Past Papers

Of all of the time I have ever spent directly preparing for exams, most of it has been spent practising or learning from past papers. They are without a doubt the very best study material available to you, and often the only one you will need in order to prepare to a very high standard.

Most students save past papers until the very end of the study period. Instead, start doing past papers as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel ready. Space them out so that you don't finish all of them long before your exam begins. By the time you have completed the final available past paper, you should be in an exam-ready state.

Throughout my education, I found that the vast majority of exam material for any one subject or topic would be covered after completing the available past papers. The model answers I produced from these past papers then served as my main study reference. These were better than any notes I could have written.

Past papers are such a good resource because they are closest possible approximation you can get to a real exam. By working through past papers, you will develop virtually all of the skills required to ace the real thing. Other study materials may be helpful in improving content, but nothing can beat past papers at improving your exam context.

Becoming familiar with context is critical to consistently achieving exam success. For example, doing past papers is the best way to simulate the restrictive element of exams that we discussed in Part 1. This is a vital piece of context that is left out by most other ways of learning.

When done the right way, past papers test and improve almost every aspect of exam performance simultaneously. This makes them a ridiculously efficient form of preparation. For this reason, you should aim to complete every past paper available to you before your exam date.

There will usually be only a few years’ worth of past papers available to you, which makes each one extremely valuable. If you really are short of past papers, wait longer before starting them. If you completely run out of past papers, find questions from other sources and try inventing your own. Just make sure they are in a similar style to the official questions.

In any case, I strongly suggest that you follow my procedure for doing past papers. This will maximise the value they bring to your preparation.

The Right Way To Do a Past Paper

  1. Complete as much of the paper as possible in the allotted time. This should be done under exam conditions, so give it 100% effort and don’t look at your notes or other study materials. If the exam is handwritten, make sure your answers are handwritten.
  2. If you run out of time, don’t panic. Make a note of how far you got. Then complete the remaining questions, still under exam conditions. Do not skip the questions you didn't have time to complete. The main benefit of doing a past paper comes from the questions, not the timing.
  3. Once you have completed the past paper, go through each question and mark it as if you were a totally impartial examiner. If there is a mark scheme available, award marks exactly as indicated. If in doubt, it's better to lean towards marking slightly too harshly. If there is no mark scheme available, don’t worry. We will look at how to handle this.
  4. Using a different colour, correct any mistakes and fully write out the answers you didn’t get. This is important because it highlights where you went wrong and will make it easier for you to focus extra attention on the weaker areas of your understanding. You should even modify the parts that you got right if it makes the answer clearer. Cross out unnecessary parts of your answers. The aim here is to produce a bank of model answers to exam questions. This will become your most valuable study material. If you have written an essay, extract the best parts and turn them into versatile units.
  5. Now compare this attempt to other past papers you have completed. This will allow you to keep track of your progress, but more importantly it will help you to identify patterns that you might miss by doing questions in isolation. For example: Am I consistently making careless mistakes? Is there a particular type of question that I consistently struggle with, or a particular topic? Is there a particular type of question that I consistently ace? What am I doing to produce these great answers, and how can I transfer that to my other answers?

Make sure you really take the time to reflect on your answers. Learn from each individual past paper before the next. You will progress much faster this way than if you work through all of them at once.

Mark Schemes

Many of my teachers at school and supervisors at university didn't want students to look at mark schemes. They insisted that we would learn better without them. This is simply not true if your goal is to maximise your exam performance. Becoming familiar with mark schemes is extremely valuable.

If a mark scheme exists for a particular past paper, you should be able to find it online. If no mark scheme is available, the best alternative is to ask somebody who knows the subject well to mark the exam for you. If you are at high school, this will usually be a teacher. If you are at university, ask a more experienced student or supervisor to look over your work. I was always able to find somebody who could provide feedback on my answers, and they were almost always happy to help. Ask nicely and don’t be shy.

You might be very unlucky and not have anyone available to help you. Or you just don't have enough time to wait for them to mark your exam. In this situation, use your other study materials (textbooks, notes etc.) to craft the best possible answer to the question. Then compare your crafted answer to the one you wrote for the past paper.

Whether or not you use a mark scheme, the principle is the same: you must review and learn from your answers in order to improve.