Exam day strategies

Getting yourself mentally prepared for exam day always pays off when you are under the pressure of the exam. UNE exams are either 2 hours 15 minutes or 3 hours 15 minutes, depending on the subject you are studying. The following tips will help you think through the key issues:

Getting an overview of the exam paper

In most exams, it is recommended that you spend the first 10 minutes or so perusing the paper. The first thing to check is whether you have been given the correct paper.

Read the instructions carefully to examine options and mark up choices. When you begin to read the paper, identify the topics covered, read the questions carefully, and think about the type of writing required. Jot down a few quick notes on your paper if important facts come to mind and need to be remembered. This is time well spent – your first impressions are often important in the decision-making process.

Budget your time. The amount of time you should spend on a question is often indicated. If it is not, you can use the marks (weighting of each section) as a guide to quickly work out how much time you can spend per question. For example, in an essay-based exam with 4 essays (worth 25% of the marks each), planning your use of time then becomes a matter of dividing the allotted time by the number of essays required: 4 essays in 3 hours = approx. 45 minutes per essay. The same method can be applied to an exam with a range of assessment types (e.g. multiple choice, short answer, essay).

In a 2 hour 15 minute exam with multiple choice questions (worth 20%), short answer questions (worth 40%) and an essay (40%), you would allocate about 25 minutes to the multiple choice questions, 50 minutes to the short answer questions and 50 minutes to the essay. Again, time spent working this out is time well spent – there are no marks for questions unanswered because you ran out of time!

Section Weight Time
Planning:   10 mins
Multiple choice questions 20% 25 mins
Short answer questions 40% 50 mins
Essay question 40% 50 mins
Totals: 100% 2 hours 15 mins

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Understanding the question

Read the question carefully twice and identify the instruction words, topic words and any restricting words. This technique should be applied to all questions whether they are multiple choice, short answer, labelling tasks or essay questions. For more information, see Analysing the question.

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Writing answers

Multiple Choice Questions

If you are sure of the answer, there is no problem. If you are not sure of the answer, increase your chances of getting it correct by eliminating answers which are obviously wrong. For each wrong answer you eliminate, your potential score increases. Unless you are penalised for incorrect answers, you should always have an answer.

Short Answer Questions

Short answer questions may require one word, a phrase, a sentence or a paragraph. Usually what is required is indicated by the amount of space allowed for your answer and the number of marks allotted to the question. In most cases, short answer questions are testing your command of the facts and content of your course. If a short answer question requires more than one or two sentences, planning is essential. As a general rule, you should spend up to one fifth of the allotted time planning your answer.


Writing an essay in an exam is different from writing an essay for an assignment since success depends more on recall rather on research. In essay based exams, you are often given a choice of topic. Be careful not to waste too much time deciding which topic to tackle. If you have forty-five minutes to write an essay, you should spend approximately 10 minutes planning your answer.

Many essay questions in exams are argumentative; that is, you are asked to agree or disagree with a given statement. To answer such questions, you need to have an opinion or a line of argument. Think about the question in terms of four possibilities:

This diagram shows a line with an arrow at each end and the following wording placed evenly along the arrow "disagree strongly",  "mostly disagree", "mostly agree", "agree strongly".


In the first 10 minutes of the exam when you are reading through the exam paper, you should jot down the points you are going to use to support your line of argument. For an exam essay, you will need three to five main points, one of which may involve counter-argument or concession.

In an exam essay, most of your marks will come from the body of the essay; after that, your conclusion is the most important. For this reason, never spend a long time on the introduction, and keep it short — 30 to 50 words. The introduction need only:

  1. identify the topic; and
  2. indicate your line of argument

Move on to the body of the essay, and if you have allotted 45 minutes, you would work on the body for at least 30 minutes. Expand each major point into a topic sentence, and back up your points, usually with specific examples. If you have planned your essay well, your conclusion will seem to flow naturally from your argument. The conclusion, like the introduction, should be fairly short. It should give a concise summary of your main points and re-state your line of argument.

Allow 5 to 10 minutes to re-read and revise the essay. Check your answers by asking yourself:This image shows a person with three speech bubbles that say "Have I answered the question?", "Is this a logical answer?", "Is it complete"




If not, you still have time to make adjustments.
If you run out of time, at least jot down the main
points you wanted to make.

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After the exam

Avoid wasting time on lengthy post mortems. There is nothing you can do to change your answers, so focus on the next exam. When you have completed your exams, relax and enjoy the extra time you will have available.

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