The thought of unseen, external exams can be quite terrifying – for both students and teachers. No-one likes the thought of having to prepare for the unknown. How can you be sure what content you need to cover? What if you don’t understand the way the question is worded? What if none of the questions you were expecting is on the paper?

All of these concerns increase the anxiety we feel about exams, and can make us under-perform, no matter how well we actually know the content.

But, I’ll let you in on a secret

“Unseen” exams actually aren’t the great unknown we fear.

Think about what you already know or can control about the exams. By focusing on what you CAN control you will be much more familiar and comfortable with the exam process and can concentrate more on what to say, rather than what to do.

Let’s look at 5 ways to win back control of an unseen exam situation

  1. You know the content. No matter how the questions are worded, it has to be about the topics you have covered in class. If you have studied the content you will be able to answer any question. The only thing you don’t know is exactly how that question will be worded. Even if the question is not exactly what you were expecting, trust that you know the content well enough to cope with this situation. If you have learned about the positive impact of a situation and the question asks about a negative impact, just turn your information around. If you have chosen ‘hate’ as a key theme and the question asks about ‘love’, all you have to do is look at your knowledge from a different angle. Try to stay open minded and don’t predict what you think the question will be. Never prepare a response in advance as even a faultless prepared response might not answer the specific question.

  2. You know the cognitive verbs. Familiarising yourself with the cognitive verbs and knowing what the marker is looking for in that type of response will put you ahead. Are you being asked to describe, illustrate, create, describe or analyse? Each of these cognitive verbs requires a different approach to your response. As soon as you look at the question, highlight the cognitive verb and the key words in the question. This will help you plan an effective response.

  3. Know the response genre. Is the response style multiple choice, short response or an essay? Learn the structure or methodology for each assessment type. What genre elements is the marker looking for in this type of response? Your mock exams will help you understand what is required in each assessment style. But , let’s face it, at the end of 13 years of schooling, knowing the structure and elements of specific genres is an expectation.

  4. Use specific vocabulary. This makes you sound like an expert, and also helps you pack more information into your response. Each subject and topic has key words associated with it. Using these words appropriately and correctly shows knowledge and understanding. For example, in Economics, rather than talking about money decisions, you would discuss the fiscal policy. The main character in a novel or play is referred to as the protagonist. Knowing these words will also increase your understanding of the questions, as they are likely to use topic specific vocabulary. Take the time to learn to spell these words and learn synonyms or different varieties of them so that you can add interest to your sentence structure.

    In your preparation, make a list of key vocabulary terms and learn them. Minor details such as referring to ‘Macbeth’ as a play rather than a book and knowing how to spell playwright can make a huge difference. These are easy marks to pick up and something every student can do.

  5. Control your time. During your perusal time, calculate how many marks are on the paper and how many minutes you have in which to complete it. This will help you determine how many minutes you can afford to spend on each mark. You may then decide to buy yourself some extra time by completing the ‘easy’ questions first and quickly. Then you will have more time to spend on the harder questions.

    Remember, you can answer the questions on the exam paper in any order you choose. Starting with some easier questions will not only give you extra time, but will also improve your self confidence. Just make sure that you clearly label each response so that your marker can easily keep track.

    In your revision, make sure that you always write against the clock. Being able to answer a question in 40 minutes does not guarantee that you will be able to answer it in 10! Always set yourself the same amount of time for your practice papers as you will have for the real exam. That way you you will train your brain to work as quickly as you will need it to on the day.

When preparing for unseen exams, always focus less on the unknown elements of the exams, and concentrate on what you DO know and can control. This will make the exams feel less overwhelming and help you stay calm and focused.