Planning and managing your time when you're sitting an exam is very important. It's not difficult and it can make a difference to your results.
If possible, find out what the format of your exam will be ahead of time – for or example, the number and types of questions. That way you can begin thinking about how you might allocate your time and adjust it if you need to when you see the actual exam.
How to allocate your time
Most exams are three hours long (180 minutes).
- Allow five minutes when the exam starts to tick off the questions you're going to answer (if there's a choice) and underline the key words (180 - 5 = 175 minutes).
- Allow 15 minutes at the end for checking (175 - 15 = 160 minutes).
- This leaves 160 minutes to answer the questions.
From here there are two different methods you can use to plan your time.
If the exam is worth, say, 100 marks, you have just over 1½ minutes per mark. For example, a 20-mark question should take about 30 minutes.
Essay questions are worth, say, 50% of the marks, so allocate 50% of the time to them – that is 80 minutes. If there are two essay questions worth 25 marks each you should spend 40 minutes on each essay.
Count the number of short questions and divide the remaining time by the number of questions. So, if there are 50, that would give you just over 1½ minutes per question.
Tip – for both options write the time available next to each question.
Remember you will get 10 additional minutes reading time at the start of your exam where you are not allowed to write. You should use this time to:
- read through all the questions
- check which questions are compulsory. If there are options, decide which questions to answer
- allocate time for each question based on the number of marks each question is worth.
What if you get stuck?
If you come across a question you can't answer:
- write down your main ideas and key words
- note how much time you have spent on the question
- leave a gap in your answer book and return to it later.
If you have time at the end to come back to a question but don't know how to answer it, try doing a brainstorm or mind map.
What if you run out of time?
If you realise you are going to run out of time and have not answered all the questions, write down your main ideas and key words so that the examiner knows where you were going with the essay. You may get some marks.
Check your answers
When you plan your time for the exam be sure to include some time at the end to check your answers.
Start with those that will give you the highest marks to see if you can improve on them. Then if you still have time, check the rest of the questions.
For essay-type answers, re-read them to make sure they make sense. Listen to yourself as you read and ask yourself:
- have I answered all parts of the question?
- have I covered all the main points?
- have I supported my claims with examples, reasons and results?
Then check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. If you still have time, go back and check your work again. Start at the end and work through to the beginning this time – you may just notice something that needs changed.
Tip – Use every minute of your exam time to check and double-check.
Summary of top tips
- Read the instructions and questions carefully – before the exam starts and during the exam.
- Plan how you will approach your exam and how long you will spend on each question.
- If there are optional questions decide which ones to answer.
- Start with questions you feel most confident about, as you may complete them faster.
- Brainstorm your answers for essay-type questions.
- If there are compulsory questions, double-check you have answered them all.
- Cross out your rough notes so the marker knows they are not part of your answers.
- If you have time left at the end of the exam use it to check your work again!