How to write an exam

Exams, tests, Klausuren, call them what you will, they are nobody's favourite pastime.
However, they are unavoidable in the adult world you are entering, so it is worth making sure that you allow yourself to perform as well as you can.

The key is practical preparation, exam strategy – and realising that it is your future you are doing all this for.

This page began as a short text, but soon grew.
Do not be horrified that there are so many points here:
many are obvious;
some are clear once you think about them;
others you may be surprised at.

I hope you find it helpful.

Preparation before the exam

This does not mean learning: without that there is no point in even going into the exam!
(Suggestions for that are given on the page How to revise for exams.)

But even if you have learnt all there is to know, that alone will not guarantee you manage to answer the tasks as well as you should.

This section concentrates on practical preparation: the tools that you need to bring with you into the exam room.


      Always use the best you can. Paper is available in very different qualities. As a writer, the most important criterion is surface. A smooth finish on the paper will allow your pen to glide far more easily over the surface. This may appear unimportant when you only write a short text. But with several hours of writing, it is a major factor in how physically tired your hand becomes.
      Paper colour
      Use a bright white paper. This is kinder on your eyes while writing and, just as important, kinder on the eyes of the person marking your exam.
      Lined vs. squared
      For exams where you are writing texts, always use lined paper. Squared paper is fine for science exams but not for the humanities.
      (Some teachers may accept squared paper: I do not. Use it and you will lose points!)
      Only use paper with an adequate margin. If you have paper without and rely on drawing a margin in by hand, experience shows that you will forget to do so at some point in the exam.
      Language corrections frequently require considerable space for the teacher to write them in. If you do not give that, correction becomes impossible and you may simply receive the exam back without any.
      It is your job to enable the teacher to give the corrections, not the teacher's to achieve the impossible. (See double-spacing below.)
      Exercise book
      In school, all Klausuren are official documents. As such, they should not be written on loose sheets of paper, even if these are put into a plastic folder.
      (Again, some teachers may accept this: I do not. Using loose sheets will result in points being deducted. You may disagree with this, but it is the real world: so accept it.)

    Pen vs. ball-point

      This is a matter of personal preference.
      However, some students see the decision to choose and buy a quality pen as a step in entering a new phase of their life: exams belong to the adult world and it is appropriate to have an adult tool to use.
      Whichever you choose, the correct implement is an individual choice: a pen which writes beautifully for one hand may not for another. So never allow someone else to buy it for you.
      Moreover, it is certain that good quality of both pen and ball-point will significantly ease the writing of a long text. So take time to select one which feels right for you.


      It is your task to enable the teacher to read your work, not the teacher's to understand the illegible.
      Fail to fulfil this part of the task and you will lose points - again, this is the real world.
      If you have a serious problem with your handwriting, rather than simply accepting it, you might like to consider why you have the problem or, more importantly, what you are prepared to do about overcoming it.
      There are lots of cheap books available offering simple, practical exercises to improve handwriting. Buy one, decide which style of writing you want, follow the exercises for 15 minutes a day and after a couple of weeks the results should be visible.

    Crossing out mistakes

      Mistakes should be crossed out with a single line.
      NEVER use Tipex (correcting fluid) or ink eraser (Tintenkiller).
      Your exam paper is an official document and what you have written must always be legible - even when crossed out. Doing anything else is the same as fraud (Fälschung).
      This may seem strange to you after years of using a Tintenkiller, but accept that your exams are now part of the adult world – so you had better follow the rules.

    Keeping time

      You may prefer not to use a watch in your every-day life.
      Do not make the mistake of treating exams as nothing more than an every-day matter.
      Whilst you may have found it easy to assess time in an 45-minute written text, you certainly need a watch to help you in a four-hour exam with a number of different tasks. It really is easy to lose track of time in a stressful exam situation. (I still remember the horror of discovering that instead of having 90 minutes left, I only had 30.)
      So take a watch or small (silent) clock with you.
      Remember, mobile phones are not allowed in an exam.

    Food and drink

      You are not the only person in the room trying to concentrate.
      Biting into a crunchy carrot or crisp apple can be very distracting for others.
      Similarly, fellow students will appreciate it if you remember to release the first gas of carbonated drink before concentration deepens.
As emphasised above, exams are part of the adult world and follow adult-world rules.

In school, you usually know the teacher marking your exams. After school, nearly all your exams will be marked by someone you do not know and who does not know you.
Your exam paper is the only chance you have of impressing that person favourably.
It is essential that the appearance of the paper you give in works to your best advantage.

You are not expected to like the rules governing appearance, but you will not be successful in exams unless you follow them.

Strategies: in the exam

Exams are stressful.
Under stress, we do not function quite as rationally as we might normally do.
This is where it is helpful to have standard strategies which you are familiar with and always follow. Many of them may seem so basic that you feel they are unnecessary. But 30 years of watching students write exams, plus my own exam mistakes, has shown that even the most obvious things can be forgotten at times of stress.

