How to prepare and perform in A Level Exams

When preparing for an A Level Religious Studies exam, it’s essential to divide your time into the following stages:  getting into revision routine, revising efficiently, the night before an exam and writing efficiently in the exam.  In this article, I will show you how to make the most of each stage. 

1)  Get in revision routine: The essential thing to do in order to prepare for an exam is to revise.  But more importantly it’s essential to revise properly and efficiently.  To do this, you have to establish a steady routine with the right balance of work and leisure.  Here are some tips to get started:

a)  Steady discipline
Steady discipline means not doing too little or too much revision a day.  Too little revision a day is obviously unproductive.  In the end, you won’t have much knowledge to use in the exam.  You’ll get stuck very early.  In addition to this, your confidence in exam performance will be very low.  This means you’ll succumb to the jitters very easily (you’ll be so nervous that you won’t have a clue what to write). 

However, too much revision a day is destructive.  If you spend all day revising week after week, you’ll quickly lose energy.  Not only will you find it harder to stay in routine but you also won’t work particularly efficiently.  You won’t have the energy.  Hard work for its own sake will only get you so far at A Level.  There’s no point in working if you won’t learn anything. 

Therefore, it’s best that you find a midway point between the two extremes.  To do this, you must set yourself a specific set of hours each day and aim to get a certain amount done in each hour. I’d recommend 5 hours revision a day with a 20 minute break in between. You should then take the rest of the day off.  5 hours is enough time to get an excellent days revision in.  20 minutes is also enough time to get a good rest. Having some free time means that you’ll have a life outside of revision.  You’ll later have a lot more energy for revision in the long run. On top of that, it’s important to have designated days off. This should consist of at least 1 day a week (preferably 2).  Whatever days you take off is technically up to you but most people take Saturday or Sunday off. 

b)  Social life
Despite it being a difficult time for everybody, it’s very important to maintain a social life when preparing for an exam.  Without company, life can get pretty lonely.  This won’t inspire you to study over so long a period of time.  Without inspiration, you’ll lose motivation very quickly and your revision will be inefficient.   

Nevertheless, don’t take my advice to the extreme.  All-day social events, big parties etc. are definitely not a great idea.  They’re incredibly bad for discipline and should be saved for after you’ve finished your exams.  However, small activities like coffee, lunch or a film (on a designated day off) are quite nice.  They allow you to have a social life whilst maintaining your work discipline.     

c)  Sleep
Make sure to get plenty of sleep.  During the weekdays, it’s a good idea to get up early and go to bed early.  This is a good way to establish discipline.  It also gives you enough time to get the 5 hours a day in alongside breaks, meals and outdoor activities.  More importantly, don’t go to bed late and get up late.  Studies have shown that students who do this don’t perform nearly as well in tests.  They’re so tired from staying up late working that they can’t concentrate and don’t take anything in.  Staying up late also ruins one’s sleeping patterns.  You’ll find it harder to get to sleep and even harder to get up in the mornings.   On top of this, you’ll find it very hard to adjust to getting up earlier on exam dates (which you’ll need to do since some exams are as early as 9.00am). 

A lie in on designated days is quite nice - I certainly look forward to having a long lie in each Saturday. However, it’s best to save those for non-working days. If you lie in every day, you’ll totally wreck your sleeping patterns. You won’t work as efficiently since you won’t have had as good a night’s sleep. Furthermore, if you lie in on a working day, you’ll have less time to get the 5 hours in. It won’t be a problem on a nonworking day since you won’t have any revision to do.  On top of this, a lie in on a non-working day means that you’ll have more energy to maintain steady discipline on working days. 

