How to write exams

How to write exams

The best way to do well in exams is to make sure you are well prepared and have done your revision. For help, see our advice on Revision strategies and memory techniques. For online assessments it is especially important to plan your time during the assessment period and to ensure that you stay focussed on your exam (see our pages on dealing with distractions).

Choice of questions

You may be given a choice of questions to answer. Make sure you:

  • Read all your options carefully before choosing
  • Don’t pick a question which contains any terminology you do not fully understand
  • Write down a few notes and ideas if you are torn between a couple of questions- this should help you see which questions you could write a better answer for
  • Underline any command words or limiting words in the question to make sure you focus on the specifics of what you are being asked.

Essay Style exams

Short answer exams

Answering Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

Answering MCQ exams is very different to essay based exams. Often the marks are evenly weighted for all the questions, however, some are bound to take you longer than others to answer.

  • Read the instruction carefully.
  • Read through all the questions quickly answering all the ones you definitely know first and leaving the hard ones until last.
  • Try to think of the answer before you look at the choices.

Working with formulas and equations

Write down any working out in a clear logical order- it could get you some marks even if your final answer is wrong. If you find yourself running out of time and unable to work through to the answers, write down which formulas you would have used to get there.

Tackling Exams – Advice from the examiner

The tips below may seem obvious, but reading them through now will help you to remember them when writing your exam.

Read the instructions

Make sure you are clear about how many questions you need to answer. If questions are divided into multiple sub-questions check whether you have to answer any one of the sub-questions or all of them. Check the back of the paper for further questions/sections.

Read all the questions carefully

Read through all the questions before deciding on the best combination. Make sure you understand what the question is asking you. Underline the key words or phrases.

Plan the time

Plan the time you can spend on each question and allow time to re-read at the end of the exam.

Check how many marks are available

Check how many marks are available for each question. If the same number of marks is available for each question, then make sure you allocate roughly the same amount of time to each. Don’t spend so much time answering your ‘favourite question’ that you write only scrappy notes for the other questions you choose.

Plan each answer before you start writing

Jot down skeleton answer-plans, on a page which you will later cross out as rough work, before writing the actual answers to be read by the examiners. This will help you to make sure your answer is clearly structured.

Note from the examiner: Most students believe, incorrectly, that the overriding criterion is the number of correct facts in the answer. On the contrary, the logic, clarity and organisation of the work are at least as important as its content.

Answer the question

Make sure you answer the question that is on the paper and not the one you hoped would be there!

Note from the examiner: The most common fault in any written work is a failure to keep to the point and not to answer the question. When you write an examination answer or an essay you are engaged in an assessment of what is relevant. What does the question ask?

Name the key thinkers/experts

When you discuss ideas/techniques associated with specific individuals, mention their name and if possible give an indication of the book or article title.

Give examples

Illustrate theory with concrete examples. (This is a point which obviously depends on the topic and may be inapplicable to some topics).

Note from the examiner: If there is a `stock example’ which the textbooks or the lectures always quote, give a different example if you can. Quoting a stock example just shows that you have remembered it. Quoting a different example (provided it is a true example of the issue it is used to illustrate) shows that you have understood that issue well enough to identify an example for yourself; it is much more impressive.

Use all the time available

You should aim to complete your answers well before the close of the exam but it is wise to use any extra time you have to check your answers and correct any mistakes.

How to write exams

Which test question type do you use: true or false? Multiple choice? Long-form essay? What is the best strategy for creating exam questions?

When you’re designing an exam, consider what you want to be able to gauge in your college students’ knowledge in order to choose the best types of questions to measure their learning. There are benefits and disadvantages to any type of question, so consider these exam tips when deciding what teaching strategies to employ when you create your exam.
Difficulty creating or difficulty grading?

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition, Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svnicki noted that exams have two pieces that are time-consuming for professors: construction and grading. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “it appears to be generally true that the examinations that are easiest to construct are the most difficult to grade and vice versa” (McKeachie, 86). Multiple choice and true or false tests are certainly easy to grade and are tempting to offer to large classes due to the volume of tests being taken.

