Exams Learning

Exam hacks as told by academics

Reading Time: 4 minutes

You’ve read what seems like hundreds of books, written down too many pages of notes and gone through your notes with your coursemate over and over again. Revision for your exams doesn’t seem to be ending…the struggle is real.

However, when it comes to your exams, there are some really simple ways to put all your hard work to good use. We’ve spoken to some of our academics who have shared their top exam hacks to help you before and during your exams.

Dr John Morgan

Here are some of my best exam hacks:

Question the question

What are the assumptions made in the question? Are they representative of scholarly opinion, or is there disagreement? When planning, make sure you have thought about what lies behind the question, and make sure you don’t simply take it at face value.

Define key terms

When planning, circle all the important words (typically the nouns, verbs and any adjectives) in your question and make sure you understand all the ways in which they could be understood. Think about them critically – some questions hinge on a proper consideration of key terms, words like ‘success’ or ‘nature’.

Lead with your argument

An exam answer is not an invitation to recall a large amount of disparate information. You should instead critically engage with a question or a statement. Having an answer to a question (i.e. an argument) is much better than listing all the things you know. So make sure you have an argument!

Dump and select

Before you start to answer your question, dump all the relevant evidence you can think of on to the page in note form. Once you have considered which pieces are relevant, and how they might support or hinder your argument, select only those you need. There are no points for irrelevant but interesting material.

Begin at the middle

Once you have planned your argument, jot it down in note form, and leave a space at the top of your answer big enough for an introductory paragraph. Begin writing the main body of your essay, making frequent reference to your short notes about your argument. Once you have finished, return to the blank section at the start and write your introduction.

The introduction is crucial, and should make the reader aware of your central argument and how you will substantiate it. Often this is clearest in your mind once the essay is written. Writing the introduction last will enable you make a clear statement of the purpose and direction of your answer.


Dr Elizabeth Black

Freshen up your revision

Re-read your lecture notes and existing research, but also extend your reading to new material. Your original lecture notes and research will provide a good knowledge base. However, finding reading new research material will refresh your revision, deepen your subject knowledge, and demonstrate evidence of wider reading.

Brainstorming and essay planning

Brainstorming is a great way to generate ideas and develop an essay plan. It is where you work out what you want to cover and in what order, so that you have a logical structure and a clear plan before you start writing.

How to brainstorm:

  1. Highlight key words from the question and put them in the centre of the page.
  2. Brainstorm the main issues and arguments that you will need to cover to answer the question and address these key subjects.
  3. Make notes off each of these points to remind you of what evidence you need to discuss in relation to each argument.
  4. Look at the question again and eliminate any points that do not relate to it or are not directly relevant to your argument.
  5. Number the points in the order you will address them in the essay.

Allow time to choose which questions to answer

Look through the questions

  1. Put a cross next to ones that you do not feel confident answering
  2. Put a tick next to the questions you feel you could answer.
  3. Go back though the ones that you have ticked and put two ticks next to those you feel most confident in answering.

Do not start writing straight away

You may see other students begin writing almost immediately, but do not let that influence you. Take time to choose the best questions, plan your response and write carefully. Allowing time for planning will ensure a more thoughtful, well-structured and considered response.

Keep looking back at the question

A common error in exams is answering the question you wish had come up rather than the one you are being asked to address. However, irrelevant material should not be included. Try to address the question directly and only include material that is directly related to the topic.


Dr Mark Quinn

Here are my five quick tips:

  1. Make a plan of your revision timetable (one that’s realistic)
  2. Create a/go to a space where you know you can work and concentrate
  3. Turn off your email, WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Twitter, Insta, etc
  4. Study in bursts (maybe look at Pomodoros) and take short breaks
  5. Hold yourself accountable to your plan

It worked for me!

For more help on revision, visit the Exam Extra website, where you’ll find extra help on exams, including information on exam support workshops and a live feed of PC cluster availability.

There’s also plenty more tips on exams and further support  on the Student Support website.

%d bloggers like this: