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  • The HSA

How to master your exam technique

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

Exam technique can make all the difference. It is the difference between a grade 8 and 9 at GCSE, or an A and A* grade at A Level. We asked a few of our A Level students what ‘exam technique’ means to them.

“I used to read a question and write down everything I knew about that topic! Now I pay attention to the command words. My answers are shorter, punchier and specific to the question.”

“An argument needs to be balanced. For example, “Do you agree with the statement: ‘exam technique is important’? This isn’t a yes or no answer! I need to consider both points of view.”

Being able to interpret questions and structure an argument lies at the heart of achieving the top grades. Here’s our guide on how to think like an examiner.

Top tips

Before the exam:

1. Write model answers to common questions - Use past papers to identify common questions and draft model answers. Variations of the same question are used from year to year. Building a ‘bank’ of answers means that you only have to adapt them in the exam, rather than developing them from scratch.

This is particularly useful for creative writing in English, essays in History and Modern Foreign Language papers.

2. Focus on command words - The command word will determine how you apply your knowledge to a question. For example:

3. Self-assess using past papers - Self-assess your work alongside the mark schemes. You will able to start thinking like an examiner!

By identifying the features that they are expecting in each type of question (e.g. structure, amount of detail, length of answer…), you will be able to tailor your answers to fit the criteria.

Once you have identified the missing or weak aspects of your answer, re-write it until it ticks every box using the mark scheme as a guideline. In this instance, practice makes perfect.

During the exam

1. Manage your time - A mark, a minute. Use this rule as a guide for how long each question should take.

2. Focus on command words - Read the question carefully and highlight or circle the command word. This will help you to frame your knowledge in the correct way and answer the question in full.

3. Plan thoughtful responses - Stop and think before you start writing and carefully plan out your answer – either in your head or on the exam paper. Reread your answers and ask yourself:

Is your answer articulated clearly? Is the structure logical? Have you applied your knowledge as asked by the question? Have you backed up your points with examples?

4. Lastly, stay calm and do your best.

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