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How to Pass an Exam

Updated: Apr 6

Exams, in general, are feared by all students. They exist as the ultimatum point in your academic career to where everything you've done so far has built up to this moment. Though every exam is not created and conquered equally, we'll concentrate on STEM exams which have their own tips, tricks and techniques in order to fetch a higher than average mark!



In case you're not familiar with 'STEM', it's an acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics


So, If you're one of the boffins involved in one of these, this is a guide for you!


I say 'boffins' with compassion, you arguably consist of some of the most important people in our society, so if you're in this sector...major kudos to you!



If your exam isn't one of the STEM subjects, consider reading on anyhow, I'm sure the will be something to take away


These techniques will pretty much apply to all levels of exams, be that at the middle school/high school or at the university level


This is all about being strategic and increasing your chances of success, so be free to take notes if you wish!



Note: Some exam formats have changed this year thanks to the Covid crisis. Though some of the tips below have kind of been 'diluted' by these new parameters, the sentiment of each tip will probably still apply whether your exam location is a 'typical' venue or done from home




The Majority Forget This...


Okay so you know the exam time limit, you know how many sections will appear in the paper and you even have a pretty good idea for which topics might show their ugly head


But you know one more bit of crucial information, especially if you're in college or university


It's possible that you know who will be marking your paper, it's more than likely to be your lecturer or professor for the relevant course/module



The significance of this is the following, you may believe that there is a defined one-way system of how to 'count' a correct answer or when to be lenient...


There's not, it's likely at the professor's discretion!


Meaning, it's almost entirely up to how the professor to what counts as a tick and what counts as a cross - this might sound like a disadvantage, but there's room to manoeuvre here



So with that, let's think about our options a little bit


We know who will mark the paper and from this, we might be able to deduce how it will be marked. For this, we need to do some research with regard to the person marking it


The best way for this of course is to have a good relationship with your professor and simply ask some...if not all of the following questions (and more!), the more information the better, be strategic about this!



Some of the questions you should ask are:


  • How are "these 3 marks" for this question awarded? (choose whatever question)

  • How many marks do you give for working out the answer? ( they may provide a % )

  • How many marks do you give for a correct final answer?

  • Do you mark only on keywords?

  • Do you allow analogies or only scientific answers?

  • How important are diagrams/sketches, how many marks do you give for these?

  • What things do you 'like' to see in an answer?

  • Will you be marking this paper?

  • Do you have any tips for the exam generally?



You may look at the questions above and think 'this sounds like an interrogation!'. But, if you have a good relationship with your lecturer, asking these can be done in a friendly and casual way


On occasion, professors are too busy to mark exams and they give the papers to their PhD students/assistance to mark


Though it sounds like all of the above is now ruined, the PhD students/assistance are taught how to mark by the professor meaning the habits of the professor should be passed down to the PhD student or assistant



Nevertheless, if you can get to know the person marking...it might be a friendship worth having


This section is all about using the resources that are genuinely available to you, professors are allowed to give you this kind of information and you are welcome to it..but only if you ask!


As a general rule, I'd highly recommend having a great relationship with your professor (or whoever your teacher is) because it's more often than not they will go above and beyond to help you while maintaining a professional discipline



Also, don't just do this for your exam but all types of assessment in your module/course. Again, all of this is available to you but only when you ask


So if you still have time, be friendly..be genuine about the friendship and of course be polite. You will have access to some powerful information and be all the better for it




Know your Tools


You might be an engineer, this will mean you're in favour of creations that make things easier for humanity


One of these 'things' created, and allowed in your examination is...the calculator!


Now this can't be a programmable one or a GCD calculator, but you can have a pretty advanced mathematical mind in your hand while you rattle through the questions



Though this sounds great, it can only be used to its full potential when you know how to use the calculator to its full ability and be completely confident with it


Additional to this, you'll need to use the tool with haste and be quick enough to really save time with a small chance of error


Spend time on any tool you can learn prior to the exam and then invest additional time into methods of doing them quicker



For example, if you're expected to do quadratic equations in your exam there is actually a handful of methods to solve these


Learn the quickest and most appropriate way and even if you depend upon the most lengthy method, learn how to speed type any equation in so you're popping out answers in seconds!