But the knowledge you can gain about your college students’ learning can be limited by these forms: true or false questions, for example, give test takers a 50% chance of being right on any question. Multiple choice questions are better, but it can be difficult to construct questions that have plausible incorrect choices. They are also less geared toward accomplishing higher level goals, according to McKeachie and Svnicki, who recommend using “some essay questions, problems, or other items requiring analysis, integration, or application” (McKeachie, 86).
Types of questions

Advantages and Disadvantages of Types of Exam Questions

  • Multiple choice questions are versatile and require students to do little writing during the exam. But according to the “Designing Test Questions” exam tips guide from the UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching and Learning website, writing good multiple choice questions can be challenging. The team behind that article recommended creating a “single, clearly formulated problem” without any “extraneous words” for each question, as well as a number of other tips.
  • Well written problems, which tend to appear most in math and science disciplines, can show how much students understand the process of problem-solving, particularly when they are given credit primarily for showing their process rather than finding the correct answer. Problems that are too simplistic, however, may not show whether or not students actually understand the steps they are following or the formulas they are using.
  • Short-answer questions can measure student knowledge if they are limited and well-defined without just asking students to regurgitate facts. To emphasize critical thinking, you can ask students to make a hypothesis or solve a problem related to the course material. These answers require attention when grading and are best accompanied by comments rather than simple points during the grading process.
  • Essay questions are the easiest to design but hardest to grade. As one essay question takes college students a higher portion of their time, they are tested on less material. However, students study more efficiently for essay tests and are likely to study broadly if they don’t know the topic in advance.


Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

This is what it all comes down to. It’s gig time. You are sitting in the exam hall, waiting to get your hands on that anticipated piece of paper. You have jammed a tonne of information into your brain. Your fingernails are non-existent. It’s time to get down to business!

Yes the exam environment may be different across disciplines. Computing students will sit some tests in front of a computer with their fingers poised to code. A practical element will contribute to science-student’s final grade. It doesn’t matter if you’re studying English, Economics, Psychology or History, every exam can be approached in much the same way with these exam writing tips.

We’re here to give you some help answering and writing exam questions that will show your knowledge to the person who reads your paper.

How to Answer Exam Questions

How to write exams

Pay attention! These quick tips should be common sense but many students who are under exam stress fail to see their mistakes. We’re going to help you avoid a major exam disaster by pointing you in the right direction.

Here’s our top exam writing tips to help you understand how to answer exam questions:

1. Practice Past Papers

There really is no better way to get exam ready than by attempting past papers. Most exam bodies should have past papers available online but your teacher will get you started on these in class.

This process isn’t just about preparing an answer for a specific question, it’s about understanding how you approach a question in an exam, how to structure your answer, the timings you should assign and what information will get marks.

If you want to create an easy way to test yourself with past papers, try the GoConqr online quiz maker:

Create Online Quizzes

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2. Read All Questions Carefully

The stress of the situation can cause you to misread a question, plan your answer out, start writing your response and then realise you made a mistake and wasted vital time. Even though you generally won’t be writing answers to every question on the paper, reading all questions thoroughly will ensure you make the right choices and can highlight how much you know about the topic.

Don’t forget to attempt all questions that you have selected. However, be careful of MCQ questions with negative marking. If you’re not sure of the answer you could cost yourself some valuable marks.

3. Manage Your Time

This is where you need to be strict on yourself. Once you have assigned a time limit for each question, you MUST move on once you hit it or you won’t be able to give the next question your full attention.

Remember to leave yourself some time at the end to go back over your answers and add in little notes or pieces of information about the topic. You never know, this could help bump you up a grade!

4. Structure Your Answer

How to write exams

Don’t just jump into writing your answer. Take the first few minutes to plan the structure of your essay which will save you time when you are delving into meaty parts. Always stay on topic; if you’re discussing the role of women in society as portrayed by the author in Of Mice and Men, don’t digress and start outlining other themes in the book for example.

Most essays should have an introduction, three main points and a conclusion. A lot of students see a conclusion as a final sentence to finish the piece off. A strong conclusion give an A grade student the chance to shine by bringing everything together and fortifying their opinion.

5. Explore Both Sides of an Argument

Building your argument in the main body of your exam answer will give your overall opinion credibility. English language questions, for example, encourage you to explore both sides of an argument and then conclude with a critical analysis of your answer.

Many questions you approach will look as though they seek a straightforward answer but in reality they want you to fully outline a structured essay. Don’t fall into the trap of providing a one-sided view, get your hands dirty and open your mind to other possibilities.

6. Review Your Answers Thoroughly

Smart students can still make the mistake of handing their answer book in without checking through what they have written. Proofread your answers as much as you can to correct any spelling mistakes and add any extra comments you think are worth mentioning.

