Exam Writing Strategies

Knowing the material on exams is only half the battle; you also need to make sure that you have good exam writing strategies. Your performance during this 3 hour period will determine 30% of your grade, so make sure that those 3 hours are focused, effective, and your best. While preparation will give you the tools to succeed on your exam, training yourself to become an effective exam taker will allow you to use that preparation effectively.

Hopefully up to this point you have worked hard during the term, studying your material on a regular basis. You have planned and studied hard for your exam. There is no strategy that can compensate for a lack of knowledge and inadequate preparation. The goal for this article is to maximize your performance during your exam so you can walk away from it successfully.

The 4 key strategies to success in exam writing are as follows:
1) Managing Time
2) Prioritizing
3) Dealing with troublesome questions
4) Confidence

Let’s discuss these items one by one.

Managing Time

This is probably the single most important part of exam writing. Many students waste time focusing on one single problem and forget the rest of the exam. That one question ends up costing much more than they bargained for. You need to be able to complete the majority of the exam, not just one problem. I have seen students spend as much as 30 minutes (1/4 of the total exam time) on a question only 8% of the exam!

Put a watch right in front of you, and track your time constantly.

When you start the exam, the first thing you should do is to develop a rough game plan. You should quickly (spend less than 30 seconds) browse through the exam and get a sense of its difficulty. Look at what questions you can do, and the ones you can’t. In addition to the allocation of marks per question, you will begin to develop a broader sense of the exam.

Now that the ministry is required to divide your exams into four parts (knowledge, thinking, communication, application), it serves to help you in developing your game plan. Try to set a certain amount of time to each section (i.e. 40 min for knowledge, 30 min for application, and 30 min for thinking, leaving 20 min for checking). This breakdown is all dependent on your preparation. Questions in the Knowledge section of  the test are based off of pure understanding of material, so if you prepared for that, cut down some time from Knowledge and put it into checking, or wherever else you might need extra support. Checking your work is important – do not assume everything is right on the first try. So you will need to allocate the last 5 to 10 minutes for checking.

Keep in mind that your teacher dictates your timing. The amount the question is worth will tell you how much time to spend on it. For example, a question that is worth 5% of the test deserves 5% of the time given. If a question is worth 20% of the test, it deserves 20% of the time allowed. You should have a rough estimate in your mind, as to how much time should be allotted on the question you are working on. For example, a question worth 5 marks shouldn’t deserve 15 minutes of your time.

But what if you can’t finish that question on your allotted time? At this point you need to make a judgment call. Are you almost at the answer? Do you know what you have left to do? In this case you should complete it. If you are still circling the question, and have only a vague idea of how to complete it, leave it for later.


When you quickly browse through the exam, you will find (hopefully!) questions that are extremely easy and take no time at all. Do these first. Go through them quickly, but still accurately. Completing them quickly and accurately will increase your confidence for the rest of the exam.

You will notice that the more prepared you are, the more of these “easy” questions you will see. This is an indication that you are more knowledgeable on the topic. A typical student aiming for 80%+ should see over half of the exam being “very easy”. If you don’t see many easy questions, this means that your preparation is still not good  enough.

How to deal with troublesome questions

There will always be questions that will cause you some stress and make you feel as if  your grade is slipping away. Did you think everything would be easy? Not likely! However, if you have prepared adequately, there are always strategies to tackle these types of troublesome problems.

The first step is to write down your goal: what are you trying to solve at the end? What are they asking for? From the main goal, you need to identify any intermediate steps to attain the goal.

Your next step is to write down the things you know: the equations, the givens. In many exams (especially in senior physics, math, and chemistry) there will be multiple  equations involved in tough problems. But keep in mind that each given in the question will be used. Ask yourself: “How can I use this, and why is this information given to me in this way?” Think of the solution to the tough problem as a chain. The end of the chain is the answer, the beginnings are the givens, and the links are the intermediate steps. What you don’t know are the missing links.

Ask yourself further: “What information do I need to attain the goal, and how do I get that information using the equations I have? What information am I missing?” The information you are looking for could well be the intermediate steps to attain the final answer.

Your task is to put together different pieces of the puzzle. Identify where the problem area is: did you get stuck because you didn’t know how to start? In this case, the problem might due to a lack of preparation or inadequate knowledge. If you are stuck with a certain part of the problem, try using all the applicable equations on that part. Attempt to find out what variable is missing and see if you can use your givens to solve it.

However, you always have time working against you. Give yourself a deadline on the question (i.e. “I will try to solve this problem within 10 minutes, otherwise I will leave it”). If you still cannot find the solution at the end of the time deadline, write down as  many steps as possible to gain your maximum part marks. Never leave the answer blank.


Maintaining your confidence is key to doing well on exams. If you’ve prepared  sufficiently, you know you can. It is possible that students get “shocked” from unfamiliar questions somewhere on the exam, and then ruin easy questions that they should have known. You cannot let one question sidetrack you from the rest of your exam. This section hopes to address this problem.

If you run into questions that make you worry or shake your confidence, you should first figure out exactly what the damage would be if you get a “zero” on it. If the question only worth 5-8 marks, the impact is less than 10%. So even if you get no part marks on it, chances are, if you perform well on the rest of the exam, you can still get the 70’s or 80’s you are aiming for. So move on!

Try to see the exam as a whole and not its specific parts. You will realize that not being able to do one or two tough question wouldn’t stop you from getting an A or B.

Lastly, let’s look at the student favourite: “blanking out”. The way to deal with this is to instruct yourself on what you DO know about the question, and the rest will come. Write down everything you know about solving the question – the givens, the equations, possible methods…slowly you will begin to remember what it is the question asks. The key to overcome “blanking out” is to tackle the question straight on. Don’t worry whether you can do the question or not, just focus on how you will be tackling it.

The major point that must be stressed is that building or maintaining confidence is not a substitute for hard work and preparations. If you don’t know the material, no amount of confidence will help you. Let your knowledge and understanding do the talking, and all you need to do is have the confidence to let it shine out. With a strong base of preparation, the right attitude and some good organization, exams will be a smoother ride.

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