How do I concentrate when writing exams?

33 useful tips for your next exam that will bring you better grades

by Tim Reichel

A student in Germany takes five to seven exams per semester. Most of it in writing in the form of a Exam. Some are 60 minutes long, others are three or four hours long; In some exams multiple-choice questions are used, but the answers often have to be formulated freely.

Regardless of whether it is medicine, law, mechanical engineering, teaching or business administration: The strategies for successfully completing exams are very similar. I don't mean the main focus or the type of exam preparation, but the procedure while the exam is being written. As different as the individual exams are, in the end it is important to answer the exam questions as well and as quickly as possible.

So that you can do this better in the future, I have 33 tips put together for you, which will help you with your next exam.


Read the DOEDL method for free!


These 33 tips will help you with your next exam

During my time at university, I have seen countless exams. First as a student (I have written a total of 54 different exams), then as a professor (where I supervised and helped organize numerous exams) and finally during my work as a study advisor and coordinator of an examination board (I help students prepare for exams and control or optimize examination procedures).

So I know about exams. If I were to write down my theoretical knowledge about it, I would probably create my own series of books. The only problem would then be: these books would be dead boring. And: Theoretical knowledge doesn't help at first. Therefore, in this article I have collected 33 short practical tips for you, which you can easily adopt and use directly for your next exam.

Here we go:


Tip # 1: make a checklist!

On the day of the exam, in addition to the content you have learned, you have to keep other important facts in mind: When does the exam start? In which room does it take place? When do I have to go? What tools do I need? And so on. Create a checklist for these framework conditions and collect all relevant preparation steps there. This way you don't have to keep your exam organization in mind, you minimize the risk of forgetting something and you are more relaxed overall.


Tip # 2: be there early!

If there's one thing you can't use before your exam, it's additional stress. And stress often arises from the occurrence of unforeseen events or is based on time constraints. You can easily switch off both factors by going to your exam early and arriving well in advance of the start. If your bus is delayed, a street is blocked or the search for the right lecture hall turns out to be more complicated than expected, you will still not be forced to act because you have planned a time buffer.


Tip # 3: Choose the right seat

When you arrive in the examination room, the next step is to choose your seat. There are two general scenarios for this: Either you can choose a seat or you will be assigned a seat. With alternative number 1, you should choose your seat carefully. Too far forward you could sit uncomfortably close to your examiner; too far back, visibility and acoustics are rather poor. If you take a seat at the edge, there is a chance that you will have to get up frequently and let fellow students by. Hence the suggestion: rather sit in one of the middle rows and avoid places on the edge.


Tip # 4: get set up!

After you have found your place, you should prepare for the upcoming exam. Place pens, scratch paper, and other writing utensils on your desk. Keep all approved aids (such as calculators, legal texts and so on) within easy reach. Chewing gum, a watch, and something to drink should also be nearby. Bag, jacket and switched off mobile phone should be placed in front of you or something to the side so that you are not suspected of performing unauthorized acts during the exam.


Tip # 5: calm your mind!

The minutes in the classroom before the exam begins are usually the worst. During this time you are powerless. You can no longer act and are at the mercy of the upcoming exam. You are forced to wait - and your thoughts use this time to go completely crazy. The most unrealistic scenarios are played out. Uncertainty is spreading. But you can't let it get that far. Therefore, just before the exam, calm your thoughts and collect yourself. Make it clear to yourself that you have prepared yourself to the best of your knowledge and that you will accept the challenge. Remember your successes and reflect on the strategy you put in place for the exam.


Tip # 6: use mental pictures!

A particularly useful technique against exam stress is the use of so-called mental images. Mental images are consciously placed ideas of a future desired state. For you this means: If you are nervous and full of negative thoughts, stop these patterns immediately - and instead paint a positive mental picture of the impending situation in your imagination. You don't have to be overly gullible, just be optimistic. Imagine how you can work on the exam and answer one question after the other. Picture how you will work on the tasks - in detail and as precisely as possible. Close your eyes and watch yourself write. This method works wonders, fights test anxiety, and improves your confidence.