You will be surprised what you can spot in those last few minutes. This is your last chance to throw in that quotation, list other relevant points or even draw a quick diagram. Now is not the time to drop your game, show the examiner what you’re made of!

Remember, the exams are not designed to trick you. Don’t panic on the day of your exam or this brain freeze could mean that you get a lower grade that you truly deserve. Convince yourself that you know how to answer exam questions and your almost there.

Are there any exam tips that helped you? Leave a comment below!

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The key to good exam writing is to take your time. It is tempting to rush in, but taking time to read the paper in full, analyse your questions, and make a short plan will help you to stay on track.

Have an exam timetable

Failure to allow enough time to complete all questions is a common mistake. It can be calming when under pressure to have a timetable in mind.

Think about this before the day of the exam. Use past papers to familiarise yourself with the format.

Read the paper in full

Read the paper thoroughly before you start. Make sure you know how many questions there are so you can plan your time.

Look through the questions to see what topics are covered and check the wording carefully.

Don’t panic if your preferred topic is not there; look within the other questions to see if it is “hidden” or if you can apply what you know to these.

You might want to answer the question you feel most confident about first, or do that second when you have started to relax in order to maximise your marks from it.

If you aren’t sure which topic to choose, note down a very quick outline for a few topics, and decide which you can answer the best.

Analyse the question

Receiving exam scripts that do not answer the question is a common complaint from markers. To avoid this:

  • Re-read the questions and circle key words
  • Analyse the wording of the question
  • Work out the type of response required: Is it an essay? Short question? Does it require a diagram?

For detailed advice and activities on how to interpret questions see our Interpreting your assignment (activity).

Plan your answers

To help you produce a well-structured answer, make a short plan before you start to write.

Tips on planning your answers:

  • Make a short outline or note down some keywords
  • Note down any mnemonics or things that you might forget
  • Don’t worry about being neat or really comprehensive at this stage; you don't need to spend too much time on it
  • Try making a mind-map to generate ideas
  • Create an outline paragraph by paragraph. Take a look at our example of Planning in paragraphs (PDF)
  • Be flexible: as you start writing, your thinking will evolve
  • If ideas for other questions pop up, note them down immediately
  • Cross out anything that you don't want to be marked.

Impress your examiners

Keep your examiner in mind as you write. Your examiner wants you to:

  • Answer the question
  • Demonstrate your understanding
  • Keep to the point – do not simply regurgitate everything you know, but address the question directly
  • Be analytical and focussed
  • Have some structure.

Take a look at our guide for some ideas on how you might be able to Impress your examiner (PDF).

Write short answers and leave good margins in case you think of something else useful that you want to add later.

Exam questions can be easier to tackle than assessed essays. You can write less for each point, provide less evidence and fewer examples, do not need references or a bibliography, and do not need to give as much background detail.

You should however, be able to refer to the main theorists/researchers by name and date of major works or key reports.

Check your answers

When you have finished, look back through your answers. Make sure you have attempted all mandatory questions and have numbered your answers.

Correct any obvious errors (eg spelling and grammar) and re-write any illegible words.

Check whether you have missed anything out. If you have, add in the extra information and clearly indicate where the examiner can find it eg by adding ^ in the margin or “see additional paragraph”.

Have a disaster recovery plan!

Take a look at our short recovery plan to give you techniques that might help if things aren't going to plan on the day.

As with all your writing at University, make sure you think about how it is structured and about using good academic language and style. For more guidance on these see our Structuring your writing and Academic writing pages.

Essay exams test you on “the big picture”– relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

  • Find out as much information as possible about the exam –- e.g., whether there will be choice –- and guide your studying accordingly.
  • Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
    • Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
    • Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
      • Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.

      Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

      • Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
      • Anticipate questions by:
        • Looking for patterns of questions in any tests you have already written in the course;
        • Looking at the course outline for major themes;
        • Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
        • Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
        • Brainstorming questions with a study group.
        • Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
        • Memorize your outlines or key points.

        If the professor distributes questions in advance

        • Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
        • Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.

        Right before the exam

        • Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.

        Read carefully

        • Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
        • Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
        • See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.

        Manage your time

        • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
        • If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
        • If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
        • Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
        • Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.

        Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

        • Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
        • Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
        • Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
        • Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.

        Follow a writing process

        • Plan the essay first
          • Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
          • Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
          • Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
          • To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
          • Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
          • A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
            • Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
            • As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.

            For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our Exams pages.

            Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “ Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site