How to use past papers

Past papers can be valuable revision tools – but used improperly, they can set you up for exam hall disaster. Think on…

Judicious use of past papers is one of the best ways of preparing for professional exams. The best students swear by them – but those who fail are bewildered at their lack of success. Why?


Condition yourself

A common mistake is to avoid making the effort to set up exam conditions – or as near as can be contrived, according to your personal circumstances. Even if you are able to happily focus on textbooks or lecture notes with the noise of family, friends, or passengers around you, there’s no substitute for complete silence when ‘sitting’ past papers. If you can, use a library – and arrive early enough to bag the quietest, most remote spot. Failing that, lock yourself in your room and give firm instructions to your family or housemates not to disturb you unless in an emergency.

Give yourself time to read through the questions before you start, working out how much time you can allocate to each one. And set the same strict time limit for the whole paper, from start to finish, as the original exam allowed – no breaking off to stretch your legs, have a snack, or find a mate to chat to. Would you have the opportunity to do that on exam day?

The aim is to create an atmosphere that’s as close to exam conditions as possible – the effect may be at a subconscious level, but it will be there all right.


Beat the cheat

It’s hugely tempting, when stumped by a particularly tricky question, to turn to the back of the past paper, locate the answer, and tell yourself that you would have worked it out eventually anyway. This is highly inadvisable, even if you take the time to work backwards from the correct answer in order to understand the logic of the calculation. The point is to replicate exam conditions – better to soldier on, or, if necessary, abandon it and move on to the next question to acquire easier marks, returning to the tricky question only if you have time.

There’s no reason not to repeat past papers – much can be learned this way. It’s easy to think, once you’ve worked your way through the paper and marked it from the back, that you’d get much higher marks at another attempt. You would be amazed. Practise with as many different papers as are available, then go back to the first. You’ll remember less than you think, and the test will do you good. Where you were given a choice of questions, try the ones you didn’t attempt first time round. Variety will keep your brain sharp and you’ll be better prepared should the real exam throw up nasty surprises.  

"The aim is to create an atmosphere that’s as close to exam conditions as possible – the effect may be at a subconscious level, but it will be there all right"