It’s not uncommon for students to say to themselves and to one another: “If only I had a little more time”, “10 more minutes, and I would have nailed that question!”

Yes, it happens even to the best of us. But you should remember that examinations are set not only to test your knowledge on a subject, but also your speed, level of critical thinking, and degree of accuracy, all under the limitation of time. And as a professor once said:

If you could turn in your answer booklets at any time that pleased you, then it would no longer be an examination!

Knowing that you do not have all the time in the world, what then must you do to give A+ answers within the stipulated time? Here are some tips:

1. Have a Strategy

The first thing to do is to carefully read the entire exam paper before you write anything.  In this time, work out

  • Which questions you are going to answer
  • Which order you are going to answer them in
  • How much time you are going to spend answering each question 
  • Write down the plan on the back sheet of your answer book (if you are allowed to)

Don’t be tempted to do a question on subject X just because it’s the subject you know the most about.

  • Are you sure you can do it? 
  • Which parts can you do? 
  • How many marks do you think you could get on the parts of the question you can do? 

You might find there is another, much easier question on subject Y, which you may not want to choose because you found subject Y is harder, or because one part of the question looks really difficult.  Work it out for each part of each question: Which question is likely to get you the most marks?  Do that one.

2. Do Questions You Have the Most Clue About

Reading the whole question is also important because many questions lead you through a problem – the answer to part a) is used in part b), etc. Perhaps you only have the solution to a), and part of b),but no idea whatsoever on c), and d), which would leave you stuck! Always ensure to answer questions that you have the MOST clue about, and if your knowledge is spread across questions, start with the one that will get you the most marks.

There might also be clues in later parts of the question about what the examiner is expecting. Make sure you spot them. For example, if you have been told to label the diagram of an hibiscus flower – it will be smart to put more emphasis on the reproductive parts than on its petals and stem if the questions that follow are about pollination.

3. Work Out Timescales

When working out timescales, try and balance the time spent on a part of the question against the marks you will achieve. If it’s a 90 minute exam, and it’s marked out of 60, then on average you’ve got 1.5 minutes to get each mark.  Plan time accordingly.  If you go a few minutes over one question, that’s OK, just try to catch up.

Remember that exam questions are not about writing down everything you know about a topic – if you do this you will almost certainly run out of time.  You’re trying to get the best mark you can on the whole paper, not just on the question you happen to be doing at the time.

See Also: How to Make the Best Use of Time in Examinations (2)