How to use practice exam papers

Practice exams papers are a vital part of your revision toolkit. Find out how to get the most out of them...

Finding practice papers
There are two main kinds of practice exam paper: past papers, which are actual exams used in previous years, and papers specially made for practice.

Most of the time, there won't be much difference between these. However, past papers can sometimes cause problems. If the course has changed since the paper was first used, then some of the questions might be out of date. Some past papers might also be missing information: for example, old English literature papers sometimes leave out extracts for copyright reasons. The older a paper is, the more likely it is to be out of date, so try to use more recent papers when you do a full mock exam.

GCSE, A-level and other national exams
You'll probably be given practice papers by your teacher or tutor. If you want more, most exam boards publish practice papers online. Make sure you know which board (eg. AQA, Edexcel) is running your exam and look on their website.

Universities run their own courses and exams, so you'll need to get practice papers directly from them. You'll normally be able to get these from the department website or library.
Mock exams
The most common way to use practice papers is to do a full mock exam in exam conditions. This means:
  • Sticking strictly to the time limit
  • Not looking at any notes or reference materials other than the ones the exam specifically allows
  • Not communicating with anyone else during the exam.
This will give you the nearest experience to the real thing. However, sometimes it can be useful to practice an exam under less strict conditions - for example, you could allow yourself a bit of extra time if you run out, or let yourself look things up if you are completely stuck. This can help you to identify which areas you need to do more revision in and how big a problem exam technique is likely to be.

If you take extra time, make a note of where you would have had to stop without it. If you look anything up, make a note of it alongside your answer.
Other ways to use practice papers
It can sometimes be difficult to find enough time to do a practice exam without interruption. If you want to get more practice but you don't have enough time, remember that you can attempt individual questions or sections in exam conditions. For essay questions, it can also be useful to practice planning an answer quickly even if you don't actually write the essay.
Getting your answers marked
Attempting a practice paper is useful even if nobody ever sees the result: you'll get a feel for how long you have, what your strengths and weaknesses are and how to keep yourself focused throughout the exam. Nonetheless, you'll want to get your answers marked if possible.

If your exam has right or wrong answers, you might be able to mark it yourself or swap with a friend. Most exam boards let you download mark schemes as well as past papers to make this easier. However, even this kind of marking can be harder than it looks, so there might be some places where you're not sure what mark you would get. On essay-based exams, you won't be able to mark your own papers.

Ask your teachers or tutors whether they would be willing to mark some of your practice papers: this will give you a better idea of how you have done and where you can improve. When you get your paper back, make sure you go through your answers carefully to see what went well and what can be improved, rather than just looking at the overall result.
Running out of papers
There will be a limited number of past papers available to you, especially if your course is new or has recently changed. Plan carefully to make sure you don't run out.

Many exams ask you to choose a certain number of questions from a longer list. This means that once you have used the practice paper, you can go back and attempt some of the questions you didn't choose as individual questions. This also forces you to attempt a question you're less confident about - useful preparation in case you get a tough exam.
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