Andrew Cunningham

How to succeed in exams

As GCSEs and A-levels begin, tips from a former examiner

  • From Spectator Life
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Exams start on Monday. Thousands of A-level and GCSE pupils will be swotting hard for them right now. Some will do well; others won’t. Knowledge and ability are the two obvious keys to success. But there’s another factor that’s often overlooked: exam technique. Having taught thousands of students of all abilities at several leading schools, I know this is a vital reason why some teenagers are more successful than others: they use the right exam techniques under pressure. So what are these techniques? 

First and foremost, arrive early. Exams need a clear head and turning up at the last minute is certain to be stressful. Once in the exam hall (which will hopefully be a reassuringly familiar school building, like a sports hall), students should follow the clear instructions on the exam paper. The ‘rubric’ is there for a reason: to help candidates plan their time carefully and give basic guidance on the questions. As an example, it’s no good spending 30 minutes on a question worth 20 per cent of the marks, then 15 minutes on a question worth 50 per cent. Yet it’s amazing how many teenagers fail to plan their time carefully enough. Each year, after a crucial exam, some of the students I’ve taught tell me: ‘Oh sir – I was doing so well, then I ran out of time!’ They shouldn’t have.  

Equally, in most exams there’s a choice of question. Here, a minute or two spent pondering which question to answer before putting pen to paper is time well spent. One question may look hard at first, then become clearer at second glance. In the pressure of the exam hall, it’s all too easy to opt automatically for the first question – statistics tell us many students do this, even when the second question is actually easier.  

In the pressure of the exam hall, it’s all too easy to opt automatically for the first question – statistics tell us many students do this, even when the second question is actually easier

For example, one perennially popular exam text GCSE students will be writing on over the next few weeks is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

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