In order to impress your examiners you need to stand out. This can be difficult considering that you will be answering the same questions as hundreds of other students. Similarly, the examiner will be reading a good many papers addressing the same exact issues. Obviously, you can make an impression by demonstrating clear knowledge and awareness of the topic at hand; in other words, by being well prepared. This can involve practising with past exam papers, thorough revision, and memorisation of key facts and figures. Certainly, this will help set you in the right direction. However, there are other and more subtle means by which to impress.
Consider the Question Carefully
One of the most important aspects of taking an exam is to make sure you answer the question correctly. Read and re-read the question, ensure you understand it. Make margin notes as you go, forming a rough plan for your answer. Consider the frame of reference that the question implicitly assumes. Every question depends upon a core proposition that may be open to dispute. For example, consider the question: “What were the main causes of the Second World War?” The question assumes that a certain set of principal causal events may indeed be established; that the War can be explained with reference to particular historical milestones. Without doubt, this is a reasonable approach to such a complex question; for the same reason, it is probably how most people will respond to it. Here is a chance to stand out. One could scrutinise the grammar of the question. For instance: “The notion that a particular list of key determinants can account for WWII is misleading; it suggests an overly simplistic and linear view of history. Rather, the War was the result of multiple complex sites of tension; these touch upon the political, social, cultural and economic texture of the era”. By engaging with the deeper implications of the question, one demonstrates circumspection to the examiner. From here, one might expand upon two or three specific possible explanations, while relating such explanations to our opening proviso. This way, we offer a traditional interpretation of the question while exhibiting overt awareness of the inherent problems therein.
Being able to analyse information in a limited amount of time is a skill that takes practice – and one that will impress examiners. Cultivate this skill as much as possible during your free time. Get in the habit of critical thinking. This way, your mind will be geared for analyses at all times, including the day of the exam. If you want to really impress, study formal logic, particularly logical fallacies. These provide basic guidelines for thinking. For example, the “Straw Man Argument” is a logical fallacy where one constructs a misleading representation of an (opposing) argument. For instance, if one were to write “most historians believe the main cause of WWII was Hitler’s lust for power”, this would be a Straw Man Argument: because it oversimplifies the case. No one solitary cause is adequate to explain an event of such magnitude. Avoiding such logical pitfalls in your own argument and identifying them in that of others is a valuable critical skill. Other common fallacies include “False Correlation”, where two events that happen at the same time are assumed to be casually linked. Thus one knows that Britain declared war against Germany in September 1939. The same year, in May, the film Goodbye, Mr. Chips was released. Assuming that the one happened because of the other would be an instance of false correlation. There are numerous other formal rules for logical thinking: learning these will sharpen your mind and strengthen your analytical ability.
Because exams have strict time restrictions, one needs to be economical with words. Use short simple phrases. These are quicker to compose for you and easier to understand for the examiner. The more concisely you are able to write, the more information you will be able to convey. Examiners are impressed by clever ideas not clever words. This is why being analytical is so important; it shows depth of thought. Further, writing in simple prose is easier. You are less likely to make mistakes and waste valuable time in amendments. Plain English is conducive to good argument. Construct each sentence as an addition to the previous one. Never repeat a point. Stick to the issue. Examiners are impressed by a clear point of view convincingly argued. Finally, get a good night’s sleep before the exam so you are fresh for the test.
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