Even if you have the best set of notes ever created by anyone, a super revision plan, and a really good grasp of your module content, there is no guarantee that these will be reflected in your exam results if you don’t develop and apply effective exam techniques. As with coursework, doing well in exams requires a range of organisational and other skills not strictly related to your understanding of the module content. You may find that some techniques that worked well for you in school exams don’t work so well at university.

The advice here mostly relates to the traditional end-of-semester written exam. You may need to develop additional skills and techniques for other kinds of exams, such as oral language or practical exams.

Time management

Almost all NUI Galway exams are two hours long, so you will know in advance how much time you have. You should also have a good idea of how the exam will be structured and marks allocated.

Be strategic about managing your time in exams. Make a time management plan and resolve to stick to it! Many students lose marks in exams by spending too much time on some questions, and not enough on others. Plan how to use your time by reference to the exam marking scheme – questions carrying the most marks should be allocated the most time – and allow five or ten minutes for a quick scan of the exam paper at the beginning, and another five or ten minutes at the end to review of what you have done.  

Answer strategies (general)

Take a moment at the start of the exam to read the instructions for completing it - what to answer, where to answer, marking schemes, and so on. Sometimes these instructions can be quite complicated, so make sure to read them carefully. For example, many exams are divided into sections, with some sections compulsory and some optional, or with all questions in some sections compulsory, and other sections providing some choice. Some multiple-choice exams require you to use a special sheet (that can be ‘read’ by a machine) to record your answer, and require you to ‘strike off’ your chosen answer option, rather than to, say, circle or tick it.  

Allocate a few minutes to scan the entire exam, selecting your preferred questions and maybe jotting down keywords or concepts, formulas, or memory devices. Doing this should help to settle your nerves and it kick-starts your subconscious mind into retrieving the information needed to answer your chosen questions, and to jettison information not needed.

Tackle the easiest questions first – this will help you to relax and build your confidence. Your subconscious mind will be preparing for the more challenging stuff as you work. Tie this in with your time-management strategies: for example, if you have to complete a set of MCQs, do the easiest first and quickly, coming back to the trickier ones afterwards with time to spare, while sticking strictly to your time plan.

If you have time at the end of any exam, resist the urge to leave the exam hall. Use the time to review what you have done thoroughly. Check for errors, make sure that you have answered all questions, and add any missing information. If you run out of time, jot down the key points that you would have made.

Answer strategies (specific)

For advice on how to approach three of the most common types of exam questions, click on the headings below:

Essay questions

Some exams require you to write two or three essays within a two-hour period. Students sometimes struggle to complete essay answers within the timeframe, so you have to be disciplined and work swiftly.

Don’t go into an exam with an essay learned off by heart unless you know the exact wording of the essay question in advance. Too often, these ‘learned by rote’ essays completely fail to answer the question asked.

Another common mistake is to focus on a key word or words and then write down everything that you know about the subject, instead of answering the question you are actually asked. While key words and concepts (nouns) are important, you also need to take some time to reflect on what you are being asked to do. Look at this list of typical essay question verbs – do you understand the differences of approach required for each? Are these types of questions likely to come up in your exams? If you’re not sure, do some research!

  •  Analyse
  • Assess
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Critically analyse or evaluate 
  • Define
  • Describe
  • Explain
  • Discuss
  • Explore
  • Identify
  • Interpret
  • List
  • Outline
  • Sketch
  • Summarise

An exam essay should be structured like any other essay – it should have an introduction, main body, and conclusion,and arguments should be outlined in a logical and coherent way. However, examiners are usually more forgiving than lecturers marking take-home essays, so, for example you don’t need to worry about citing the page number of a book you have read, as you would for an assignment.

Sketch a plan of what you will include in the different sections of your essay. Make sure to reflect the key concepts and words in the questionin your answer plan. Find a way to rephrase the question in your introduction. If you feel that you don’t fully understand the question, this is the place to state your interpretation of it. Building the essay question into your introduction is a helpful way to get past the fear of the blank answer booklet.

Tailor your language to the subject matter you are being examined on: jargon and writing style differ hugely between different disciplines. Writing style does matter – work on developing a fluid, readable style (see the Academic Writing section of the Academic Skills Hub for more on writing). ‘Textspeak’ and emojis are unacceptable.

You will gain hugely if you can show that you have done some relevant reading. Offering relevant, interesting or contemporary real-life examples is also likely to impress.

Short-answer questions

Short-answer questions are often designed to test your factual knowledge of a particular area, and are used extensively in science-based exams. Answers can range from one-word responses (complete the sentence, true/false) to a few paragraphs.

Practice preparing concise answers to short-answer questions – flash cards can be useful for this. It’s generally acceptable to use bullets, key points and short sentences when answering these types of questions. For maths questions, don’t just give your answer – show how you got there. Short answer questions rarely carry negative marking (where you are docked marks if you give an incorrect answer), so make an educated (or a wild) guess if you don’t know the answer.

Multiple-choice questions (MCQs)

Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) are often used to motivate students to cover the entire content of a course of study. Some exams comprise only multiple choice questions.

MCQs usually consist of question, a phrase or a stem followed by between three and five answer options. If your exam will contain MCQs, get plenty of practice in beforehand – you will find that similar questions crop up again and again, although they may be phrased in slightly different ways. The more you practice MCQs, the faster you will be able to answer them correctly in an exam.

Try to figure out the correct answer before looking at the answer options. If you can’t do this, eliminate any clearly incorrect options; thinking in terms of ‘true or false’ can help here.

Don’t select an option too soon. There can be more than one correct option, but only one correct answer.  For example, if two options are correct, the correct answer might be ‘answers (b) and (c) above’, but it could also be ‘all of the above ’.

Be careful not to misread the question. Some people find ‘negative’ questions particularly confusing – it may help to rephrase the question when this is the case.

Sometimes, having done the easier questions first, you can revisit some of the more challenging questions, having picked up hints from those you have already answered. Don’t make wild guesses if there is negative marking for incorrect answers!