This resource overviews the different types of exams and some strategies to prepare for them.
What are exams?
In the university setting, an exam tests the student's knowledge and understanding of a particular subject/topic they have studied throughout the semester.
Exam period can be a stressful time, but if you manage your time well and begin studying for your exams at an early stage, you will feel more confident on the day of the exam. The exam period dates are available here, but you will not usually be given your subject exam dates until close to the exam period.
Types of exams
Essay exams test your in-depth understanding of topics from the subject. The number of essay questions in the exam will indicate how many topic areas you need to closely revise. For example, if you know there will be four essay questions in the exam thoroughly study at least four of the main topics in the subject. This method is not foolproof, so it is best to ensure you understand enough about the other topics just in case you need to write about one of those instead.
Planning the essay
Read the question carefully and identify and underline the 'clue' words such as instructions (analyse, describe, etc.) and other key words. Once you have read the question, you should immediately jot down a brief outline of the structure and content for the essay.
The plan should be simple and not take much of your time, but it will be a useful guide once you start writing to keep you on track or not forget your points/arguments. Guidance on essay structure can be found in our "Essay" resource.
- Read through all the questions, and start on the easiest question first.
- Plan your time. Divide the time allowed for the exam according to the marks allocated for each of the essays you must write.
- Ensure you answer the question directly early in the essay. When answering the question, use the language of the question.
For example, if the questions asks "What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes mellitus?", you would answer, "The difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes mellitus is...". This helps the marker easily identify that you have answered the question.
- Write legibly. The marker needs to be able to read your writing.
- Leave spaces between paragraphs in case you want to add any information later.
- If you finish with time to spare, proofread and edit your answers.
- If you run out of time and cannot finish writing your essay, use dot points to write down the main points you wanted to get across. This is not ideal, but you may still receive some marks if you have good ideas.
Multiple-choice exams provide you with a list of possible answers to test your ability to recognise facts. True or false questions are included within the multiple-choice exam category.
Choosing your answer
Read the question carefully and identify and underline any keywords to ensure you understand what is being asked. Before looking at the choices given, try to answer the question yourself first. This will help avoid overthinking the question. Always trust your intuition.
If the question is a true or false question, key words used in the question often give away the answer. For example, statements that are false often include words like all, none, always and never, and statements that are true include words like most, some, usually, and seldom.
Read through all the questions. This will give you an idea on the type of questions being asked and the content they cover.
- Answer the questions you are certain of first and then return to the other questions. This will save you time.
- Allow enough time for each question. Divide the total time allowed for the exam by the marks allocated to each question to determine how long you have to answer the question.
- If you skip a question, make sure you put a mark next to it so you can quickly and easily go back and answer it later.
Open-book and take-home exams
Open-book or take-home exams test your ability to find and use information, solve problems and apply knowledge effectively in a short period of time. Open-book exams require you to sit a timed exam, with access to specified resources, references, textbooks, and/or pre-made notes. Take-home exams require you to complete and return a paper responding to a question you have been given within a specified period of time (often the next day).
Answering questions in the exam
When you are answering questions in the exam, make sure you don't copy exactly what is written in your textbook. Remember you still need to show that you still have studied the content and have a deep understanding of the information. Your goal is to explain it using your own words to demonstrate your understanding.
- Study and learn with the goal of understanding the content, not just remembering where it is in the textbook.
- Make and organise notes that will help you find the information you need quickly. Staying organised will leave you more time to think through and answer the question.
- Be familiar with the texts and your notes.
Preparing to study for an exam
Develop good study habits
It is important to create summaries in the form of study notes or concept maps throughout the semester, during lectures and tutorials and at the end of each topic. Creating and reviewing these summaries will make it easier for you to study for exams.
Studying for an exam should be planned out in the four weeks prior to the exam date. You can learn how to create a study plan and manage your time well in our "Time Management" resource.
Create a study space
It is important that you create a dedicated study space. Having a dedicated study space will help you focus and, if it is set up properly, can help to motivate you to study. Let others know (e.g. family, roommates) when you will be studying so they can be more respectful of your need for a quiet study space. Things you need to consider when creating your study space include:
- no distractions
- good lighting
- clean space
- ease of access
Once you have your space set up, you need to make sure you have the necessary equipment (e.g. stationery, calculator, laptop, charger) so you can immediately begin working with everything you need close by. Materials such as textbooks, note pads or your study notes also need to be readily available within your study space. It can also be helpful to have your study plan printed and placed on your wall to help you manage your time.
Review subject content
Studying provides you with an in-depth understanding of your subject content. To begin studying, review the learning outcomes identified in the subject outline. These will provide a useful reminder of what you are expected to know and be able to do as a result of completing the subject successfully. Review your summaries as well as your lecture and tutorial notes as they will contain key points and important information that you will need for the exam, such as the topics and concepts you will be assessed on. For some subjects, you can also access past exam papers to practise.
Join or form a study group
Depending on the way you learn, it may be helpful for you to join or form a study group. Within faculties, there are societies that host study sessions during and at the end of semester. This is a helpful and convenient way of preparing for exams. You can find out if there is an appropriate society for you here. Forming a study group with those in your class is another great way of sharing your knowledge and making sure you have covered all subject content. You can book a room in the library to increase productivity.
On exam day
Feeling anxious and nervous on the day of your exam is quite normal. To decrease these feelings, prepare everything you need for your exam the day before. Be sure of the date, time and location of your exam. There are more tips on how to prepare for your exam day and what to bring here.