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10 Tips for Mastering Exam Writing Skills

by Annique Bolliger

Exams are coming. As we approach the dreaded academic season, it’s a good idea to get prepped early on how to ace those exams by bettering your exam writing skills.

Check out these ten useful exam writing tips to improve your exam writing skills! Pre-exam anxiety. It sneaks up on you in sweaty nightmares and has you twitching around more nervously than an abandoned gecko tail. It’s truly a regrettable state to find yourself in. It’s completely normal to get a little nervous and stressed before an exam – exams, as it were, (especially Grade 11 and Matric exams) are kind of important…influencing your APS score, study options and scholarship opportunities… okay I’ll stop now. You get it. Exams matter and, therefore, you get anxious.

The great news is that there are many little things that you can do that will help you cope during this tumultuous time. There is no better feeling than walking into an exam hall with confidence and being able to tackle an exam with a calm and rational posture. And yes, you too can learn how to do this and more general exam writing skills.

Everyone goes through a stage in life where stress ultimately takes over the mind, body and sometimes even affects those close to you. Here’s your ticket to fight the University stress fever and head onwards to (hopefully) calmer days.

Check out the following ten tips on how to master the exam writing skill:

1. Read the questions & instructions carefully

It seems obvious, but I’ve seen too many of my tutlings lose points in exams because they didn’t read the exam instructions properlyFocus. Make sure you understand exactly what the exam is asking you to do. The smartest answer in the world isn’t going to score you any points if it answers a question that’s not being asked.    

2. Past exam papers to better your exam writing skills

Do it. Go in there and scramble your way through past exam papers. It will give you a very good idea of the exam structure and the types of questions and instructions you may be confronted with. Take a look at our selection of past papersAlso, make sure you inform yourself about past exam papers available in your own institution’s archives. Last but not least, talk to those friends of yours who have written similar exams before… and lived to tell the tale!

3. Time management

This is a very crucial tip, not only for exam writing but for the study time that precedes it. You need to figure out how to use your available time to maximise your productivity

For the exam preparation:

Divide your time cleverly to prepare for the heap of upcoming exams. Check which subject will demand most of your attention, and figure out what time of the day your productivity flows best. It’s a good idea to create a study timetable for the exam period so you can visually keep things on track.

During the exam:

Have a glance at the whole exam paper before starting to viciously scribble your pen to shreds. Start with the parts you know and feel most confident about – it’s an easy way to guarantee those first points. Keep an eye on the clock, and determine at what point time’s up for the rough drafts and scribbles, and when to start moulding your final answers. 

4. Befriend the rough draft

Yes, the rough draft. Rough drafts are kind of like avocados… people either fully throw themselves at them or avoid them at all costs.  If you haven’t yet befriended the rough draft, I suggest you do. If the exam at hand is an English essay, you don’t need to fully write out the entire essay as a draft, but it’s incredibly useful to help you structure your writing. A well-structured essay to an exam marker is like maple syrup to pancakes. If the exam is more Science or Maths-based, the rough draft can help you to scribble down important formulae or side calculations you were clutching on to with all your mental force.

5. Don’t skip your lectures

One of my professors once told us way at the beginning of the semester that we ought to note down her “Pearls of Wisdom” for they may come up in the exams. She wasn’t kidding. Attending your lectures (given you are already at varsity), will just about half the time you need to spend studying. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the main content of an exam corresponds to what has been discussed during the lectures (and seminars). If your Art History professor spends two entire lectures talking about the works of Braque, you can take the hint that you should probably study this particular guy more than other Cubists.

Go to lectures, note down what the professors are saying, and be assured that you may make this the focus of your study time.

6. Write leisurely

When you get back your exam and you see that you lost points or failed a question because Professor So-and-So was unable to identify your horrendous hand-writing, you’re going to feel like a real tart. Very avoidable, guys. Write leisurely to better your exam writing skills! Remember that teachers and professors are human beings that have to mark gazillions of exam papers. It’s completely understandable that if they come across handwriting that is hardly identifiable, they’re not going to be very lenient in trying to Sherlock out what you meant to say.  

Bless their souls.

7. Re-read it all

Another avocado. It seems that people either re-read their exams ferociously or don’t re-read at all, suppressing the potential consequences thereof.  It’s very important to re-read your exams… check your spelling, check whether that “3” won’t be mistaken for an “8”, and verify that you didn’t forget one of the multiple choice questions. It’s an important tactic for you to spot mistakes and correct them in time. 

8. Fuel up properly

Don’t study or go writing your exam on an empty stomach. Your brain engine needs fuel in order to produce anything halfway decent. You want to get in slow-releasing carbohydrates so your concentration lasts longer. I’m talking whole grain bread, oats, and other satiable carbs. Combine that with some healthy fats (nuts, seeds, organic peanut butter, etc.) and you’re good to go. Leave the waffles and Coco Pops for after the exams.

9. Try not to panic. You’re not alone in the exam gutter!

Those classmates of yours with the cool look on their face – yeah, that look has as much a chance of being internal panic than it does of being confidence. Don’t start winding yourself up with paranoia because everyone else seems like dey got dis. Students nationwide write exams, and everyone experiences anxious thoughts. You’re not alone. The exam gutter houses many. Plus, admit it, one of the best moments ever is leaving an exam and hearing that everyone else also didn’t know what to cross out in answer D.

10. Just do your best

What more can I say? If you studied and prepared to the best of your capabilities, and give it your all during the actual exam, what more can you do? You can’t do more than your best, can you? Whatever the outcome, what matters most is that you go out there and give those exams all the voooma you’ve got!

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As mentioned in point 10 – at the end of the day, all you can ask of yourself is that you do your best. So, believe in yourself, follow these tips and hopefully ace those exams

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