Tip # 7: don't start right away!

Even the longest waiting time before the exam comes to an end at some point. But after the exam has started and the assignment sheets have been handed out, there is one thing you shouldn't do: start right away. Many students jump straight to task 1 after handing them out and start writing. But this "strategy" is naive, stands in the way of an optimal test result and prevents your best possible performance. Why? Because your exam is not a self-explanatory to-do list that you just have to work through. The different tasks must first be perceived, analyzed and classified. More on that now:


Tip # 8: get an overview!

The first step in processing your exam should be that you get a solid overview of the entire exam. How many exercise sheets are there? Are they labeled on one or both sides? How many tasks and subtasks are there? Which topics are being addressed? How do I have to answer? Written? Bullet points? Graphically? Multiple choice? How many points are awarded? Tasks could be easy - which could be difficult? As soon as you have the general overview, you go into detail.


Tip # 9: Read the assignment EXACTLY!

Countless points are given away in every exam because the tasks are not read correctly. Many students just skim through the assignments, look for key terms, and then start working on them. But this is precisely where they overlook important information and, in the worst case, answer bypassing the question. Therefore, read the questions and work instructions in your exam carefully and pay attention to the subtleties. "Describe" means something different than "Discuss", Calculate the energy "is not the same as" Calculate the specific energy ".


Tip # 10: don't interpret too much!

On the one hand, you have to read the questions and information in your exam carefully - on the other hand, you must not overinterpret them and drive yourself crazy. If you get stuck for minutes on the meaning of a filler word like "first" or why the person in the fictional example is called Müller and not Meier, you are wasting your time. If in doubt, ask or consider whether this peculiarity is really relevant to the basic problem.


Tip # 11: take notes!

While you are studying the task, it can be useful to take notes at the same time. What is the initial situation like? Which data, facts, values ​​are given? In which main topic is the task to be classified? Are there any special features or sketches? Marking important passages can also be helpful, but is not allowed in every exam. The additional making of notes on the examination documents, however, does. Just make sure to mark your notes as such.


Tip # 12: Prioritize the individual tasks!

In your exam, NOT all tasks are equally important. I repeat because it is so important: It. Are. Need. Alles. Tasks. Equally important. Specifically, this means: There are tasks that you have to do with great care and there are questions that you should only work on at the end or not at all. Why? Because the tasks usually bring in a different number of points and must therefore be assessed differently. Your task is therefore to prioritize the individual tasks at the beginning of the exam. Which tasks bring you closer to your goal (pass, good grade ...) and which questions can you neglect?


Tip # 13: Use your time wisely!

Time is your most valuable resource during the exam. Therefore, you have to manage the available time well and use it wisely. You have to strictly ration them, divide your exam and keep an eye on deviations. Otherwise you will occupy yourself with a task for too long, set wrong priorities and thus lose valuable reserves for the rest of the exam. Therefore, at the beginning of your exam, set fixed time limits for each subtask and orient yourself accordingly.


Tip # 14: keep an eye on the time!

Dividing up time and hoping for the best is not enough. It is important that you check your watch regularly while you are working on your exam and make sure that you are "on time". Many students wander around answering the exam questions, idle around and lose track of time as a result. You will be amazed when the announcement “You have five minutes left” sounds. So control yourself by keeping an eye on the time.


Tip # 15: Do the formalities first!

There are some formalities to be observed for every exam: labeling the exercise sheets, marking the exam papers, signing examination documents and so on. Get this formal stuff done as early as possible. If there are five assignment sheets and each one needs to be labeled: Do it right away, before you even start reading the assignment. Take this item off your to-do list right at the beginning and do your duty. First, you will have your head free, second, you will not forget and third, you will not end up running out of time.


Tip # 16: start with the easiest task!

Which task do you usually start your exam with? With the first one? A good choice - but only if the first task is also the easiest task. In general, there are two types of tasks that should be done with high priority: tasks that earn a lot of points and tasks that you can work on quickly and easily. My advice: start with the simplest of tasks. First do what you can safely do and then dare to tackle the big chunks. This creates a foundation of points on which you can build. But be careful: don't get too far unnecessarily with your solutions. Just because you know the solution doesn't mean you have to present it in great detail and in handwriting. Work efficiently.