Now, a calculator is one of the many tools you may have but there exist many others



Things like graph paper to produce clear and concise data is another example. This might sound basic but learning the best way to do create graphs beforehand is of huge value


Graphs are straightforward marks, but they are marked strictly. Elements of every graph are simple but often overlooked. Be sure to have a method of placing in the axis, units, title, scale etc first - these are easy marks


This sentiment extends to other tools like pressure tables, smith charts, impedance charts, and any other graphical reference solving tool you have been taught during your syllabus - learn it well beforehand and become super confident with it! - put serious time into it if needed



Be Equipped


There's always that one person in an exam that forgets something like a protractor or god forbid, their own calculator


It's important that this numpty is never yourself, not just for the sake of saving face but for the sake of experiencing an avoidable bad day


Don't ever let the reason you didn't do as well as you could of be because you showed up unequipped! This exam does contribute toward your future, so you must prepare toward the cause



There are easy rules with this one, like, don't bring one pen/pencil - bring many etc etc


Bring any mathematical tools you require them like a calculator, protractor, ruler, compass or whatever you need


Remember those erasers and pencil sharpeners too as they are there to support your other more essential tools ( we've got a list of quick-buys below )



But if you want to prepare for redundancy, I'd say maybe even bring two calculators, two rulers and just double of anything you may not expect to be a problem initially


On top of this, if a friend of yours is identified as the numpty mentioned above because of a sudden red completion on their face and steam coming out of their ears at T-4 seconds to the exam... you can help them out be owed a big thanks after the exam period!


As I say, these are simple things. But we can get smarter about this...



We know the names of the tools we need, but there exist different designs of tools that offer advantages over some 'lesser' designs


It would be worth looking around for the best 'kinds' of the tool you need, as an example, you could get a typical protractor that you are probably imagining at the moment or you may benefit from a design like one below



So this is a protractor as you can see, but notice how it has a swing arm integrated into its design?


This allows you to quickly mark your angles. You might think ' what's the point, you save maybe half a second?'


That's true, for this tool! - The point is, there exist better designs of any tool you can think of and it may be worth searching for those products to gain even more of an advantage when you're against the clock, just food for thought!



A better example for those of you who will actually be using a calculator is... the generation of your calculator! As mentioned before there are limitations to the capability of this tool but there's possible room to improve on your current 'number-cruncher'


The first thing you need to do is get a list of acceptable calculators that can be used in the exam, It's likely you'll need some kind of 'approved calculator' sticker on your calculator to use it during the test


There are a good handful of acceptable calculators but some of the most popular ones are

the CASIO series, it's more than common that students have the Casio fx-85GT PLUS



But, I'd recommend upgrading to the Casio FX-991ESPLUS, the reason for this is that it has a few additional features (be sure to loot them up!), one of which is super useful - the 'solve' function!



This is just to mention one additional feature, but the solve function allows you to solve for variables within a formula without having to go through the rearranging part


Rearranging formulae can be a big room for error but more importantly - it's time-consuming! This tool will allow you to solve for 'x' no matter where it sits in the formulae, no matter how complicated


It's tools like this which grant you the ability to speed up and reduce risk!



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This 'be equipped' idea also extends to things you need like water, maybe you need food or something too - it can be anything that you believe necessary to improving your effort during the exam


Remember your student ID card and other documentation to prove you...are you! It's possible that they won't allow you to sit your exam without these


Lastly, sure bring your phone, but turn it off! You don't' want to be the owner of the infamous 'pinging backpack'!




Hit Those Keywords


The clock has started its countdown, now you need to answer questions correctly and be time-efficient, these are the two main tickboxes - I suppose you need to make your answers neat enough to read as well, so keep that in mind!


Previously, I invited you to ask your lecturer whether they mark on keywords


The reason for this is that if the answer is yes, you will irrefutably get the mark for just putting the keywords of the answer rather than a comprehensive explanation (unless it's specifically asked for)



Even if you don't know whether the lecture marks on keywords, the use of bullet points instead of paragraphs can be significant and beneficial for you and the marker


A common mistake by some students is that when asked to explain something, they explain it by analogy and not by first principles, additionally, they reintroduce the question within their answer



An example of this is if you were asked something like 'What is electrical current?'



A student may begin to go down the route of:


"Electrical current is the flow of electrons through a conductor, it's like the flow of water through a pipe"

Although this would be a suitable explanation to somebody new to the world of electronics, it's likely to not get you all of the marks for the question


Also note, they've rewritten part of the question in their answer which is taking up valuable time. A better answer may look like his:


" The rate of charge passing a point in a conductor per second, measured in amperes"

There is a concise answer, this uses no analogy and answers the question from first principles. This means that it's irrefutably correct, you would certainly get the marks for it


Unless, you know your marker prefers you to put added little nuggets of information in the answer, for example mentioning that the charge can be negatively charged electrons or positively charged ions or holes


Generally speaking though, the use of keywords is a winner



Furthermore, if you've been taught an exact definition of the answer - use that!


Be careful not to make your answer your own interpretation of the definition you've been given, you may begin to talk yourself out of the marks when they've effectively been given to you


If your exam asks you to expand on the question, do so.. but start from the first principles answer and then develop on that and remember, the marks are in the keywords!




