Advice On Exam Techniques For Maths, Biology, Chemistry & Science Students Sitting, GCSE, A-Level & University Exams

Many people get incredibly nervous about sitting exams. Dreams in which you are sitting an exam that you haven't prepared for are surprisingly common even if the last formal exam you sat was twenty years ago or more. (I should know I still get them occasionally) This goes to show the powerful effects that formal exams can have on the psyche. This guide provides a few hints and tips on how to prepare for when your sitting in the exam hall and the examiner says those dreaded words that can strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest of souls. "Please turn over your paper and begin. You have X amount of time to complete the examination!"

The authors of this guide have a background in both studying and teaching science subjects mainly Biology and Chemistry, however we have tried to keep this guide general so it is of use to candidates who are sitting a wide range of subjects from languages to humanities including Maths, English and general Science .

The first step is to prepare well in the weeks and months before the exam. If you haven't already, please read our guide on revision tips and how to prepare for exams.

When you approach an exam paper, either practise papers as part of your revision or the real thing on exam day there are several techniques, hints and tips that you should be aware of.

How To Prepare For Exams & Answer Exam & Essay Questions - Types Of Exam Questions

Pay close attention to the phrasing of the question. The way the question has been asked helps to classify the question type and therefore points the way to how the examiner wants the question answered. Types of question include describe, explain, describe and explain, state, suggest, calculate, show and complete plus many more.

State OR Write OR Give or Define

Simple recall of factual knowledge or definitions that you need to memorise. No need to add or explain anything more. These questions are usually only one or two marks and therefore only require a one word or one sentence answer. Example "State what is meant by the term nucleophile".


The simplest describe questions are usually straight forward. Look at a graph, diagram, table etc and "say what you see". Some describe questions don't even require knowledge of the subject so these should be easy marks. However some candidates still make a mess of them as they don't answer them fully enough or don't use the correct terminology or language. An example of a describe question might be "describe the relationship between time of day and rate of photosynthesis in the graph above". To gain full credit you must describe the relationship as fully as possible quoting figures from the graphs axis. Simply writing "it goes up a bit then goes down" doesn't cut it.

The other type of describe questions are more complicated. In this situation you need to describe how something works and are not simply describing information from a diagram or table on the exam paper. Example "Describe how the resting potential of a neurone is maintained." These questions require a more thorough understanding of the topic.


You must draw on your knowledge of the topic to answer.

Describe and Explain

An amalgamation of the two above. Some marks will be allocated for a full description of the trend, and others will be for drawing on your knowledge to explain the trend. Example "Describe and explain the effect of taking insulin on blood glucose levels in person A in the graph above". You have to describe AND explain to gain full credit. Many candidates especially under the pressure of exam conditions only describe OR explain in their answer. A description without an explanation or vice versa will only get you half or less of the possible marks available.


In these sort of questions there is more than one possible correct answer. Example "Suggest why the population of Manchester increased after the industrial revolution". Possible answers include "better sanitation", "better health care", "more people moving to the area to find work", "increased birth rate", "people living longer" etc. As long as your answer shows some thought and is both relevant and possible you should gain credit.


Does exactly what is says on the tin. Some sort of mathematical calculation is needed.


You may have to complete a diagram, fill in missing data or words in a table or missing words in a in phrase or passage of text.

Allocation of Marks In Exams

Pay close attention to the number of marks allocated per question or part question. These are indicated in the margin in brackets eg (3) or [2]. These are there for your benefit and not, as some people think, for the examiner when she's marking the paper. Try to tailor your answer to the number of marks available.

One "markers"

Only require a one word or one sentence answer. A one mark calculation question should not need extensive working out.

Two mark Questions

"two markers" require the candidate to mention two points or key words or perhaps two sentences in their answer.

Three mark questions

These require three points or key words. As an example if the question requires you to add labels or annotations to a diagram you probably need to add three annotations or arrows, a calculation will require three parts etc.

Four marks and above

These require more extended writing or possibly a long complicated calculation. The same general principles as above apply. For example in a four mark question the examiner is looking for four key points or possibly two key words and an explanation of each.

The important message is allocate your time to how many marks are available for that question or part question. Do not write an essay for a one or two mark question and more importantly don't write a one sentence answer for a question that is worth six marks.

Some exam papers ask you to complete the answers on the exam paper itself in a space that has been provided. For these types of exams you can use the amount of space the examiners have provided to judge how much you need to write.

If your answer is longer than the number of blank lines provided which forces you to write in teeny weeny writing in the margin or to cram your answer into the space before the next question you are either writing way too much and probably including unnecessary waffle. Conversely if the examiners have provided twenty blank lines for your answer and you have only used four there is no way that you have included the required detail and are never going to get full marks for that question.

How to Answer Essay Questions and Extended Writing Questions

Extended writing or essay questions are what most candidates dread most of all. There is no need to panic. By following these rules even the most complicated essay can be easily tackled.

First read the question fully and slowly several times.

It is important that you fully grasp the question BEING asked and not fall into the trap of answering the question that you would have LIKED to have been asked. This is very easy to do. Although you may write a brilliant essay on the relationship between the main characters in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" because you spent ages revising it you were sure it would come up, you will gain ZERO marks if the question requires you to write an essay on the relationship between the main characters in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". The above example is a bit extreme but you get the general idea.

Write a small list of the key points

Before you dive straight into your essay, take some time to jot down some ideas. You can use some blank space on the paper for this. This is important as you are unlikely to write a well structured essay if you start writing before you have formulated all your ideas and recalled all the key points you need to discuss. Our brains don't often recall the key points in a logical way (mine certainly doesn't) and the best order for inclusion in your essay. So try to think of everything you need to include before you start writing, assemble these points into an order of priority or some other order that makes sense. This allows you to construct an essay that flows. One essay from an a level biology paper asked "discuss the importance of cycles in biology". If you have studied biology you may recall there are several cycles in biology such as the nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle in ecology, the Krebs cycle in respiration, the Calvin cycle in photosynthesis, the ornithine cycle in the liver, the menstrual cycle in mammalian reproduction and so on. By jotting down the ideas you can put them into an order that makes sense. Maybe write about the ecology cycles first then discuss cycles in plants before discussing the cycles in animals. Whatever you decide the most well structured essays are written by candidates that plan the overall order of topics BEFORE they start writing the essay and not DURING the essay.

Write an introduction

You need to write a couple of lines to introduce what topics you are about to discuss in the main body of the essay. It may be a good idea to include some of the question in your introduction. eg "Cycles are very important in many areas of Biology. Some of the most important that will be discussed here are...." You can then list the topics you plan to include.

Main Body

The main body of your essay should include all the key points you formulated in your plan. Try to "flesh out" the main points in your plan into one or two paragraphs for each but don't waffle.

Most exam boards give marks for breadth as well as depth of knowledge. Try to include and draw together topics (as long as their relevant) from different areas of the course studied. For modular A-Levels that may include previous modules. Especially important in synoptic papers.


Draw together your arguments and and summarise your main topics in the conclusion. This should bring your essay to a natural ending.

By Emlyn Price - Home Tutors Directory

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This guide is original and was written using our own experiences of both being a candidate and advising students during many years of tuition. It is protected by copyright. You may use this for your own personal use or for teaching purposes. It should not be published wholly or in part on other websites or in written publications and certainly not passed off as anyone else's work. If you have seen this article published elsewhere we would like you to let us know by contacting us here. We WILL then take action against them.


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