Everyone studies for their exams and SACs (or they should be), because after all it’s all about preparation. That’s not true. Preparation is crucial, but it is not everything. What matters is how you do the actual exam – how you approach the paper, how you find clues to answers, etc. Bad exam technique can make your preparation useless and good exam technique can give you a good chance of success when you haven’t done enough preparation. So you have to get it right.

Practice Exams/SACs:

I guess this is an aspect of preparation, but it helps you to get your technique right. You need to be doing lots of practice exams and SACs before the final assessment so you know the structure of the assessment back to front. You need to know the marks, the number of questions, the types of questions and the structure. You have to know what to prioritise, your timing, your strategy and the order in which you will approach the exam. I will talk more about these things later on. The only way you can get these things perfectly right is by doing practice pieces. No one does an exam the same way. You need to work out what works for you and develop your own approach.


Timing is so important in any piece of assessed work. You want to finish the assessment in the time given and, if you can, have some time left over for checking or if anything goes wrong. It’s good to get your practice exams finished around 5-10 minutes early so you don’t stress in the final exam and can have extra time to check over it. Bear in mind the faster you can finish it the better, just don’t go fast if it means you make mistakes. If you do have extra time, don’t stare at a wall! Use the time to check over your work again and again.

An important part of timing is working out how much time should be allocated to each mark. This is a simple matter of dividing the time by the allocated marks, so a 60 mark exam with 120 minutes should be 2 minutes per mark. This is a great guide to how long each question can take you. You then need to work out how long you intend to spend on each section as well. You should try to finish multiple choice efficiently and not waste time on it (gaining some extra time for everything else), spend an average amount of time on short answer and make sure you have a little extra time for extended response(s). You can work out this sort of timing and your plan of attack when you do practice exams and also during reading time.

Where you can gain extra time, take it! Make sure you don’t waffle on. Your answers should be ONLY WHAT IS REQUIRED. Don’t do extra calculations, or write extra that isn’t asked for. This wastes time and doesn’t get you extra marks. The exam gives you enough time to do only what is asked.

Reading Time:

You’re in year 12 now – no more staring at the wall during reading time. You should use every second of it! First, read the entire exam. Note the questions you think you will struggle with. Spend your reading time working out how to approach these questions so when you can write, you don’t need to waste time working them out.

If the exam has multiple choice questions, use reading time to work out a few of the easy ones you can do in your head. As soon as writing time starts, mark in the answers quickly. Doing this, you have essentially started your exam in reading time, giving you an advantage. If there is an extended response question, or for an English essay – use your reading time to plan it out so you can start writing as soon as writing time starts.

Approaching Questions:

HIGHLIGHT! HIGHLIGHT! HIGHLIGHT! In every subject highlight the key words of the question, such as task words (telling you what to do) and key content words (telling you what content is being referred to). Also highlight details you don’t want to miss, such as how many decimal places (in maths), the units (in science and maths) and key aspects of the essay prompt (In English). Do not highlight the whole question! Highlight key points.

Look at the marks. The marks tell you the detail required and how much time to allocate. A mark generally represents a point or a step. Generally in maths a three mark question means two steps and an answer. In maths an answer is always worth a mark – so if it is one mark no working is required. If it is more than one mark, working must be shown! It also means if you get the answer wrong, you may still get marks for working. In written subjects, a three mark question often means three points must be discussed/shown. Each subject is different and it is important to understand how the marks work for each subject.

In an exam or SAC, make sure you know what the marks correspond to for EVERY question. Then use that knowledge to make sure you are answering every mark.

However, in some subjects , such as Legal Studies and Psychology it is important to know that the final extended response question is globally marked. This means that each mark doesn’t correspond to an aspect of your answer. It is a more general scheme. They are looking at the entire answer and the quality of that answer, though there are still some criteria.

Multiple Choice:

Hope you get multiple choice in your exam because it is the easiest type of question for a lot of reasons. However, it is always important to remember a few key points.

Firstly, elimination; In any subject there is generally one or two  alternatives you can easily eliminate. Look for these and cross them out straight away! This means if you have to guess, you have less alternatives to guess from. It also means that if you have to do working for each alternative some can be left out.

Another key element is time. Multiple choice is generally worth one mark per question – that means they shouldn’t take much time. Remember to do them quickly and not waste time on a multiple choice question. If it is taking too much time – move on and come back later.

Guessing; NEVER LEAVE A MULTIPLE CHOICE QUESTION UNANSWERED. If you don’t have time – guess. Try and eliminate a few alternatives first, and then guess. You have a pretty high chance of getting it right. If the exam has a minute to go and you have lots of unanswered multiple choice – just pick a letter (A-E) and circle it for every question you haven’t answered. You’ll probably get a mark or two.

Another thing to remember is that multiple choice can help you out later on, so it is often best to do it first. For the sake of timing, if you can get multiple choice over with quickly – it’s a solid start to the exam. However, it is also important to remember that each multiple choice answer you know is right (through elimination or other means) – is a statement about the content. You have now got notes.  This is especially helpful in Psychology, there are 60 multiple choice questions and the content often overlaps with the short answer. You can use your multiple choice answers to help with the short answer. It can also apply to other subjects.


This might sound quite wishy washy but logic is an extremely powerful tool in an exam. Step back and look at your answers objectively. There are clues everywhere which can tell you if it is wrong. There are also clues to tell you the right answer. For example, where numbers are involved – look at the answer and ask: does this make sense? A simple example is, if you add 10+50 and get 1000 – you have done something wrong. Many students would leave the answer as 1000, because they calculated it and ignore the fact that it makes no sense. Don’t be that student.

A hard exam:

Sometimes we get those exams that are just too hard. The subject is really difficult, or we just haven’t studied. We’re worried we’ll even pass, and right to be. In these cases – you’re not aiming to get an A, you just want to pass. The approach is very different and there are strategies to ensure you get every mark you can. You have to work smart.

You must use reading time to work out what questions you CAN do. Do those questions first and make sure you get it right. Do them properly and get full marks. Don’t lose marks where you don’t have to! When you start writing flip through the exam skipping everything you don’t understand, but don’t skip the questions you work to answer. If you try a question and it is taking too long and you are getting nowhere, skip it.

If there are multiple choice, answer every question you can. Skip anything that takes too much time or is too difficult. For those questions, eliminate and guess.

Then go back and do the questions you struggle with. For the 1 mark questions, take an educated guess. For 3-5 mark questions, have a go. Do the first steps in working it out. If you do only the first step and have no idea where to go from there, you may still get a mark. When you don’t have any idea, guess! Put something down. If there is an extended response question, write something and put in some effort – whether you know what you are talking about or not. Again, you’ll still get a couple of marks. All of these small marks every now and again might just be enough to pass!

Remember to THINK. Use every bit of knowledge you have to put something down, that hopefully makes some sort of sense and at least you gets you some of the marks for the question.

Christopher Hill completed VCE in 2014 at Frankston High. He achieved an ATAR of 92.80 and completed seven 3/4 units of study. His exam oriented notes can be purchased at



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