In the exam

Key words: exam habits, exam strategies, multiple choice, short answer questions, essays, open book exams, exam anxiety

Your chances of success in the exam will be enhanced if you: employ good exam strategies; know what is expected when answering different types of questions; overcome problems; and have a positive ‘can do’ frame of mind. This unit provides tips on how to enhance your exam experience and results.

Be prepared

It helps to know the answers to the following questions before you walk into the exam room:

  • How many questions will I need to answer?
  • Will I have choices?
  • Will there be different sections in the exam?
  • What types of questions will be asked: Multiple choice? Short answer? Essay?
  • How much time will I have?

You can find answers to these questions from past exam papers, unit guides and your lecturer. Don’t hesitate to ask your lecturer any questions relating to the exam. Complete this exam day planner.

Exam habits

Think back to previous exams. What were your exam habits?

Exercise 1: Exam habits

Read each statement below then click the response that applies to you.

In the past, I have arrived at an exam feeling flustered and anxious.


You can avoid arriving at the exam feeling flustered and anxious if you:

  • have done the revision
  • know the requirements of the exam – when, where, what materials to take, exam format … The week before exams start, prepare an exam day planner for each exam
  • have a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast
  • feel positive and in control
  • arrive at the exam room as it opens so you have time to find your seat and gather your thoughts.



I tend to start answering questions before I have read all the instructions.


Never assume that the exam format and requirements will be the same as other years. The exam instructions will tell you:

  • How much time you have.
  • How many questions you need to answer.
  • Where and how to write your answers.

In addition, each question will tell you:

  • The number of marks awarded to that question.
  • Exactly what the examiner wants you to answer or write about. Analyse the question – be clear about:
    • the instruction words
    • the topic words
    • any restricting words or phrases.



I plan my time at the beginning of an exam to ensure I have time to answer all questions and review/proofread my work at the end.



  • Planning your time will ensure you do justice to ALL the required questions. If you don’t plan, you could find yourself with an unanswered or partially answered question at the end of the exam! This will lose you valuable marks. REMEMBER, the first marks on any question are always the easiest to get.
  • When you know BEFORE an exam how many questions you have to answer and how many marks each question carries, you can plan your time ahead of the exam. This will save you time in the exam.
  • When planning your time, be sure to factor in review/proofreading time at the end.
  • If you are running out of time, NEVER leave a question unanswered. At the very least, write a plan of how you would answer the question (or how you would complete your answer if you have made a start).


In an exam, I usually start at question one and work my way down.
I never leave the exam room ahead of time.

  • Always read the instructions carefully and then read all the questions – some may be easier for you to answer than others; some may carry more marks than others. NEVER assume.
  • Even when ALL questions must be answered, some students prefer to begin an exam with an easy question (to give them confidence).
  • Where you have a choice of questions to answer, choose the ones that you know you can answer well.
  • Where some questions carry more marks than others:
    • Some students prefer to begin with these.
    • Some students prefer to answer an easy question first, then tackle the ‘bigger’ question once they are ‘warmed up’.

      Decide what works best for YOU.




I never leave the exam room ahead of time.



  • If, at the end of an exam, you find you have a lot of time left, the chances are you have either:
    • not answered the required number of questions
    • only partially answered one or more questions
    • failed to include all requirements in one or more answers, for example a graph or diagram.
  • Use extra time to:
    • read through all instructions
    • read through all questions again and check your answers against them
    • strengthen weak answers before polishing strong ones
    • check for spelling and punctuation errors.
  • Resist the urge to leave an exam ahead of time – ignore early leavers!

Exam Strategies

There are some tried and true strategies that successful exam candidates recommend.

Exercise 2: Assess your own exam strategies

Print and complete this exam strategies checklist to assess your own strategies and to identify areas to improve.

Multiple choice questions

Some exams have a section of multiple choice questions. While some multiple choice questions may require you to know specific information, most will be testing whether you understand your subject matter. Here are a few suggestions and techniques for answering multiple choice questions.

  1. Read directions carefully:
    • Check where and how to record your answers.
    • Check whether this multiple choice exam penalises incorrect answers. If an exam DOES penalise incorrect answers, leave answers blank rather than guess.
    • Know how much time you have to spend on each question.
  2. Briefly preview the questions:
    • How many different kinds of questions are being asked?
    • Do some questions have one or more correct options – do you have to choose the ‘best’ answer?
  3. Take care with the wording of questions:
    • Watch for words that qualify (e.g. all, only, most).
    • Watch for words that modify (e.g. always, never).
    • Watch for negatives (e.g. Which one is not a correct statement? ).
  4. Begin by answering the questions you know:
    • Read through the questions quickly and answer the easiest questions first.
    • If appropriate, tick or mark each question number as you complete it.
  5. Next, tackle the more difficult questions:
    • Firstly, eliminate the answer you know is wrong.
    • Next, ask why the remaining answers would not be the answer.
    • If two options are opposite each other, the chances are one of them is correct.
    • If two alternatives seem correct, compare the differences then refer back to the question stem to find the best answer.
    • Remember that all questions will be related to the course you’re doing. Ask yourself: How does this relate to my course objectives?
  6. Questions requiring calculations or analysis:
    • In these types of questions, some students prefer to cover the options, do their own calculations/analysis, then check their answer with the options.
  7. Should I go back and check my answers?
    • If time permits, you should review both questions and answers in case you’ve mis-read the question.
    • However, only change your first answer when you are sure of the correction.
Exercise 3: Multiple choice questions

Answer the following multiple choice questions, putting into practice the above suggestions/techniques. For each question, choose answer a, b or c, then click ‘Feedback’.

