Essay and Exam Tips

Assessments can be daunting, but don’t fear, we have some great tips for you from OU students...


When you want to do the best you can, assessments can be daunting. But don’t fear, we have some great tips for you from OU students who know from experience how to do well in essays and exams. Let’s begin with essay-style assessments, or scroll down to go straight to the exam tips 

Tips for Essays 

1. Plan, plan, plan! 

Start with planning study time into your schedule, especially if you are juggling other responsibilities. This will help to give you some structure, ensure you have plenty of time to get your study in, and plan your work into manageable chunks. We all want to avoid that last minute rush of having to complete an assessment in one sitting, and planning can really help! 

Write a plan for your assessment. The plan could be as brief or as detailed as you like. You could just include the main points and sections of your essay. Or you could do a more detailed plan which includes references you plan to use, and even roughly how many words you'd like to include in each section, which can help you keep to the word count and avoid going off topic. The important part is having a plan to guide you and keep you on track. 

2. Stick to the question 

Make sure you really understand the question and keep it in mind throughout your assessment. You could even write a very brief answer (a sentence or two) to the question to start with, which you could keep on your desk or device as a reminder of the direction you want to take. Stick to the question and avoid going off topic.  

3. Read the guidance 

Read the guidance notes and instructions included with your assessment and ask your tutor if you have any questions. Once you have drafted your assessment, come back to these instructions and check you have included what you need to. 

4. Remember your tutor is there for you  

Make sure to keep in contact with your tutor and if you have any concerns or queries, ask them – they are there to help you. If you have any questions that might be relevant to other students, why not ask in your tutor group?  

5. Reference as you go!  

There’s nothing worse than coming to the end of your draft, and realising you have to do all your references. So make sure you reference as you go – keeping track of your sources – to make your job much easier at the end of the essay.

6. Take breaks  

Regular breaks are really important to help clear your thoughts and give yourself a rest from studying. If you’re feeling really stuck, why not take a walk or do some mindfulness colouringand come back to your essay later? A fresh perspective does the world of good!

7. Start small  

Take your assessment one chunk at a time and set realistic goals. You could focus on one paragraph, section, or number of words at a time. This may help the task feel less daunting and more manageable.  

8. Sit down and write 

Don’t expect perfection straight away – it may take a few drafts before you’re happy with your work. It’s often best to just get something down on the paper and come back to it later to tidy it up.  

9. Back up your work!  

Make sure to keep saving your work and keep backup copies somewhere safe. 

10. Reward yourself for your hard work  

When you have finished a section or reached half your word count, why not reward yourself with a treat? It could be your favourite food, watching a good film or going on a nice walk. Rewards are great motivation to keep going, and who doesn’t love an excuse for a biscuit?! 

Now it’s time for some exam tips! 

Tips for Exams 

1. Use past exam papers 

Past exam papers can give you an idea of what the exam will look like and what to expect. It’s also a great opportunity to try out the style of questions you’ll be expected to answer. You can find past exam papers here. 

2. Make good notes 

Clear and helpful notes are really important when it comes to exams, as you’ll need to be able to know and recall key information quickly. You might like to handwrite or type your notes, and you might find it easier to make your notes as you go along during your module. The key part is making sure your notes are clear and hold all the key information you’ll need.  

3. Time management  

Managing your time effectively is important both when you’re preparing for the exam and when you’re taking the exam. You could plan on what days you’ll revise which topics to ensure you can cover everything you need in time for the exam. In the exam itself, you could roughly plan your time for each section or question (e.g. if you know the last question is worth the most points, make sure you have enough time for it). Past exam papers can help you practice questions and know how long they might take you.  

4. Test your knowledge 

In assessments like exams where you might not be able to have your notes in front of you, it’s really important to know your stuff inside out. One way to do this is to write key definitions, equations or facts on revision cards (you can just use pieces of paper). You could try writing these in the form of question and answer, and then test yourself or ask someone else to test you. This can help you to remember what you need to know (read more on 'active recall’ here).  

5. Breaks and treats  

During your revision and once your exam is complete, remember to treat yourself to things you enjoy. For example after learning 10 definitions you could go for a walk, and after your exam you could watch your favourite film. This will also give you a break too.   

6. Read the questions carefully  

When we’re under time pressure in an exam it can be tempting to power through as many questions as you can quickly. But remember understanding the question and doing what is asked of you is key, so make sure you understand it before attempting to answer. Underlining key words in the question might help.

7. Rest & Refuel 

Try and get a good night’s sleep and a good meal before your exam – your body needs the fuel!  

8. Try mindfulness

Mindfulness may help not only while you are preparing for your exam, but in the exam itself. If you find yourself getting anxious and stressed while studying or while answering exam questions, why not try a short breathing exercise? You can also read more on coping with exam stress here. 

9. Go to your tutor with any questions 

Remember your tutor is there to help, so if you have any questions or concerns about the exam just ask. 

10. Revisit your feedback 

Look at your past feedback from other assessments when preparing for your exam, and you can do the same with the feedback from your upcoming exam. Ask your tutor if you can discuss the feedback in more detail if anything is unclear to you. (Read more on learning from feedback here.) 

You can find more information on assessments and exams on the OU website here, and remember there is support available if you’re struggling with the stress of assessments and exams. Take a look at some tips for dealing with stress, and get more support if you need it. 

Best of luck!


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Lara Munday

Lara is a member of the OU Students Association staff team.

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