Against the Clock


Most exams, in my experience anyhow...are two hours long


You've 120 minutes to demonstrate your knowledge and all the pressure associated with doing so, time is a big part of getting good at exams


There's going to be a requirement on you to keep track of your pace, you should always be referring to the clock frequently enough to judge your rate of barfing up answers, neatly



Equally, going to the toilet ( when you really can't afford to ) isn't a good idea, be sure not to 'over hydrate' yourself into a surprise toilet break halfway through your paper


Remember that your time can roughly be divided up into three parts

  • Reading questions

  • Writing answers

  • Checking answers

So, let's say you powered through the exam and you're done - you finished it even before the time limit to where you have to stay in the exam hall until the bitter end



Now is your opportunity to go over what you need and check it objectively, meaning... if you feel like you've done well, don't let the momentum of that feeling cause you to overlook any mistakes buried within the answers


Take the time to definitively go through your process, if you are pushed for time - be sure to go over the questions you are not 'sure' of and the ones that have the most marks


Of course, be vigilant in all of the three parts mentioned. Read the question carefully and understand what it's actually asking for, be sure not to go off on a tangent, stay on track!




Past Papers


The holy grail of the exam period, the Past Paper


These 'question banks' are filled with the questions which have appeared in a previous exam, they offer the student an interesting bundle of advantages


One of these is to see how the paper is divided up with regard to topics/marks and types of question (written, graphical, diagrammatic etc)



It is essential you get your hands on as many of these as possible, and in fact...you might even be worth asking your professor which exam Past Paper you should revise


If they are in the right mood, they may say something like 'I've always liked the 2018 paper', this cheeky response...both funny and hugely valuable


I have genuinely seen this happen before and more than once, so..give it a shot!



But anyway, you have a real advantage here - be sure to use it to it's full potential


Be careful not to make it too easy for yourself and have the answers alongside the paper for every attempt, have some attempts with answers and others without


Also, be sure to get an idea on time, timekeeping is a key factor here



Whether you work together with your friends of tackle them alone, prepared or not prepared these comprise as your biggest shot for passing. They also help you 'get used' to the exam format which in turn helps confidence and therefore performance


Talking about confidence quickly, before you're in the exam, do the things that make you feel good prior to taking it. Whether it be going to the gym or even just dressing in something you feel confident in, being in a good mood can't be bad right?


Anyhow, make this section a priority - you'd be surprised how often some module's exams are just recycled from previous years, take advantage of it



And If you have time, collect all of the questions from a past paper and assemble them together into a question bank. Organise them well and master them as a chronicle


Include questions from lessons/lectures and any practice questions provided throughout the term... you're basically making a 'bible' for the module


If you can get confident with this, the exam will be a damn breeze!




The One-Pager


There will be things you're expected to know off the top of your head, you may even have a pneumonic for remembering some of these things


What I would normally do is create what's known as the One-Pager


This is as it sounds, it's one page of densely packed information for you to have/check/use right up to the start of the exam



These would feature equations, diagrams, pneumonics, trends, quick definitions, mathematical constants, keywords, derivations and anything useful



This is a means to test yourself, as well as a means to provide confidence


This One-Pager should probably be used for each module, and might even be something you check before going to sleep after a night of revision - again just to test your mind!


A key of this concept is to make it dense, get as much information on there as you can but be sure to keep it neat, you may even need to produce multiple drafts before getting 'the one'



Why Your Grade is Important


There are a few obvious reasons for this but I'm going to come at it from the angle of an employer


Exam grades are key, but they are used as something called a 'contrasting factor'


What I'm talking about here is that, if an employer had two applications and equally found them both appealing. They would have to justify why they would choose one over the other (to the HR representative)



This justification would rely on a contrasting factor, which could be your grade!


When it comes to an assessment centre or just a round of interviews, it's very rare that the grades are talked about until the very end - as a means to distinguish


It's more often that your performance on the day is what matters, but in the scenario where you are neck and neck with a fellow interviewee, it's the exam result that will become the decider



The key to passing all exams is within the preparation for sure, as you can read, most of our advice above relates to it


If you are in a scenario where you feel like you haven't revised anywhere near enough, take what you can from the above to increase your chances of success, of course, the biggest 'take away' is to better prepare for the next load of exams


Either way, I hope the above has helped in any way possible, the pandemic has shuffled things up a bit and added completely new stress factor to the mix



I wish you all the best of luck if you're undertaking exams this year, I hope they go well!


They are important but good or bad they do not count for everything, though it's a pretty good feeling to be good at them


Nevertheless, go get em!



Thanks for reading

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