If you are taking public exams alongside 10,000+ other students across the country, your completed exam papers will be collected and assessed by an army of examiners.
This is an industrial operation. The level of standardisation is very high. Nobody has time for your unique perspective or clever ideas. The examiners are simply looking for keywords and phrases that will earn you a mark. There is no time for them to debate whether or not you really understand what is going on. They have to churn through lots of papers just like yours every day.
Large-scale exams are marked with strict adherence to a mark scheme. This is a document describing exactly how and when marks should be awarded for each question in an exam. Each of your answers will be checked against the mark scheme. If the examiner thinks that your answers fit the mark scheme closely enough, you will be awarded marks. For this reason, the best answers will be those which resemble the mark scheme as closely as possible.
After working through each past paper you should read the mark scheme very carefully. Pay close attention to the styles of answers and conventions for awarding marks. You need to develop a strong instinct for what a mark scheme looks like. Only then will you naturally approach an exam in a mark-scheme-centric way.
Remember that both you and the examiner are totally anonymous to each other. This is a dehumanised process. Your whole identity is just a number. It is very difficult for one side of the exchange to appreciate the concerns, wishes, and intent of the other. You should operate under the assumption that the examiner is bored, careless, and prone to making mistakes when marking your exam.
You have to make it as easy as possible for the examiner to give you marks and adapt to the conventions for assessing exams. After all, they have all the power in this anonymous process. Make it very obvious that your answers contain what the examiners are looking for. You can do this by projecting an aura of competence. We will look at this in detail shortly.
Mark schemes will differ in format between subject types. For example, the mark schemes for science exams are usually very well-defined and offer specific answers to each individual question. Mark schemes for essay-based exams tend to be used to classify answers into certain scoring “bands” (e.g. Band 1: 90-100, Band 2: 80-89, Band 3: 70-79). Each band is determined by a list of criteria which can be found in the mark scheme.
When I did large-scale, essay-based exams, the mark schemes also included examples of answers from each band. These were very useful for developing a sense of what separates a good answer from a great answer, from the examiner's point of view. I borrowed many ideas and phrases from the top-band example answers and used them in my own essays. You should do the same.