How To Use GCSE Past Papers Effectively

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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.

We say it all the time at Save My Exams, but only because it’s true: when it comes to exam resources, past papers may be the most valuable ones there are. Therefore, it’s extra important that you use them effectively in order to get the most out of them; and whether you’re working from Edexcel past papers or OCR past papers, there are a few hard and fast rules that will help you use them properly so you can boost your grades.

1. Don’t use them all up too quickly

Past papers are a brilliant resource to have, but there’s only so many of them available, especially after the change in GCSE structure a few years ago. If you can, it’s best to keep the past papers unused until the later stages of your revision process, once you feel confident that you’ve gone over all of your topics and know your stuff.

The last thing you want to do with past papers is waste them. If you do them all too early, you won’t be able to get timed exam practice and hone your exam technique in the couple of weeks before your exam: and this is crucial! Past papers are your most comprehensive preview of what’s to come in your exams, so keep the powder dry until those crucial few weeks before exam time.

2. Use them in conjunction with Topic Questions

Our topic questions are another really important part of your exam preparation. Where past papers cover everything you’ve ever learnt, topic questions are more specific and focused, whilst being styled like a real exam paper so you can still get that all-important exam practice.

Topic questions will help you get used to exam-style questions, whilst zeroing in on those smaller, tricky areas of a topic that you want to be tight on. Topic questions are the perfect pre-past paper test, to really set you on the road to success.

3. Mark past papers against model answers to improve exam technique

When the time comes to mark your past paper attempts, you should use not only the mark schemes but also our model answers. Model answers are designed to show you exactly what the examiners want to see from you when you write your answers, which makes them the ideal reference points when revising.

If you look at each model answer as you go through your marking, it’ll give you a strong and clear idea of what examiners want to see; so you can ensure you’re not losing easy marks for not showing your working properly, or not laying things out in the clearest way.


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4. Be harsh — but not too harsh — when marking yourself

You never know if you’ll get a harsh marker in the real exams, so prepare for the worst case scenario! If you’re going over your work and you see a careless error — one that you know you’d usually get right, or that you really do know but just got wrong that time — don’t just give yourself the mark anyway! You have to keep yourself on your toes, and carelessness or small errors in your workings could take quite a few marks off your overall score in the real thing.

All that being said, don’t be too harsh! You don’t want to demoralise yourself by marking yourself down when you’re actually hitting a Level 9; just don’t let yourself off the hook for silly mistakes when you know you can do better.

5. Practice past papers under exam conditions before the big day

One of the stumbling blocks that GCSE students often overlook, is ensuring they’re well practiced in completing exam papers within the time limits. When you’ve gone over all your topics and think you’re almost ready to sit the exam, sitting past papers under exam conditions so you can get used to writing high quality answers within the time frames allowed.

You won’t be under quite the same pressure, but the best way to stay calm though that is to be as prepared as you possibly can be. Don’t lose marks by not finishing those big scoring questions at the end of your exam paper!

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