Preparing for the exam itself is important too!
Preparing for the exam itself is important too!

When exams are looming it’s easy to get caught up in the exam preparation side of things and completely forget about planning your time in the exam.

That’s right – your teen needs to sort out an in-exam strategy too.

Not doing so can be the difference between scraping a pass and absolutely nailing it.

Your teen needs to have an exam plan.

A plan for how your teen spends their exam time will:

  1. Mentally prepare them for sitting the exam beforehand
  2. Make sure they spend their time in the right places
  3. Maximize their marks!

Let’s use the average English exam as an example…

Most English exams involve writing essays – possibly four or five of them in three hours!

For a five essay exam this would give you 36 minutes per essay.

But if one of the essays is worth more than the others, you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to realize that more time needs be spent answering this essay than on the rest.

Let’s say three out of the five essays have a greater weighting than the other two. Hypothetically your teen should spend, say, 40 minutes on each of the three longer essays and half an hour each on the two shorter ones.

[On top of this, every decent essay always starts with a five minute essay plan.]

But things don’t always go according to plan…

Your teen may encounter trouble with a particular essay and find their 40 minutes goes by far too quickly! Maybe the essay question is a bit curly or they’re having a bit of a brain freeze.

We know it’s hard, but they’ve got to move on.

Leave the essay as it is – move on to the next one – and come back to it later.

Your teen might find the next essay they write is quick and easy, and also helps generate ideas for the one they skipped! But only once they’ve finished the other essays should they go back and have a second attempt.

The repercussions of not sticking to their exam plan can be disastrous…

If your teen carries on with the essay they’re struggling with, they will very likely compromise at least one other essay as well. So instead of perhaps not getting a fantastic grade for one essay, now they’re putting at least two in the firing line.

It will take a bit of will power, but it’s much better to count your losses with one essay (or question) and soldier on.

Good exam-takers know this and have no qualms with leaving a question unfinished. They know they can come back to it later when their brain has done it’s ‘stretches’.

What about other types of exams?

The same principles apply to other subjects.

Your teen needs to find out what the format of their exams are BEFORE exam day so they can make an exam plan and figure out how much time they need to allocate to each section/essay/topic.

In New Zealand high schools each subject is broken up into different topics called Achievement Standards.

This is how we’d break down a Level 2 physics exam:

How To Plan A Physics Exam
How To Plan A Physics Exam

So as with the hypothetical English exam described earlier, it would be crucial to work out the different weighting of each standard BEFORE the exam.

For multi-choice exams…

We suggest your teen has a time plan for these too.

It’s really simple – all they need to do is work out how much time they should allocate to each question by dividing the number of minutes by the number of questions.

Then during the exam they should have time checks every, say, 20 or so questions to make sure they’re on track.

At 30 minutes I should have done 20 questions, 1 hour I should have completed 40, etc

The final word

We can’t stress this enough –  if your teen gets really stuck on a particular question, they need to move on and plan to come back to it later.

Feeling stuck on one topic or one question is only going to make your teen stressed and frazzled, and take very precious time away from further questions.

Image Credit: US Navy Imagery on Flickr



  1. Hello!
    I had an exam recently and I almost spent half the time on one question, writing all the unnecessary stuff. It happens almost always with me. Another time I wrote 4 questions worth 2 marks each like a pro and didnt’ have time left to solve a question worth 6 marks. Not that I don’ t get what’s happening, i just refuse to stop and think for a minute during exam.
    It’s hard to let go of marks I deserved just because of messed up time planning during exam.
    This article made me realise my mistakes. Hope I learn something out of it.
    Have a great day!

    Amit Kulkarni,
    IIT Madras,

    • Hi Amit!

      That’s fantastic you’ve ‘clicked’ about how you can manage your exam time more effectively. The key to getting through an exam in time is planning your time before hand and being disciplined about sticking to your exam schedule, for the exact reasons that you’ve explained.

      Thanks for your comment and all the best!

      Clare 🙂

  2. I have exams this month. They will be my first exams ever and I’m nervous. I study and do well in school but in French class my teacher tends to just vaguely mention what to study. Also, I heard her exams are more difficult than the other teachers exams.

    Another problem is that my geography teacher is gone now. She left our school at Christmas break and we have a substitute teacher this month. I like the substitute teacher but I would still have liked to have my regular teacher for this month.

    I try my best in class but I know that if I mess up one day, I could mess up my whole grade. This helped but I’m still nervous. Any tips or tricks would be appreciated. Thank You!

    • Hi Kate! Totally understandable you’re nervous leading up to your first exams.

      With regard to your French exam, I would try and find a past exam from a previous year to see what kinds of questions are generally asked. If that’s not possible, hopefully you can make an educated guess about what is likely to be in the exam, ie what have been the really important topics.

      With regard to geography, that’s bad timing about your teacher leaving. If your substitute teacher isn’t helping with your preparation as much as you’d like you may have look for help elsewhere – such as looking at past exams and getting help from friends taking the subject.

      If you try your best in class that’s what matters. I know we can all feel a lot of pressure around doing well in exams, but if you have prepared, even if you do make a few mistakes, it’s really unlikely to stuff up your whole grade. It’s very rare for an exam to go perfectly, but that absolutely does not mean that you can’t do really well! Also remember that exams aren’t designed to trick you, only test you on what you’ve learnt. If you’ve prepared for them, try and keep calm and just go for it.

      Best of luck!

  3. Hi,
    That’s a nice post and too useful for the students who are going to face an exam. It will help them to understand the time management during the exam.


  1. […] One of the biggest mistakes your teen can make is to spend more than the allocated time on one question and consequently run out of time on another. At the end of the day, what counts is the overall grade your teen gets for the subject. There aren’t any prizes for answering one question incredibly well when you fail to answer five other questions worth just as many marks. Your teen MUST plan their exam time, and stick to this schedule. […]

Leave a Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

High School Study Advice | The Study Gurus