Some of the following points are from the page How to write an essay.
Others are specific to the exam situation where time and multiple tasks are factors.

    Planning your time

      This point is relates to the typical situation of a student writing an exam with three tasks. Content weighting is clearly stated:
        A has 25%
        B has 35%
        C has 40%.
      The teacher marking the text sees clearly from the number of words written that the student has spent the writing-time as follows:
        A = 50%
        B = 40%
        C = 10%
      You do not need to use rocket-science to work out that this is not an intelligent strategy, yet every teacher has seen it repeatedly.
      This is not because of a failure of intelligence: merely a failure of strategy.

      What to do is simple enough.
      Once you have finished reading the text, assess how much time there is left and decide roughly how much should be given to each task - taking the content percentage of each task into account.
      Calculate the approximate time you should start each task and write that time down on the test sheet. This is particularly important when the exam is over three or four hours.

    Planning your answer

      A golden rule is never start writing immediately.
      Even if you are convinced that your natural genius allows you to do so, a few strategic minutes will always improve your answer.
      Moreover, this is the best way to prevent that sickening realisation half way through answering a task that you:
        a) are writing rubbish
        b) are writing about the wrong thing or
        c) now completely disagree with the statement you so confidently started your answer with.
      We have all done it: but there is no need to repeat the mistake.

    Reading the task

      Underline the key words to decide what is asked in the task (it is surprisingly easy to write an essay on something which has not been asked for).
      Summary: never give a summary/synopsis of a book unless specifically asked to. Check the task for this.

    Answer plan

      This must be written on a separate sheet of paper: do it in your text book and it is no longer constantly visible while you are writing your answer.
      Brainstorm, noting down the facts and ideas which seem relevant.
      Decide what your argument is – especially in a test situation, it is easy to start writing without having decided what you really want to say.
      Decide how best to introduce your argument (make sure you refer to the key ideas of the task in your introduction).
      Decide how best to support your argument. Arrange your notes, vocabulary, quotations in paragraphs and decide in which order these should be – remember, you may decide at this point to exclude some of your notes as being less relevant).
      Decide how best to conclude your argument.

    Planning an answer like this may at first seem a lot of work. In fact, with practice it can be done within a few minutes.
    The virtues of organising your content by paragraphs cannot be overstressed. A well-paragraphed text is far easier for the reader to follow the content – and marks are awarded accordingly.


      Keep your answer plan visible. You might like to tick off the points as you use them – this gives a satisfying feeling of achievement.
      Be prepared to modify your plan while you write. This will inevitably happen during an exam, but it is far easier to bring in sudden new ideas with your plan written out in front of you.
      Double-spacing is strongly advised: i.e. write on alternate lines. This makes it easy for the teacher to give adequate correction.

    Checking your finished work

      You should aim to make this possible even in a 90-minute Klausur.
      Give more importance to it in a longer exam: the idea of a four-hour Abitur exam is not that twice the amount is written, just that more time is available for planning and checking. So use the time for that.
      Check your language
      Under stress conditions, mistakes are inevitable. Use a dictionary. Look out for your favourite language mistakes.

    Attempted cheating

      Let's be honest, cheating has seemed a good idea to most of us when suddenly stuck for an answer in an exam or we feel we have not prepared properly for it.
      This might be a simple glance at someone else's paper for inspiration, or smuggling in a prepared crib sheet (Spickzettel) with what you hope will be essential information.

      Here are some points to consider about cheating.
      • Insecurity
      • You may feel a crib sheet will give you extra confidence: the answers are there in case you suddenly forget everything you have learnt.
        Unfortunately it does not normally work out like that: having such a dangerous piece of paper makes most students more nervous and this is often obvious in their behaviour to the supervising teacher.
        Moreover, it regularly happens that, no doubt due to nerves, a student forgets to remove the crib sheet from their test book – leaving it there for the teacher to find.

        Perhaps the best solution to such insecurity it to accept that:
        • You are not expected to know everything
        • If you have been working reasonably well, you should know enough to write a reasonable exam
        • If you have not worked enough, cheating is very unlikely to give you a good result and may end in disaster
      • But I didn't even look at it in the exam!
      • It is no defence to claim that you did not in the end use the crib sheet: the rule is that any attempt at cheating (Täuschungsversuch) is penalised by zero points.
        It may also have more serious consequences such as failing the entire exam. If this is your school-leaving exam (Abitur), you may regret this for the rest of your life.

      Mobile phones, mp3 players, etc. must not be taken into the exam room, nor be accessible during the exam – e.g. during a visit to the toilet.
      A short visit to the toilet is permitted at the supervising teacher's discretion.

      Contact with anyone and in any form during the exam is a clear breach of exam rules and will be regarded as cheating.

Suggestions on revising for exams

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© Richard Martin 2007. All rights reserved.
Permission for educational use in individual classes with citation is granted.