The Guide: How to ACE UK Exams

YOUR Guide to: make the most out of your study abroad experience by travelling, learning, and living

Wellll, it’s that time of year again…  Studying and finals, and more studying and MORE finals!  It can seem like a lot at a UC, let alone at a university in the UK where you may not yet feel accustomed to the modes of teaching or testing.  Having studied at the University of Edinburgh for a year myself, I’ve acquired some essential tips along the way to help you with preparing for your own final exams.  Here are some of them, good luck!


1) Essay-Format Exams

  • You may already know this, but most UK exams assess students using essay writing in exams.  This may not be something you are used to, especially if you are coming from a science or economics background.  Depending on the course, you will be given a choice of around 2-5 broad, open-ended essay questions and you are required to respond to a given amount (less than the amount of questions provided).  Essay questions are graded upwards, to a total of 100, so here are a few tips to help you boost your essay-style exam grades:
    • READING LISTS:
      • Understand and be able to reference content from required materials on the reading list.  This is essential in scoring points in a given subject.
      • For extra points, understand and be able to reference content from recommended materials on the reading list, and outside readings related to the course.  This will score you extra points as it shows you are able to bring in outside content related to the subject.

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  • REFERENCING:
    • Believe me, I was a student once, referencing is one of the least pleasant aspects of essay-writing.  However, if you DO NOT reference the materials you refer to in your exam essays (meaning just after the quote, AND the full reference at the end of the essay), you will get marked down.  So PLEASE memorise all references you may use, and to which books or articles they belong.
  • STYLE:
    • Unlike many UC exams in which you may be required to list or state facts that are related to the question in order to relay you know and understand the material, UK essay-format exams are just that – a proper essay.
    • Example: “Critically evaluate the concept of working memory.”
    • Simply stating facts, terms, and ideas will not score you many points.  You must describe the theories or ideas from the course using materials from researchers in the field, many of which can be from your reading lists or outside readings, and make an argument based on the given question.  Do not simply state facts you understand to be true without referencing why or who.

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  • PREPARING:
    • If you haven’t already started studying, begin now.  You may be used to procrastinating and cramming at a UC, but that simply does not work here.  You have to know and understand theories taught in the course, as well as materials from reading lists, and then be able to make a cohesive argument in an essay.  Prepare, prepare, prepare!

2) End of Year Assessment

  • Depending on your course, you may have a final paper or final project, either along with an exam or instead of an exam.  Although this is a bit more similar to end of the year assessment at a UC, here are a couple tips for success for essay assessment in the UK:
    • BEGIN EARLY:
      • Again, if you haven’t done so already, start now.  Procrastinating is not as common here as it is at UC’s.
      • Essays often tend to be longer here, sometimes up to 25 pages for courses with no exams.  You simply cannot leave such a paper to the last minute and expect to receive an A (unless you are a genius or possibly an alien).
      • Make an outline, make a timeline, gather resources, write a rough draft, write a final draft, find someone to edit it, and then put in the final touches.

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  • REFERENCING:
    • Again, reference as many materials as the assignment requires, and then some.  Reference required materials, recommended, and outside materials to ensure you get as many points as possible in this respect.  Also, try not to throw in a quote without the intent of fully relating it to the topics about which you are writing.  Using relevant and profound quotes and ideas from materials is very important to professors here in the UK.
  • STLYE:
    • Similar to essays in exams, you must reference ideas, main points, and theories studied in the course as they relate to the materials on the reading lists or from outside research.  You can’t state a fact or theory without referring to the research behind it.
    • You MUST use British English.  You CAN get marked down for using American English.  Adjust your laptop settings to avoid this mistake that I oh-so naively made my first semester.
    • State a point or points you are going to make in the first paragraph, and support the point with related research and materials and the topics in the course throughout your essay.  I know it seems self-explanatory, but this is imperative in essay-writing here.  And backing up your argument with relevant research is essential.
    • Not only are you assessed on your knowledge of the material, you are also assessed on your ability to write a cohesive essay in which your argument and writing flows between the paragraphs, that is properly supported by the relevant research.  This is why it is important to allow another person or a couple other people to read and edit your paper.
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The … only time we don’t want to be Spongebob

3) Exam Dates

  • You may already know this, but I just want to reiterate that you absolutely cannot miss your exam date – if the exam is worth the majority of your final grade, missing it is a huge risk to failing the course.  There is nothing you can do about this.  SET YOUR ALARMS AND THEN SET MORE AND MORE.  Double and triple and quadruple check exam dates.

I know this all sounds scary and daunting, but don’t fret.  As long as you begin preparing soon enough, and you know how to take the exam, you will do just fine.  Good luck and have a great end to your semester!

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