Many A-level students struggle with timing in the exam, and if you’ve recently sat your mock exams you might have found that you’re one of them.

It’s important that you spend an appropriate amount of time on exam questions for 2 reasons.

  1. (This is obvious) If you spend too long on questions you’ll either have to rush to finish the paper, or you just won’t finish it. Either way you’re likely to have lost more marks than you’ll have gained by spending forever on one of the earlier questions.
  2. If you don’t spend enough time on questions you’re unlikely to have given your answers enough thought to have properly understood the question and constructed an answer that gets you all the marks. If a student tells me that they’ve finished an exam paper half an hour early, I’m always way more concerned than if they say they were frantically writing until the paper was prised out of their hands by the invigilator. If you speed through the questions you’ll miss the point and your answers will be too basic. This is just as bad, if not worse in some cases, than running out of time

To some extent, both of these problems will sort themselves out as you get closer to the exams. As you get more confident with the content and your exam technique improves, your less likely to spend ages agonising over the questions. And as your exam technique improves you’ll realise how important it is to spend time reading the questions carefully.

In the meantime, it’s something you need to work on. Whether you’re going too fast or too slow here’s an exercise that will help you think about your timings and work out how much time to spend on each question.

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What to do if you struggle with timing in the exam

For each paper you do, work out how many minutes you have per mark. For example, AQA A-level Biology paper 1 is 120 minutes long and there are 91 marks available. This means you have roughly 120/91 = 1.32 marks per minute.

Then for each question (e.g. question 1, 2 etc. not sub-questions like 1 a i) work out how many minutes you have to work with. For example, question 1 of AQA A-level Biology paper 1 June 2018 is worth 9 marks. This means you have 1.32 x 9 = 11.9 minutes to answer all parts of question 1.

This is just approximate – some questions will take longer than others, but if you’re spending longer than 12 minutes on this question you need to think about whether it’s justifiable. If the question is a comprehension or involves data analysis it might well be that the time is justifiable and you can make up the time with quicker questions later. But if the question involves mainly straight-forward content based questions and you’re still spending ages on it you seriously need to consider cutting your losses and moving onto the next question. For example if the question includes a subquestion that’s worth 2 marks for a nasty looking calculation, you can easily find yourself spending 10 minutes just on that subquestion. This is a massive waste of time so you need to be sensible about it and move on. You can always come back to it at the end if you have time.

Similarly, if you know you have 12 minutes to answer all parts of the question but you’ve done the whole thing in 5 minutes you’ve really got to ask yourself whether you’ve put enough thought into it. It might be that it was a set of simple questions on a topic that you’re really confident with so you’re happy that you’ve not missed anything, and in that case, crack on to the next question. But it’s far more likely that you’ve overlooked something, so you should re-read the stem of the question and check your answers before moving on.

Start working on your timing in the exam right now

You can do this exercise in the exam itself, but if you do struggle with timing in the exam I recommend you start doing it asap. By consciously thinking about your timings you’ll start to notice where you’re wasting time and which type of questions are worth the extra time. Then, when you get to the exam you’ll be more confident in how to divide your time. You’ll also get a better understanding of what the passage of time ‘feels’ like when you’re answering exam questions, i.e. how quickly time passes when you’re answering questions.

Multiple choice questions

Some multiple choice questions can be answered in 10 seconds flat, others require a lot of logic and calculations. Either way, they’re only worth one mark. I strongly advise you to skip the ones that look horrible and wizz through the easier ones. You can then use whatever time you have left at the end to tackle the ones that take longer. This can make the difference as to whether you answer 5 multiple choice questions or 15, which could even be the difference between 2 grades.