There are 20 multiple choice questions worth 20% of the total marks in a 2-hour exam. Calculate the number of minutes you have for each question.

a   Approximately 1 minute
b   1.2 minutes
c   2.4 minutes

  • ‘b’ is the best answer because it is the most precise.
  • For this type of question, some students prefer to cover the options, do the calculations, then check their answer with the options given.


Which of the following statements is NOT correct?

a   This question stem contains a modifying word.
b   This question stem contains the word ‘not’.
c   This question stem is a negative statement.

  • ‘a’ is the only answer that is NOT correct. Did you notice the word ‘NOT’ in the question stem, making this a negative statement?


Which of the following web addresses is most likely to be an Australian university website containing information on multiple choice questions?



The chances are you didn’t know the exact answer to this question (particularly since the web addresses are fictitious). However, if you chose the correct answer, you probably used a process of elimination similar to the steps below.

Process of elimination:

  1. Which answer is definitely not correct?
    • ‘b’ – because it’s a Canadian site – not Australian (au) and it’s not an educational site (edu).
  2. ‘a’ and ‘c’ appear to be similar. Go back to the question stem to find the best answer:
    • Both are Australian sites: (.au)
    • Both are education sites: (.edu)
    • The site in ‘a’ is about exams, while the site in ‘c’ is about exam questions.
    • Therefore, ‘c’ is likely to be the best answer.
  3. Did you just guess? That’s OK, provided you are not penalised for incorrect answers.

Short answer and essay style questions

Follow these steps when answering paragraph style (short answer) and essay style questions:

  1. Read the question carefully.
  2. Analyse the question (question analysis).
  3. Recall what you know.
  4. Select information relevant to the question.
  5. Organise the information into a logical order.
  6. Begin with a topic sentence (for paragraphs) or an introduction paragraph (for essays).
  7. Write your answer.
  8. Write a conclusion paragraph (for an essay).
  9. Stick to your time allocation.
  10. If you run short of time, finish with dot points.
There is a school of thought that short answer questions merely require you to write in note form, use abbreviations, draw diagrams, and to convey as much information as you can clearly and logically (literary style is not so important). Check with your lecturer what style he/she expects!

Common problems

What’s the worst that can happen? Unfortunately, exam time can be quite stressful and it is not uncommon for students to experience problems at some time during an exam.

Exercise 4: Common problems

Click on the following common problems for some helpful hints:

Going blank

Suddenly you cannot remember some key information or you just can’t seem to get started on an answer. Don’t waste time!

  • Don’t try too hard to remember. Leave a gap in your writing and add the information later.
  • Switch to a different question – this may release the ‘block’.
  • Keep writing: on a spare piece of paper, write what you do know – any words, phrases that have anything to do with the question. This may help jog your memory.
  • Ask yourself questions to help focus you: How? When? What? Where? Why?
  • Go back to your plan – looking at the big picture may help.
  • You may be too tense. Take time to practise a relaxation exercise. For example, close your eyes and picture a beautiful, peaceful place – breathe slowly and deeply – repeat a calming word until you start to relax.
    NOTE: This is time well spent!
Writers' cramp

If the act of writing becomes painful, you are probably gripping your pen too tightly.

  • Put down your pen and rest your hand for a short time.
  • Place your hand on the desk (palm down) and let the muscles relax.
  • When you begin writing again:
    • Try using a differently shaped pen.
    • Write more slowly for a little while.
    • Try writing in a slightly different style.
Running out of time

Suddenly you realise you don’t have enough time to finish all the questions.

  • Re-allocate your time for the remaining questions: based on their mark value, divide up your remaining time.
  • For any questions you haven’t yet started, write a quick outline plan in your answer book – you will at least be awarded some marks.
  • Remember, the first few marks of a question are easier to gain. Therefore, two half-answered questions will usually give you more marks than if you completed just one of the questions.

What if I panic?

Panicking in an exam will cause your heart rate to increase, you will begin to sweat and you will have difficulty recalling information. Managing exam anxiety, in this site gives helpful suggestions.

Open book exams

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security with open book exams. With limited time and much to write, you will not have time to sift and sort through books, notes, etc. What you will be able to do, provided you are well organised, is to refer to your materials for references, arguments, quotations, etc. Practical advice and strategies for open book exams can be found online.