d)  Outdoor activity
Make sure to get plenty of outdoor activity. It’s essential to remember that there’s a world outside your revision. If you don’t spend any time outdoors, you’ll feel that there’s nothing in your world other than your revision and revision environment. That’s a pretty miserable life to lead and not one that many people (if any) find satisfying. This won’t motivate you to revise over a long period of time. By going outdoors, you’ll be reminded that there’s more to life than revision. In turn, you’ll feel more whole since you still have a life. This will give you more energy to revise efficiently. It’s important to get the right balance of outdoor trips. You don’t want too few trips:  they won’t remind you very much that there’s life outside of revision. However, you don’t want too many trips: they’ll take up too much of your time. I’d recommend 3 trips each day: 1 for each morning, afternoon and evening. 
2)  How to revise efficiently: Obviously, the first thing to do is to memorise everything you know on a particular subject.  But it’s equally important to practice applying what you know.  Here are some ideas to apply what you know: 

a)  Homework and mock tests
A good start is to always do the homework that the teacher gives you.  You should also be there for every mock test he / she sets you.  The teacher will have seen these exams coming for a long time and so will have prepared well (hopefully!).  Both homework and mock tests give you the chance to apply what you know. 

b)  Find past papers and think of every conceivable question
It’s equally essential that you do revision other than homework.  It’s good to go through old past papers (there’ll be plenty available on the internet).  If you’re having difficulty finding past papers, go to your teacher and see if they can help you.  Have a go at some past papers and hand them into your teacher to have a look at.  This way, you’ll be able to get an idea of how you’re progressing and what you could do to improve. 

However, don’t fall into the trap of basing your revision on past papers.  They’re certainly good for gaining confidence in exam performance.  Nevertheless, don’t assume that the questions on this years’ paper will be the same as the last.  After all, they’re meant to change each year.  The important thing to do is to think of every conceivable question on each topic you’re revising and prepare an answer for each one.  That way, you’re much less likely to be caught off guard in the exam. 

c)  Discern what you’re good at and less good at
When revising, it’s essential to know the topics you’re good at and less good at.  All A Level RS papers give you a range of questions to choose from.  Each of these questions is based on a specific topic.  AQA and OCR have 4 questions (you are expected to answer only 2).  It’s a good idea to revise at least 3 topics. That way, if you’re having difficulty with one topic, you can choose an easier one.  If there are at least 3 topics that you’re good at, prioritise these. Don’t focus on difficult topics if they aren’t necessary to cover.

If you’re unlucky enough to only be good at only 1 or 2 topics you’ll inevitably have to choose another topic which you’re less good at. If that’s the case, give this topic extra priority. After all, you want to be equally skilled at all topics so that you’ve got an equally good chance with all of them. This is also a good opportunity to turn potential weaknesses into strengths. If you’re unsure, it might be a good idea to speak with your teacher first. If you’re really struggling with difficult topics, it would be a good idea to get help from either friends, a teacher or a private tutor.     

d)  Revise with others
It can be very fun to revise with someone you know. At university, I had a very close friend whom I revised with for every exam. We’d find a quiet study room, compare notes, pick each other’s brains and test each other’s knowledge. This was a very sociable for both of us to revise. However, it’s equally important that you choose a person who’s calm enough to revise with. A super-stressed, over-panicky friend will easily infect you with their stress. This is the last thing you need. When revising, it’s essential to work calmly, steadily and efficiently. That way, you’re much more likely to concentrate and the information’s much more likely to go in. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to stay calm in an environment where everybody’s running around like headless chickens. Therefore, revise with people who are calm and capable of managing stress. Likewise, avoid spending too much time with colleagues who have difficulty managing stress.  

3)  The night before an exam
a)  No last minute cramming
It’s important not to use the night before an exam as an opportunity to ‘cram in’ any last minute revision.  You’ll be feeling stressed, agitated and nervous so it’s doubtful you’ll get much information.  Not only will you learn very little but you’ll use up much of the energy that you’ll need for the exam the following day.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to do all your revision well beforehand.  Use the last night before an exam as an opportunity to reenergise or the exam.    

b)  Relaxing activity
It’s a good idea to engage in an activity you find relaxing before you go to bed.  You don’t want this activity to be either too boring or too exciting.  If it’s too boring, you won’t be sufficiently energised for the next day.  If it’s too exciting, you’ll have difficulty getting to sleep.  You should know what activities help you to relax.  These could include (but not be limited to):  reading, TV, games, walking, exercising etc.  However, you must ensure that this activity doesn’t cram into your sleeping time.  If it does, you’ll have less sleep time.  This means that you’re much more likely to get a bad night.    

c)  Early night
Quite possibly the most important thing to do is to get an early night.  The next day, you’ll want to perform at your best.  You can guarantee that you won’t perform at your best after a terrible night’s sleep.  If you have a good night’s sleep and get a good rest, you’ll have plenty of energy for the next day. 

