Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Here come six invaluable tips for any maths or science exam—it shouldn't take much adjusting to make them work for an exam of any kind!
In my opinion, this is the most important skill of all when it comes to exam technique.
My advice is very simple and very clear: Do NOT go too slow.
The reason is also simple and clear: Entirely missed pages in an exam are far more costly than a few careless errors that may result from a faster pace.
As I consider this such an important skill, I have a whole separate article dedicated just to this. If you haven't read it, I recommend you do by clicking here.
2) Opening minutes
Do not just open the exam and 'start writing'.
Spend a few minutes (or even just one minute, if you're concerned about timekeeping) browsing/flicking through the exam before you start.
This is a difficult piece of advice to follow when you are young, and it can be very tempting not to follow it. But trust me, it's golden, and here are four reasons why:
i) Someone that doesn't do this has no 'map' of the exam. They don't know how long it is, what topics to expect, which topics will have 6-markers, how many longer questions there will be... and the list goes on.
ii) You don't have to go through the exam chronologically anymore. You may now know that a topic you are very good at makes up the final 20% of the exam, and, subsequently, you may like to tackle that part of the exam first.
iii) Sometimes one part of an exam will help you with another part of an exam. I'm not saying this always happens, but sometimes it does! For example, you may not remember the difference between Newton's First and Second Law only to be given one later in the exam and hence be reminded of the other!
iv) It is scientifically proven that, even if you've just skim-read a question, your subconscious brain already begins to figure it out as you tackle other problems.
Note: I'm not suggesting you read every question super thoroughly. I'm simply suggesting that you flick through the exam saying something like the following in your head: "Ah, ok, a few short questions on electrolysis... ooh, and two big 6-markers on covalent and ionic bonding... ah, and then an experiment on titration.. etc. etc."
Map it out!
By presentation I don't mean beautiful, cursive handwriting; I mean that there should be some logic to your layout.
An obvious example is 'boxing or double-underlining your final answer' in maths. As an examiner, there is nothing worse than trying to trawl through a tonne of numbers on a page to try and guess which one 'might' be your answer. Make an examiner's life easy and set things out clearly on the page with a boxed final answer—those benefit-of-doubt marks will start leaning far more in your favour as such! ;-)
Furthermore, it will also be easier for you to check back through your answers later in the exam.
Further presentation/notation points to think about:
i) Never use 'sideways' vulgar fractions. It is never clear where the denominator starts and finishes.
ii) Use a good pen that doesn't blotch on the page. If you're writing small numbers (e.g. exponents) and its smudged, it is very easy to re-read what you've written incorrectly.
iii) Cross your 7s so they don't look like 1s, 2s or Zs. Cross your Zs so they don't look like 2s. I'm not saying you have to do this, but small attentions to detail may take you a long way if you're on a grade-boundary. Try to develop your own presentation style and stay consistent with it. I see a huge number of students reading their 1s as 7s and Zs as 2s and vice-versa, every week.
iv) Put a single line through mistakes as opposed to scribbling them out. You could find it was correct after all, and you want to see it again, or the examiner may see it and award some marks for it!
iv) Do not write chains of operations with incorrectly-used equal signs. For example, for the question: What is 2 multiplied by 3 add 7.
2 x 3 = 6 + 7 = 13 (NOT good: 2 x 3 does not equal 6 + 7... the equals sign is used poorly)
2 x 3 = 6
6 + 7 = 13 (Good—all equals signs used correctly)
If in doubt, take a new line!
4) Read the whole question!
Such an obvious one and yet so many students fall foul to it. A few things to note:
i) All questions are designed with a purpose. Whether it is maths, science or any other subject, the parts (a) (b) (c) and (d) will be leading on from each other, holding your hand towards a final conclusion. It will help you immensely if you read all parts of a question before you begin to answer it. How many times have you answered part (a) of a question only to realise part of your answer actually belonged in part (b)? I rest my case!
ii) It is a very common bad habit (particularly in maths) to skip the pre-ramble of a question and jump straight to the 'mathsy' part. Here's an example:
Anyone who jump straight to letter (a) will miss the very important fact that m is defined as even in the pre-ramble of this question! So, read the pre-ramble!
5) Play the game
Sometimes you'll come up against a question you really don't know the answer to, or that perhaps makes no sense at all. In these situations, 'play the game'.
Here's how to play the game:
Convinced your answer to a question is complete nonsense? Put it down anyway. You'll be amazed how many nonsense questions in exams have nonsense answers. Even I sometimes second-guess myself only to find that an answer really was that obvious. If it's not negatively-marked (i.e. you lose points for incorrect answers) you have nothing to lose by putting your guess down.
Convinced a 6-mark question can be answered in '2 marks'? Play the game: Pad it out and write around the subject by adding extra tidbits of information which are as closely associated to the topic as possible. Go for 7 marks so that if one point is null, you still get 6!
Learn: 'How to answer Maths and Science questions' that seem impossible at first glance. This is a separate blog article that can be found here.
6) The end-game
More details can be found on this in my timekeeping article. However, here's a brief summary of the end-game, the part that is all about divvying up your leftover time between 'checking' answered questions and 're-attempting' unanswered ones.
No set method here, you just want to figure out where you can scrape the most final few marks. Here's what I tend to do:
Start with unsolved questions. I believe that's where there are the most marks to be gained.
Follow the general rule of thumb: After 3 minutes of no progress, change to a different task. Recall that sometimes leaving a question and coming back to it with a fresh set of eyes is all that's necessary!
When there's little hope of answering the remaining unsolved questions, I will take some time to go back and check the ones that I did complete.
If fully satisfied with my solution to all answer questions, I will dedicate all remaining time to the difficult, unsolved questions until time is up.