Tip # 17: ask!

If you do not understand an aspect of the task or you are not familiar with a term, you must not get stuck with these ambiguities for too long. Find out what you don't understand and ask about it. That's why the university staff is there during your exam: to help you. You will probably not receive any information about the desired solution, but ambiguities or misunderstandings can usually be cleared up in a dialogue.


Tip # 18: answer every question!

Before writing something wrong, some students prefer not to write anything. This is great for the correcting examiners because it saves them work, but it is clumsy from the examinees' point of view. Your examiner can only award points if you offer a solution. Sometimes rough approaches, a sketch, a formula or a few keywords are enough to collect at least a few partial points. So answer every question - even if you don't know the solution and only have a vague idea.


Tip # 19: answer precisely!

The questions in your exam are usually not products of chance (even if it sometimes appears). The formulations are intentional and aim at a specific answer. So try to be as specific as possible with this answer. Don't write around the bush, answer precisely. Do not use filler words and ask yourself for each sub-task: What exactly are you looking for? What could there be points for?


Tip # 20: Use technical terms!

Every department and every subject has a special language. There are fixed terms and clear definitions that define the subject area and ensure unambiguous communication. Therefore, you should use technical terms during your exam and incorporate them appropriately into your answers. Firstly, you show that you have built up a basic understanding and secondly, points are often only awarded for fixed terms. Don't overdo it, however, and wreak havoc with buzzwords - this approach could end up damaging your grade.


Tip # 21: write quickly!

If you have already reviewed a written exam as part of an exam review, you will have noticed the following: On the first one or two pages you worked extremely well and made an effort to write; after that your handwriting became more and more scrawly until at the end it was only roughly recognizable what you wanted to express. I often experience that students start off comfortably in the exam and calmly write down the answers. But at some point the realization sets in that there is no additional prize to be won with beautiful handwriting. So write quickly - right from the start. Of course, the examiner needs to be able to decipher your answers, but a 1A typeface has not earned anyone an extra point.


Tip # 22: Check off completed tasks!

Especially if your exam consists of many subtasks that you have to answer individually, it can be helpful if you tick off the questions that have already been completed on your assignment sheet. In this way, you keep track of things and you don't have to leaf through your documents. If you work on the tasks of the exam in an individual order, it is also advisable to note this "processing progress" in bullet points.


Tip # 23: don't waste time!

We have already talked about the importance of a solid schedule and its regular control. But just because you have your time in view doesn't mean you are using it efficiently. Realize that wasting time is the greatest sin while working on your exam. Time is your most valuable asset and therefore you have to defend it against all disturbances. Ignore background noise in the lecture hall, do not formulate unnecessary answer sentences, avoid perfectionism and do not let any external circumstances stop you from taking your exam as soon as possible. There is only one thing worth your time: the quality of your answers.


Tip # 24: Don't dwell on difficult tasks for too long!

In every exam there will be tasks that you cannot work on immediately. Either because the task is too complex or because you cannot assign the main topic immediately. Sometimes because you haven't learned well enough - but that's not the point here. If you're stuck on a difficult task for a long time and get stuck: move on to the next question. Don't dwell on the same problem too long if you can't find an approach. Post your task and return to her later.


Tip # 25: Find connections to topics from the lecture!

One of the most common reasons why students do not find the right solution during the exam, or find it too late, is that the examinees do not see any connections. They don't see the big picture, the lecturer's "global picture", and therefore cannot properly classify the question. As a result, they are mentally on the hose and do not know what to do. Therefore try to assign each task to a topic from the lecture. Find connections and consider how similar problems have been solved so far.


Tip # 26: breathe!

Exam means stress. What happens when you are stressed? Breathing seems hectic. In principle, this is good because it allows more oxygen to enter the blood for a brief moment.But if you breathe at full speed for 60, 120 or 180 minutes, it can negatively affect your mental performance. Therefore, pay attention to your breathing and take several deep breaths during your exam. After each completed task, take a few seconds and breathe consciously. Calm down, regain your strength, and then start the next task.


