Tip 3: Laying out your Stall

A276 – Learning Latin – Exam Technique – Tip 03


Almost everyone experiences ‘exam nerves’. A few even thrive on them and find it sharpens their focus and boosts their performance. For some it’s a panicky, even paralysing feeling that can really get in the way on the day. Most people are somewhere in between – where nerves can cost them a few marks but if they’re careful they can avoid the perils and pitfalls.

The best thing you can possibly do the moment you open the exam paper is to read it through thoroughly all the way from start to finish before you even pick up a pen. That way there are no nasty shocks – you can see exactly what’s on there that you know you’re going to struggle with. You can face that from the get-go and give yourself a moment to adjust, calm down (if necessary) and refocus before you launch in. There’ll also be some nice surprises – some genuinely easy questions which you know you are definitely going to answer correctly. And there’ll be a lot which you’ll realise, once you’ve have had a little think about it, that you know you should be able to answer well, too.

All that sets you up to be in the right frame of mind to crack on. It puts you, in sporting terms, ‘in the zone’. So do do it. Just ignore everyone around you who picks up their pen and starts scribbling – they’ll be more likely to make mistakes than you!

What to do next, then? Well, turn right back to the very front page of the exam paper and read it all through again. But this time there are two things to be doing while you read:

Firstly, highlight every key word or phrase in the instructions – any instructions, anywhere they occur: highlight them, or underline them, or draw a ring around them, or… whatever. This should guarantee that you will actually answer the question they ask and not be answering the question you think they’ve asked (because you’re nervous, have skimmed it all a bit too quickly, and misunderstood what you’re really supposed to be doing). Other than that, the highlighting sends a clear signal to the examiner that you are organised, methodical and so (ostensibly) know what you are doing. That may just give you the teeny tiniest edge if, say, your handwriting is a little ambiguous, but the examiner gives you the benefit of the doubt because they can see the meticulous attention which you have paid to following the instructions exactly; especially if it involves a single mark that would take you over the threshold to the next grade up.

Secondly, set out your answer paper as you go. The trick is to make it really clear where your answers will go when you do come to write them in. That means you can rattle through them, filling in the ‘easy’ ones quickly. If there’s some you’re stuck on then you can see the gap you’ve left for them and come back to them later if you’ve time. You can also make sure you’ve left plenty of space next to each answer to write in any corrections you might spot later when you’re checking through your work (if, indeed, you find you’ve made any mistakes). This gets the examiner on your side, too, because it makes your thinking and working very easy for them to follow (there’s nothing worse than crossings out, and squeezings in, and arrows snaking all over the place pointing to some scrap of space on the periphery of a page where you’ve crammed in your correction).  Finally, it lets you see how much paper you’re going to use up and so you can ask for more early in the exam if you need it. If in doubt, ask for more paper at the start of the exam; or even before it begins if possible. Don’t wait until you actually need it (when others could be asking, too, and you might have to forfeit a valuable minute or two waiting for someone to sort them out first before they get to you).


Setting out your answer paper – Grammar Sections

Put the question number (1, 2, 3…) in the margin, near the edge of the page. Put the part of the question (a, b, c…) next, still in the margin, in the middle of the margin. Put the sub-part of the question (i, ii, iii…) next, still in the margin, next to the line. If a sub-part has more than one component for its answer then leave a line for each of them.

That would look something like this:

answer structure

I’ll move on to setting out your answer paper for translations next week. And I’ll follow that with some brief advice about the literature option and the essay question in the following week.

For this week, you should print out a fresh copy of the Specimen Examination Paper and grab some lined paper and a pen and work your way through what I’ve suggested above. Just a couple of minutes or so each day will be sufficient. That should include time to have a quick look back at what you did the day before and add anything you’ve missed to your highlighting; or reconfigure your answer layout if you’ve spotted that you could do it better. Do do the highlighting for the whole paper. But stick to just the two grammar sections for setting out your answer paper. Work on loose leaf A4 and then you can shuffle the pages and rearrange things later on when we get to the tip about what order to fill your answers in in in a couple of weeks’ time.

Meantime you can puzzle over my use of the word ‘do’ twice in a row (‘do do’) and ‘in’ three times in a row (‘in in in’) and decide how each occurrence works grammatically. And here’s another one:

“A man making a pub sign painted the words too close together, making the name of the establishment hard to read. He should have left more of a space between Fox and and and and and Chickens.”

Steven Havelin (29.04.18)