This Is Why Past Papers Are the Key to Exam Success

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Amy studied at the University of Bristol and is our revision blog guru. She only graduated recently so understands the pressures of being a student better than most, and is here to share her wisdom so that you revise effectively, smash your exams, succeed at school and write cracking university and job applications.

Whilst it’s not most people’s idea of fun, past papers really are the key to exam success. They’re the most important part of the whole revision process; the culmination of all the revision you’ve been doing. Scan them to help you identify areas of weakness and use them to recreate exam conditions in your home. You can study Edexcel past papers, OCR past papers, CIE past papers, CCEA past papers; you can time yourself with them and decide if you need to speed up or slow down.

It makes total sense that past exam papers should be the most valuable single resource available to you – read on to find out why.

Why are past papers so important?

Not doing past papers is like trying to take a driving test having never been in a car. Theoretical knowledge will only take you so far and it definitely won’t get you an A* or Level 9 grade. You may have all the knowledge, but if you can’t apply it properly to the questions on your test, or in exam conditions, then it’s just not going to work.

Past papers are not something to be scared of. They’re your friend, we promise! They may look a little daunting at first but once you know how to use them effectively, you’ll start to reap the benefits. 

You’ll soon find that exam questions tend to follow certain and patterns, and that’s mainly because examiners aren’t actually trying to trip you up: they just want to see how you can apply the knowledge you’ve gained from your years of study.

Stage 1: Isolated Questions

Past papers are the key to your future exam successSadly, past papers are a finite resource, so you want to use them effectively.

The first stage of your past paper practice is the stage when you’re trying to apply what you’ve just been revising to an exam context.

Working on past paper questions grouped by topic will show you which areas of revision you’re confident on, and where you still might have some gaps in your knowledge.

Where there are gaps, look back at your notes and make sure you add anything you’ve missed.

Tackling topic questions will not only help you see the areas that need more revision, but it will get you comfortable with the format of exam questions and help you understand what the examiners are looking for. Make sure you cross-reference your answers with our mark schemes and model answers to get the most out of your past paper practice.


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Stage 2: Exam Simulation

This is where you ‘sit’ the exam, but at home. Replicating the conditions you’ll be facing in the actual exam gets you used to timings, so you won’t run out of time on the day. 

Get out the exam paper (it’s best to save the most recent past papers for this stage), start the clock and get going. When time’s up, you have to stop. There will be no extra ten minutes in the real thing!

It’s ok if on your first couple of tries you run out of time – you can use the leftover questions as ‘isolated questions’ to help practice your exam technique, which will help you speed up next time. 

But you do need to make sure you are leaving yourself enough time to tackle those final page questions. That’s because they’re the most difficult, and can therefore get you the greatest number of marks. Some people even find it most helpful to start an exam by doing the final questions, in order to make sure they have time to complete those high scorers.

Stage 3: Marking your work

When it comes to marking, don’t be overly generous, but also don’t be overly critical. You want to act as an objective marker. Use the accompanying mark schemes on our website to help you, as they’re comprehensive and give a clear indication of the steps used to get to the right answer. If you did go wrong, looking at our mark schemes and model answers will help you understand why.

It’s very important to reflect on which questions you didn’t get right because this shows you the topics that need more revision. Maybe there’s an area you missed or didn’t understand as much as you thought you did. Past papers feedback into your revision process, along with your checklists and revision resources.

So, maybe we don’t yet have time travel to tell us what events are in store. But past papers are one fantastic way to achieve future exam success!

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Excellent advice on how best to use past papers