Exam essentials: Using past papers

This article was first published on 26 March 2019

How past papers can help your exam result

Past papers can give you a valuable insight into your upcoming exams. Whilst they can't predict what questions will come up, they can certainly help to improve your performance.

When looking at past papers, think about:

  • The format: what do you have to do?

  • The command words: how should you answer the questions?

  • How the marks are allocated: how much should you write and how long should you spend on each question?

Derin and James give their best advice on how to tackle past papers


Past papers will give you a realistic idea of the format of the paper you will face. Knowing the format will help you to prepare better and feel more confident going into the exam.

Read the paper carefully. Look at how many sections there are and how many questions from each you have to answer.

Command words

Command words are words such as "list", "compare" and "contrast". They tell you how the examiner wants you to answer in the question.

When you're looking at past papers, really focus on the command words and make sure you give your answers in the most appropriate way.

Allocation of marks

Look at how many marks each question is worth and use that as an indication of how much time you should spend on each question.

The number of marks also gives an indication of how much you should write. Don't write an essay if there are only two marks available!

Exam conditions

Completing a past paper under exam conditions can help you know what to expect and make you more comfortable in the real thing. Here's how to do it:

  • Find a quiet spot where you won't be distracted

  • Clear your space of everything you wouldn't take into an exam

  • Set a timer

  • Read through the paper noting the format, command words and allocation of marks

  • When you have finished review your answers

  • If you have access to the mark scheme, mark your test

  • Consider which parts you struggled with and whether you finished on time

  • Think carefully about the actions you need to put in place to make sure that you improve next time

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