How to have a good exam

Along with your revision there are a number of ways you can prepare yourself for the exams that will have a big impact on how stressful you find them to be. They won’t take you long but will help you to feel in control of the situation and avoid unnecessary disasters!

1. Before the Exam


  • RELAX! Choose and practice a relaxation technique to use in the exam if you do begin to panic.
  • Think about LOGISTICS. Check where the exam room is beforehand. If you will rely on public transport, have a back-up route planned.
  • Be clear about RULES. Are there any regulations you will need to comply with? If you will use EQUIPMENT, check yours has been authorized.

The Night Before

  • SLEEP! Go to bed on time so you can wake up fresh. Avoid screen time and stimulants like coffee or alcohol (these will make it hard to sleep). If you can’t fall to sleep, read a book (non-study related!), have a warm drink.
  • Do a final REVIEW of important logistics, like exam time and location.
  • Pack your BAG. If possible, leave valuables that you wont be able to keep with you at home. Make sure you have equipment you need and water.
  • Avoid conversations likely to make you anxious.

The Morning of the Exam

  • Set an ALARM! Use a mean one if you struggle to get up (this one gives you a task to do, like a maths quiz, or taking a photo of the barcode on your toothpaste before you can turn it off).
  • EAT a normal breakfast.
  • Try to ARRIVE with some buffer time, but avoid being too early and waiting in big crowds.
  • If you have an afternoon exam, you can use the morning to REVISE, but try to keep it to a review so that you are not too tired. Make sure to EAT lunch.

2. During the Exam

During the Exam

Nearly everyone will regret making one of these common mistakes at some point in their university career:

  • Ploughing in without planning an answer
  • Misreading a question
  • Misreading an instruction (such as how many questions to answer)

Tackling an Essay Based Exam

It is important to plan exam answers. This will get your mind in order to write the best essay you can, but it will also be visible to your marker, and may help them to understand your writing.

Take the first 10-15 minutes of your exam to cover these steps:

  1. Read the whole paper. Choose the questions you will answer and decide an order (it is usually a good idea to start with your best one – to get your ideas flowing and confidence up).
  2. Look at each question. Underline key words and instructions that you need to focus on.
  3. Write a plan for each question. You could bullet point the paragraphs you need to write, or draw a mind map. This is better than writing each plan and essay in turn because as you start working, you will activate your memory and be able to review your planning as new ideas crop up.
  4. Allocate the remaining time to each question and begin to write.

It is inevitable that as you begin to write, ideas will crop up that you haven’t included in your plan. If this happens, pause your writing and add the thought to the relevant plan. Don’t try to hold multiple thoughts in your head or you will get very muddled.

3. How to analyze an essay question

How to Analyse an Essay Question

Essay questions will typically have a number of key words or phrases in them which give you instructions as well as a topic.

Word Type



Process (instruction, direction, keyword)

Discuss, evaluate, critically analyse, briefly outline

Tells you the process you have to do; also indicates depth of research required

Subject or content

The main areas under discussion

Broad focus of answer (try to stick to this only)

Limit or scope

Dates, geographical area, number of examples

Focuses the area to be examined; note this carefully

Other significant words

Any aspects not covered above

Pinpointing limit or scope of answer

(Adapted from Janet Godwin, 2012, Studying With Dyslexia: Pocket Study Skills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 117)


Start your planning by identifying the different words in the question.

Compare and contrast the role and success of the United Nations in humanitarian intervention operations in the 1990s.”

(Process/ Instruction) (Limit/ Scope) (The Subject/ Context)

4. How to plan an exam essay

Begin by brainstorming. You can write a list of key points, make a mind map or draw a table or diagram.

Re-read the question and skim through your ideas, highlight or circle those that are directly relevant. It is better to write a clear, concise response than just cram everything you know into an essay answer so don’t be afraid to leave things out. As you are writing, you may see how they fit in.

Keep in mind this simple model for a concise, well thought out essay (adapted from Janet Godwin, 2012, Studying with dyslexia: pocket study skills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan).

Introduction: should be brief. Give a response to the question and outline the areas your essay will cover.

Middle: Write at least one paragraph for each point on your plan. Be explicit about how this information links to the question, and the rest of your essay. Use key words appropriately and use bridging phrases and information to link paragraphs.

Conclusion: Briefly overview the main points and why your ideas are important. If you are running out of time you could indicate what else you might have written about with more time

5. Crisis Intervention!


  • Try another question
  • Spend a minute practicing a relaxation technique to calm your mind
  • Read what you have already written and look for associations and connections
  • Try visualisations; picture your essay, a book, images from the course to spark associations
  • Try to map the basic building blocks of your course and work up adding in more detailed information to find a place to start


  • If you know this is likely to happen, get some over the counter medication that you are familiar with to take on the morning of the exam
  • Make sure you eat before the exam but chose something bland
  • Drink mint tea
  • Take water with you into the exam


  • If the question you dread pops up, you must accept and make the most of the situation (everyone else probably feels the same!). Focus on the task and how to tackle it
  • Try to sandwich answering a bad question between better ones. Start with something you will find easier and motivating, but don’t leave the worst until the end when you have the least energy.
  • Don’t over-spend time on a hard question. You can come back to it at the end if you have spare time.


  • If you tend to run out of energy in exams, make sure to eat well before the exam
  • You can take glucose sweets along if you think it will help


  • If you have a tendency to panic, you should have prepared some relaxation techniques. Use them!
  • Try some deep breathing
  • Switch off for a minute (but don’t let yourself drift for long!) – look out of the window, or imagine something nice you will do when exams are over!
  • Do some gentle muscle stretches. Readjust your posture to feel comfortable
  • Work through the muscles in your body from your toes up to your jaw and eyebrow and relax them. Readjust your posture to feel comfortable
  • Close your eyes and put your head down for 30 seconds
  • If things are really bad, you can ask to leave for a breath of fresh air, but this should be a last resort


  • If you notice there is less time on the clock than you expected, pause to assess your position, remaining time, and priorities. Make a realistic plan what to tackle, take a deep breath and carry on!