Small-Scale Exams

Alternatively, you could be an undergraduate or Master’s student, and one of tens or a few hundred people taking a particular exam. This is a different game. The key to smaller-scale exams is to take advantage of the lesser degree of standardisation.

Any individual question is probably set and marked by the same person or small group of people. You won’t have to dig too deep to find out who exactly will be producing the exam questions and mark schemes. This means you can tailor your answers to the views and characteristics of particular examiners.

Exams will sometimes be assessed by research students instead of the examiner, but this doesn't matter. The research students are simply following orders from the examiner.

An Example

One of the modules I took during my final year at university was a computer architecture course. It was all about how computer chips are designed. I noticed during lectures that the lecturer kept returning to a principle he had introduced at the start of the course, called Amdahl’s Law. It’s a very simple principle, but it helps computer chip companies to always focus on improvements that will have a big impact.

From this and several other observations, it was clear to me that the lecturer’s goal was to drill into his students a solid set of principles for approaching problems in computer architecture. Especially Amdahl’s Law. I made it a rule that no matter what exam questions came up for computer architecture, I would find a way to refer to Amdahl’s Law.

In this case, the context determined the content. The context was the lecturer who taught the course (and would also be marking the exam questions). This influenced the content I would include in my answers: a mention of Amdahl’s Law.

I identified around half of my lecturers as being highly principle-focused. Most of them had quite distinctive ways of communicating their ideas. This wasn't just from the way they spoke, but also in the lecture notes they provided to students. I made it a high priority to adapt to each lecturer’s individual style and patterns of expression. I tried to work out which information they thought was the most important. You should do the same.


Communicating to somebody in their own style minimises friction between their interpretation of your answer and their idea of a model answer.

Ideas and concepts can differ in meaning depending on how they are phrased or presented. If you phrase these ideas and concepts in exactly the same way as the expert who delivered them to you in the first place, you are virtually guaranteed to create the impression that you know what you are talking about.

Remember that the way in which you learn or present any knowledge or methods is influenced by context. I studied exam material and presented my answers according to the context: who would be setting and marking the exam questions. This meant paying close attention during lectures and looking in detail at the corresponding lecture notes.

Even when you do not know exactly who is setting and marking questions, you can obtain a lot of information on context by looking at past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports. There are clues everywhere.

Skipping Lectures

Many students don't bother going to lectures. I missed the majority of lectures in my first two years of university. This was a big mistake. Lectures are the best opportunity to gain insight into how the lecturer thinks and behaves. This insight allows you to determine how exam questions will be assessed.

I experienced several occasions where the lecturer hinted at what would appear on the exam. More times than not, the material then appeared in the exam. I have many friends from different universities who had the same experience.

Don't build your strategy around this, because hints are not guaranteed to amount to anything. But this is still extremely valuable information. You can prepare for the hint and carry on with the rest of your preparation. When this happens, you are instantly given a huge advantage over your peers who did not show up to the lecture.

But simply showing up to the lecture is not enough. You must be engaged, otherwise you will lose focus and get lost. Sit at the front. Read through the lecture notes before the lecture starts and make a note of anything you find difficult to understand. You will benefit much more from lectures this way.

No Mark Schemes

There is almost always a mark scheme available for large-scale exams, but this will often not be the case for small-scale exams.

When I was at university, some examiners deliberately withheld the mark schemes for past exam questions. Of course, this makes things more difficult. However, you still have lots of other information in lecturers and lecture notes from which to build an idea of how the exams will be assessed. Use everything available to you.