Preparing for Exams

Sections on this page

  • Planning
  • Making notes
  • Past papers


In your first year it’s Mods or Prelims. In your last year it’s Finals. For the former you’ll be doing some preparation; for the latter you’ll almost certainly being doing a lot. How can you make the best use of the time available to boost your exam performance?


Sitting day after day staring at old notes and essays is not only likely to be boring, it will also probably prove relatively unproductive. You will do better to put together a revision plan that (a) clearly identifies your strengths and weaknesses so you don’t waste hours re-reading what you already know perfectly well and (b) involves active revision activities rather than passively staring at the same old stuff.

Making notes

One way you can make your revision more active is to spend a proportion of the time producing a set of compressed revision notes for use in the last week of revision. The very act of producing these will force you to identify the key essentials amongst the mass of material you have (hopefully) accumulated, and also forces you to process the material actively rather than merely reading it passively. This in itself should aid retention of the material.

Past papers

But there is something even more useful you can do. Do as many past papers as you can for practice. Build your revision schedule round cycles of past papers under as near exam conditions as you can simulate. Then check your efforts against your notes and essays (or any other convenient sources). Start doing this early in your revision, and keep repeating it at regular intervals.

You may think this sound tedious, or perhaps too much like hard work, or even plain scary. But it works. I know it works because this is what I did for my Oxford Engineering Finals in 1975 and for my Oxford Theology Finals in 1995 with extremely good results both times. All right, I can’t guarantee it will get you a First, and if you haven’t worked well over the three years of your course, it certainly won’t; but it will help you maximize your exam potential on the day.

The advantages of doing lots of past papers for practice include:

  • You quickly identify where your strengths and weakness really lie.
  • You get your worst blunders out of the way in your practice papers rather than the real thing.
  • You practice writing papers by hand for three hours at a stretch (and simply building up the physical strength in your writing hand can prove valuable).
  • You find out how much you can write in the time.
  • You build up your self-confidence at tackling exam papers.
  • If you do enough past papers, the chances are that some of the questions you face in the real exam will resemble some of those you’ve recently done for practice. You’ll then find you have the basis of an answer fresh to hand in your mind.
  • You start to acquire the knack of doing the type of paper you’ll have to face for real.
  • By the time you get into the exam room for the real thing, you’ll be feeling “Here we go again” rather than “Eek! Panic!”
  • The art of doing three-hour written exams is a perhaps rather artificial skill, especially for mature students who have become used to proving themselves in more real-life ways. But, like any other skill, it can be greatly improved by practice.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that what worked well for me will work for you, but I remain convinced that doing plenty of past papers for practice (and I have in mind something like every relevant past paper for the previous four years) is the single most useful way you can prepare for exams.