Tip # 27: Never give several different solutions!

There is a surefire way to get guaranteed zero points for a task: answer with different solutions. During the exam, many students are unsure of their solution. No problem, that's normal. What they then often do, however, is grossly negligent: They answer twice and three times. "Some of it will be right," you think. But unfortunately the examiner thinks: “Oh, several answers. I don't know what to rate, that's why everything is wrong. Zero points. Hihi ". Congratulations. If you love your points, then never give multiple alternative solutions to a question. If you are not sure, then you have to play poker. But poker right please.


Tip # 28: Use sample solutions as a guide!

When answering exam questions, you don't have to start from scratch. When answering the questions and working on more complex problems, use the style of exercises and sample solutions as a guide. Remember the solution sketches and the exam schemes that you got to know during the semester and apply the procedure to your exam tasks. Simply naming or superficial application of fixed processing steps can earn you partial points.


Tip # 29: Don't doubt what you've learned!

Exam tasks are often structured a little differently than the tasks discussed during the lecture. Your examiner may also incorporate a completely new aspect or combine topics that you previously only considered in isolation. If you are faced with a "new" task during your exam, the top priority is: stay calm and think. Do not get confused or doubt your preparation. Unknown tasks are normal. Let them test you. Recall what you have learned and then feel your way step by step.


Tip # 30: Estimate the scope of the tasks!

There are exams that you cannot finish working on. These tests are overloaded and will later be adjusted accordingly as part of the point allocation. Often, however, students do not make it to the last task because they incorrectly or not at all estimate the scope. For questions that could be answered in one sentence, write one page of continuous text. The other way around, of course: If there is a lack of time or a lack of understanding, complex problems are answered with three key words, which results in a large loss of points. So try to correctly estimate the volume of your answers. If you have absolutely no feeling: ask.


Tip # 31: take the completeness test!

Especially if you skip tasks and choose your own processing order in your exam, there is a risk that you will overlook sub-questions and accidentally not work on them.You can avoid these point losses simply by carrying out a completeness check in between and shortly before the end of processing. Check whether you have completed all the relevant tasks and have written something for each question.


Tip # 32: still time? Read correction!

During my time as a student and later as a supervisor on the other hand, I have often seen students who left early after exam work or who sat motionless for the remaining minutes in front of their exam papers. Not because they gave up, but because they didn't want to use their time. If you have some time left at the end of the exam: Don't just throw it away. Proofread your exam and check your answers. If in doubt, add something or list further sub-aspects.


Tip # 33: Hand in EVERYTHING - on time!

I had a key experience of my studies in the fourth semester. A fellow student next to me had forgotten to write his name on the exam sheet and only noticed this when collecting the exams. The official processing time had already been declared over at this point in time. When the university employee stood in front of him and wanted to take the exam, my fellow student was still writing. The exam was graded 5.0. Another fellow student forgot to hand in one of the answer sheets on the same exam and mistakenly took it home. Everything that was on this sheet was NOT rated afterwards. Learn From These True Stories: Follow the rules of the exam. Submit your examination papers on time at the end. Pay attention to completeness. Don't risk anything.


Read the DOEDL method for free!



Every exam is something special, every task is slightly different and every examiner has his or her own peculiarities. But there are strategies and approaches that can be useful for you in almost any exam situation. The trick is to recognize these patterns early and use them skillfully so that you can pass your exams in the best possible way.

I have shown you my 33 most important tips in this article.

It is the essence of my own experience and the summary of my daily work with students. Perhaps not every tip will help you right away and some advice may not fit 100 percent on the individual exams that you will encounter. But if you take the tips seriously and internalize them, you will go into your next exam with a much clearer view.

You now know strategies that can help you in an emergency and give you a much better structure in your own way of working. But you don't end there: Try to adapt the tips from above and develop your own solutions for your next exam. Think for yourself how you can make the exam easier and less stressful. Write it down and get better with each exam.

I wish you success!


Image: © Andrew Branch /