If there’s one thing your future self would tell you it would be this: Do. More. Past. Papers.
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.
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 efficiently, you’ll start to reap the benefits.
You’ll soon find that exam questions tend to follow certain patterns and that’s mainly because examiners are not 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…
Sadly, past papers are a finite resource, so you want to approach them in the most effective way possible.
There are 2 stages to past paper practice:
1) Isolated questions
This is the stage when you’re trying to put your revision into practice. 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. Tackling topic questions will not only allow you to confirm where you need to focus your revision on, but it will get you comfortable with the format of exam questions and help you understand what the examiners are looking for once you cross-reference your attempts with mark schemes or model answers.
2) Exam simulation
This is where you ‘sit’ the exam, but at home. Replicating the conditions you’ll be facing in the exam hall gets you used to timings so you won’t be caught out on the day. Get out the paper (it’s best to save the latest 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 okay if on your first couple of tries you run out of time – you can use the leftover questions as ‘isolated questions’ to help practice technique, which will help you speed up.
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 on the paper but are able to win 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 get they get those high-scorers correct.
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 official accompanying mark scheme to help you as they are very comprehensive and give a clear indication of the steps used to get to the right answer. If you did go wrong, it 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 which need more revision. Maybe there’s an area you missed or didn’t understand as much as you thought you did. Past papers feed back 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 way to get to the future that's your exam success!