set time. Set forfeits for lapses into English!
  • If you have been given topics to talk about in the exam,make sure you know the key vocabulary.
  • Learn conversational pleasantries in your chosen language like "Good morning", "Pleased to meet you", "Excuse me", "Sorry", "Please", "Thank you" and "Goodbye" and use them with your friends in the run-up to the exam so that they become automatic.

Undertaking an oral exam...

  • Act confident even if you aren't. Smile when you enter the room and shake hands with the examiner. Make eye contact during the exam. Ask questions as well as responding to them. Thank the examiner when you leave.
  • Breathe deeply and regularly to calm nerves. Take a bottle of water in case your mouth is dry - slightly warm is better than ice-cold.
  • Take your time! Don't rush into giving an answer before you've thought about what you want to say - you will get confused and make mistakes. Take a breath and think before you speak.
  • Listen to the whole question carefully before you start constructing your answer.It's tempting to latch on to one word that you recognise and start thinking of your answer, but don't- you may miss an important part of the question.
  • Know how to say "Could you repeat that please?" in the language you are being examined in. If you missed part of a question or didn't understand it, ask for it to be repeated.
  • Some people deal with public speaking best by putting on a 'disguise' - dressing more smartly than usual, or wearing glasses if you usually wear contact lenses, for instance. Others feel better if they are more casual and can pretend it's an ordinary situation. Think about how you would deal with this best.

Seen exams

For some exams, students are given the question ahead of the exam, giving them time to research and prepare. Students are usually not allowed to take in texts or notes to these exams.

If you are given a 'seen' exam paper, it's very tempting to try to write and then learn an essay by heart. This is unlikely to give you the best result. You might think of a seen exam as being the opposite of a memory test; if you try to learn an essay by heart, you will inevitably make some errors in rewriting it, and if you haven't taken the time to understand the topic you won't be able to correct them coherently. You will also be writing to a specified time in the exam room, and writing by hand. This means that you will not be able to write the same amount, or in the same way that you would if you were working at your computer at home. You may also be marked more strictly on a seen question as the element of guesswork that goes into revising for unseen papers has been removed.

It can be useful to do some preparation before you receive the question: for example making sure you have all the relevant lecture or seminar notes and have filled in any gaps in your understanding. If you have a solid understanding of the basics before the seen question is released, you will be able to research your answer more efficiently. The important aspects of preparing good essays will still apply: so avoid simply regurgitating notes from lectures or seminars, but instead demonstrate that you can build on the basic knowledge by researching the specific question that has been set.

Students sometimes prepare for seen exams in small groups, but this can be an extremely risky strategy, laying you open to accusations of collusion and plagiarism if parts of your answer look similar to those produced by others. It's best to avoid this by not discussing your research or essay plans in detail - the process of preparing for a seen exam should be your own.

An effective way to approach revising for a seen question is to read, analyse and research the essay title as normal. Once you have researched your essay title, write a plan using your notes so you can see the connections and flow of ideas, then you can use this plan to refer to in your revision. Now write a draft essay (by hand) checking your plan and notes if necessary. Next write it again, this time keeping to the time you will have in the exam and without too much checking of your essay plan or notes. Finally write another version without checking your plan at all. If there's something you can't recall or reconstruct that you need to discuss, mark it in the essay and fill the gap afterwards as usual. When you go into the exam, have the expectation that you're going to write a new essay on a topic you're familiar with, rather than trying to memorise the old one. This will make your writing fresh and engaged, and much more coherent. It will also give you the chance to make new connections and include material you might not have included the first time round.