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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

How to deal with written exams at university

Studying at university means that you will likely have to write exams. Yes, that's correct, written exams. We take you through what you can expect and some top tips for success.

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Many students will know how to best prepare for an exam. There’s a lot of advice and guidance out there. Here we’ll be giving you tips and advice on what to do on the actual day of a written exam, but before we start, there is one thing to focus on in your months of study and preparation for the big day. 


Writing by hand 

Very few of us write by hand very much anymore. Mostly we use digital devices to help note down words or short sentences. When we do have to write an essay, that is also usually done on a device. When it comes to sitting down and writing with pen and paper for an hour or more, it’s natural that it will be a physical struggle.  


When you’re preparing for your exam, make sure you practice writing your answers by hand in pen. This will help strengthen your muscles and hands and also help you with the timing of the actual exam on the day (more on that later).  


Sleep, eat, exercise and relax 

We all know the benefits to our physical and mental health of sleeping, eating well and exercising. Make sure you focus on this in the run-up to exam days so that you don’t approach exam day exhausted even before starting. 


On exam day 

It’s exam day, so get up early and have a good breakfast. Make sure you leave plenty of time to arrive at the exam early. You don’t want to have a stressful morning and have to rush to the exam. Once you arrive and sit at your desk, here are some tops tips for you to follow: 

  • Settle down, make yourself comfortable, take some deep breaths to settle any nerves or stress you may be feeling.  

  • Don’t look around the room - ignore everyone else. You don’t want to get distracted or get lost in comparing yourself to others in the room.  

  • Read the instructions while you’re waiting to be told to open the question paper. Don’t ignore the instructions, as they provide you with important information.  

  • Once you’re allowed to open the question paper – check the marks available for each question. You will need this information for the next bullet point.  

  • Plan the time for each question. Allow more time for questions that carry the most marks. Leave yourself 10 minutes in the end to check your answers.   

  • Read the question (also called a prompt) carefully. Read it three times. What question type is it? Is it a multiple choice/essay / short answer question? As mentioned above, this will impact the time you allocate to the question(s).  

  • Essay question – break the question down into each of its parts. Highlight the key words. The University of Sheffield has a useful factsheet that highlights the meaning of action verbs in a question. For example, analyse, compare, evaluate. Knowing what the question is asking for is key to getting a good mark/grade in the exam. When planning and writing your answer, make sure you cover each part of the question.  

  • PLAN – this is in capital letters and bold because if you ignore all the other tips and advice on this page, do NOT ignore this one. It’s the most important tip of all. The examiner will know if you have planned or not. In a maths exam, for example, your actual calculation result may be incorrect, but if the examiner can see in your planning that the logic was correct, this will act in your favour. This is true for any exam. Your plan is fundamental.  

  • Spend 5-10 minutes writing your plan. It’s a very good investment of your time.  

  • Plan – write fast. Write down key points, examples, evidence and references

  • Refer back to the question – often. Don’t worry about writing a strong introduction, and do NOT copy the exam question. Instead, write a strong thesis statement and start your essay. 

  • References – cite any authors/books/articles as evidence to support your answer/claim. You only need to reference the name of the author or the title if you know it, but no need to reference dates or pages.  

  • Check answers at the end – do not skip this part.  

  • Never finish early, use the time to check through your answers.  


For similar advice in video form try: 



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