National 5 Exam Advice

National 5 Exam Advice

National 5 exams

For many students, sitting tests and exams can be stressful.  Good study and revision techniques will make sure that you are well prepared but there’s a lot you can do during the exam to improve your chances of doing well.  This is called ‘exam technique’.

This National 5 exam advice will help you to achieve better grades in your National 5 exams. 

A pass

1. Be positive

Try to have a positive mindset about the exam.  Think of it as an opportunity to show the examiner what you know and can do. 

You have studied and revised for the exam, so you’re as well prepared as you can be.  Think positive thoughts … tell yourself  ‘I am going to pass this exam.’

National 5 exam nerves

2. Overcome exam nerves

It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous before an exam.  Being a bit nervous can actually be a good thing because it keeps your mind alert and is a sign you want to do well.

But if you’re someone who gets anxious, the quickest and best way of reducing stress and feelings of panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow, deep breaths.  Deep breathing helps to calm you down and ensures that enough oxygen gets to your brain.

Also, don’t spend too much time with friends before the exam starts if they are nervous or worried.  It might make you feel the same way.

Exam format

3. Know the format of the exam

Make sure you are aware of the format of the exam, for example, whether all questions are compulsory or whether you have a choice in what to answer.  Read the exam instructions very carefully, eg,

Answer 2 questions from Section A, and 2 questions from Section B.

Question choices

4. Make good question choices

In some exams you need to answer all questions, but in others you can choose from a selection of questions.  If you have a choice, don’t be tempted to answer a particular question just because it’s the subject or topic you know most about.  It might be a real nightmare of a question.  Ask yourself – are you sure you can do it?  Can you answer ALL parts of the question? You might find there is an easier question on another topic that wasn’t your first choice.

Consider all questions on the paper and ask yourself …. Which questions do I think will get me the most marks?   When you’ve decided which questions you’re going to answer, list the order in which you will tackle them. Then start with the question that you feel most confident about.

Effective exam time management

5. Manage your time effectively

Make sure that you are wearing a watch or you can see the clock in the exam room.

Check the marks allocated to each question – those with more marks need more time and, usually, longer answers.  Decide how much time you are going to spend on each question.  You can note this on the paper.

As a rough guide, if the exam lasts for 120 minutes and are going to answer 6 questions, then you should aim to spend around 20 minutes on each, assuming all questions carry the same number of marks. 

Although it’s important to take your time at the start of the exam, make sure you don’t spend too long on planning otherwise you might not leave enough time to complete all the questions.

Answer planning

6. Plan your answers

Make a quick plan of how you are going to answer before you start writing.  Scribble down some key points at the top of the page that will help guide you when you start writing your answer.   For subjects like Maths, Physics or Chemistry, note down any formulae that you might need.

Don’t spend too long planning answers, though – or you may find yourself short of time at the end.

Mark allocation

7. Check the allocation of marks

Look at the marks allocated for each question.  If a question only has 2 marks, don’t fall into the trap of writing down everything you know about the topic  – you can’t get more than 2 marks no matter how much you write!   Just make sure that your answer contains at least 2 key points.

If a question carried 6 marks, you need to develop your answer in a way that makes sure you’ve covered 6 key points. (See Tip 9 below on developing your answers).

8. Know what the question requires you to do

For each question make sure you’re clear about what you are being asked to DO.  Pay special attention to key words that give you clues about HOW you should tackle the question.  These are called ‘key words’

Here are some examples:

DescribePresent a picture of something, its main characteristics or features
ExplainProvide facts or reasons to make something clear
Compare/ContrastShow how things are similar and/or different
DefineExplain the meaning of an idea or concept
SummarisePresent the main points about something
IllustrateUse examples to describe or explain something
EvaluateMake a judgement of the value, worth, or effectiveness of something
CalculateWork something out, usually involving numbers or formulae
Answer development

9. Develop your answers

This is one of the most important aspects of exam technique and there are different ways of developing your answer to gain more marks. For essay-type questions you can do this by:

  • giving clear explanations;
  • providing examples to back up your points;
  • analysing data or evidence presented in the question;
  • drawing on data or evidence from your own knowledge of the subject;
  • showing how a point you’ve made is linked to other related topics or ideas.
National 5 exam advice - check over carefully

10. Check things over carefully

If you have time left at the end of the exam, check over your answers carefully and re-read the questions.  New ideas might come into your head and you can earn a few extra marks.

Check that you have answered all the questions.  Make sure your name is on all sheets of paper that you are handing in. 

If you haven’t got time to answer the last question, write down the key points you would have put in your answer.   It’s possible to still get some marks this way if the examiner can see what you were intending to cover in your answer. 


After the exam is finished, try not to worry about things that did not go as well as you had hoped … for example, a question you didn’t answer as strongly as you think you should have done, or questions that you were hoping would come up but didn’t.  Be positive and focus about the things you did do well.  Learn from your experience and take the positive aspects into your next exam.

For more help with National 5 check out ACHIEVE

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