4)  When you’re in the exam

a)  Expect and accommodate nerves  
You should feel nervous in an exam.  If you’re not feeling nervous, you’re being either cavalier or overconfident.  That suggests that you either haven’t considered the importance of this exam or have overestimated your ability.  We’ve all grown up with people who have demonstrated this attitude…and we all know that nearly all of them don’t prepare or perform well in exams.  As a result, they later face very unpleasant consequences for performing badly:  humiliation in peer groups, disappointment from teachers, lower chances of securing their preferred place at university, more pressure to perform well in a resit-to name just a few examples.  Admittedly, you may get the occasional people who can get away with too little revision.  However, people of this ability are very rare and I wouldn’t recommend taking this approach.   

There’s no point trying to ignore your nerves or make them go away:  they’re inevitable when you walk into the exam room.  However, nervousness can be accommodated and made easier to manage.  The best way to manage nerves is to see them coming.  Before the exam, you should revise thoroughly and practice in exam conditions regularly.  The better you prepare, the more confident you’ll be in the exam.  Hence, the more you’ll be able to control your nerves.  On top of this, the better you prepare beforehand the less likely you are to experience the unpleasant consequences that you’re dreading. 

b)  When writing, keep the sentences short
Use only 2 points per sentence at the very most (and even then it’s usually a good idea just to stick to 1).  Sentences with too many points are very unclear and take ages to decipher.  Examiners have hundreds of essays to mark each day.  For many, this is pretty tedious.  So you can near-guarantee that when they get round to yours, they’ll be feeling bored, tired and cranky.  Hence, they won’t want to spend ages doing unnecessary work.  Keeping sentences short makes sentences easier to read and doesn’t give the examiner as much work to do.  Hence, they’re much more likely to be generous with marks.

c)  When writing, keep each section a paragraph
Divide your arguments into paragraphs.  Don’t mix different arguments together.  If so, it becomes one indecipherable paragraph which takes up page after page.  Most examiners won’t even bother to read it, since it’s clear the candidate hasn’t even remembered basic punctuation.  Breaking it down into paragraphs makes it much easier to read.  Again, this is a good idea if you want the examiners to be generous with marks.    

On top of this, it’s a good idea to write a sub-heading in pencil above each paragraph.  This shows the examiner what each paragraph is meant to show and makes it easier for them to follow your argument. 

d)  Delegate your time
It is essential to delegate your time to each question appropriately.  Each syllabus slightly varies.  AQA and OCR give the candidates 90 minutes to answer 2 questions.  In these cases, divide your time into 2 stages, 1 for each question.  Give yourself 45 minutes per question:  5 to plan and 40 to write.  Edexcel gives the candidates 75 minutes to answer 1 question.  With this exam, give yourself 10 minutes to plan and 65 minutes to write.   

It’s very useful to bring a stopwatch with you into the exam.  That way, you’ll know exactly how much time you’re spending on each question, how much time you’ve got left and when it’s time to move on.  However, it’s important that the stopwatch doesn’t make any disturbing noises.  If so, it’ll disturb the exam and the invigilators will confiscate it.  Therefore, get yourself a stopwatch which is small and silent. I wish anyone reading this the very best of luck in preparing for their exams!

Michael Ball A-level Religious Studies Tutor (Newcastle upon Tyne)

About The Author

I am a tutor and proofreader. I primarily tutor in the North-East of England. I am prepared to take on students of any disposition, from the nervous and struggling type to the confident and capable type.

Tutors Wanted

  • Physics, Chemistry Tutor GCSE Redditch Face to Face, not Online
  • English Tutor for 9 yo Girl West London Gen. comprehension and essay technique
  • 11 Plus tutor Leeds Passionate Teacher needed
  • GCSE History tutor wanted Blackeath SE3 Lessons take place at student's home
  • PhD thesis writing tutor UK or Europe Holds a PhD in Health
  • French Teacher Wed 3.10- 4.10 Kingston, London Start 6th June DBS police check needed
  • Economics and Politics tutor Online or Central London Cambridge Pre-U
View tutor jobs
Tutors: Download your free e-book!