What is exam technique?

Your exam is a game, learn to play it

Why do I say this?

  • You have very limited time to write your exam
  • You get a question you’e never seen
  • You have to ‘gather’ as many marks as possible in a limited time
  • You have to apply knowledge that you’re probably not really comfortable with
  • Your exam is marked by someone who will never see or talk to you. You have one chance to get the examiner to believe you know ‘enough’ to pass

Know the rules, the guidelines and the tricks of the trade, and your studies will be more effective, and more likely to be converted into marks when it counts the most. Here is some advice that may assist you.

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Most students need to change and improve their study habits and exam technique as they progress through their studies.
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What should you think about while you study?

Your goal is to pass

Write this on a piece of paper and stick it on your wall when you study:

“My goal is to pass the question and I don’t have to know everything in order to do that”

A mark for something complicated is the same as the mark for something simple

Get those first, then when you’ve bagged those, you can work on the tough stuff. You are not going to get ‘bonus’ points for doing the complicated parts instead of the easier ones. If there are marks for easy stuff… GET THEM!

Where are the easy marks?
  • Presentation and communication marks
  • Show the examiner HOW you got to the answer. You can get partial marks if you make a mistake along the way
  • Get the formats down FAST
Never go over time on a question

Statistically, you earn more marks at the beginning of a question than at the end. Why? You’ll do the easier parts of each question first, so the last few minutes are spent struggling with the tough stuff. Rather get to the easy stuff for the next question.

Practice this when you’re studying. It’s a discipline. You have to work on it

Let it go!

let it go

No, you shouldn’t be singing the theme song from Frozen… but the concept is the same! If you don’t know something, do not spend more than a few seconds staring stupidly at it… MOVE ON. Don’t let it simmer in the back of your head, blocking out the thoughts you’ll need for the next part.

If you’re a perfectionist, read this.

You are writing the exam for the examiner.

The examiner needs to make sense of what you’ve scrawled in your rushed panic to get the exam finished. If they can’t read it, they won’t be phoning you to find out what you meant to write.

You won’t get ANY marks for questions you haven’t attempted

You’ll be tempted to ‘finish’ a question at the expense of the next question. You might get a few more marks for that question, but you WILL get zero for the ones you don’t get to at all.

Exam-setting policies generally split the marks on offer in an exam between difficulty levels. 

Exams are designed to be split between easy marks, medium marks, and difficult marks. Try identify these in your studying questions, or past papers, when you’re looking at the solutions. Note how many marks there were that were easy (even if you didn’t necessarily get them!), medium and tough. Now keep that in mind when you’re writing the exam, and look for those easy / medium marks.

Practice the way you’ll play

play the way you practice

“I’ll do it that way in the exam” is a phrase I hear from students ALL the time. This makes me want to pick up their textbook and swat them with it.

If you haven’t built the habit in your study time, you’re unlikely to pull a rabbit out your hat and get it right in the exam.

One of my common statements to students:

“You wouldn’t play cricket to prepare for a rugby match”. So don’t study one way and then write an exam another.

Allocate the same amount of time to theory as to questions in your study time

We always time our questions, but we never time our theory. That’s dangerous because we can spend HOURS lost in theory, and then only do a 20 minute question. Doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?!

Bad marks in your study attempts do NOT represent your final exam marks

Unless of course, you spend your time agonising about it instead of getting down to figuring out what’s going wrong, and how to fix it.


This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start, and will definitely help focus your energy where it counts… getting marks in the exam!

Last words of wisdom before I go:

“My goal is to pass the question and I don’t have to know everything in order to do that”

If you can relate, or have a query...


  1. Hi
    Wow that was a list of exactly what I do. At school the work was all parrot work so i did really well. I never had accounting at school so the accounting I do at this level is almost over my head. I struggle a lot getting the questions done. Thank you so much for the advice. I will definitely take this to heart. If you have any more advice, I will be over joyed to hear it. I have a stress problem and I think this will help. Will try it now. Anyway off I go to go study.

    Kind Regards

    • Thank you so much for that Yvonne…..I have to second that of what Heinz said….I am exactly like that……a true perfectionist……I am trying really hard to change that….thank you for the advice……..as I have also not done accounting in school and passed FAC1601 a long time ago I am finding the basics really difficult to grasp………I am really stressed out this semester……just hoping for a pass in accounting……

  2. Thank you so much for the advice. This is such an enlightening post. I’m a recovering perfectionist and those are the things I find myself struggling with the most.

    Kind regards,

  3. Hi Yvonne,

    I have been the perfectionist who took looooong to know and understand the syllabus and never got enough time to practice questions and I haven’t done well.

    I am going to practice this…and will let you know.

    Thank you once again.

    Thami M.

  4. Perfectionism and procrastination are the reasons why I rarely get anything done. It`s all going to change now.

  5. Sjoe Yvonne this has open up a whole new world for me. I never thought I was a perfectionist. I am admitting to myself now that I am one.I am going to make some changes.


    • Hi Sylvia… would I be right in saying you’re in my FAC1601 online class? I think it’s awesome when you find something that may have been holding you back. Wanting to do well is fantastic, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of you writing your exams!
      We’re here for you… keep in touch!

  6. I am everything described in this article,i knew my work for test 1 CTA 2 but because of my poor exam technique and being a perfectionist , i never got to finish my tests,loosing marks in the end.God bless your soul! Now i know where do i need to fix my error

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Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

I coach accounting students who are struggling with their study habits and mindset, and want their studies to be as effective as they used to be. See more on my about page

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