How Do I Prepare For And Write Specific Post-Secondary Exams?

preparing for post-secondary exams, planner with greenery
Photo by The Journal Garden | Vera Bitterer via Unsplash

Computer Science/Computer Engineering Exams

By Adrian Chan

Loving what you do is a prerequisite. Students who are excited about things like programming mobile apps, computer game development, and cloud computing come in with an intrinsic motivation to learn more; intrinsic motivation is a key to success. Certainly, any experience (e.g., programming) you can get prior to university can be helpful; these may be formal (e.g., learning to write in a classroom) or informal experiences (e.g., hobby).

Computer Science and Engineering are booming and there are many students interested in these areas. Areas such as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) continue to grow rapidly. The field is exciting, with constant new developments, and the job prospects strong. Entry can be competitive because of the high demand from incoming students but programs are also expanded in response to those demands, as well as the demands from employers seeking students highly trained in areas like Computer Science and Engineering.

English Exams

By Nick Mount

Generally speaking, an English exam tests what the student got out of the class rather than specific content. It doesn’t test if the student can repeat what the professor or the textbook said about Shakespeare, but rather if, having attended the class and read the books, the student can say anything interesting about Shakespeare. So in your answers, I’d nod to the main points of the lectures, show your prof you heard her and understood her, but then show (off) what you think.

The main cause of failure or lower-than-expected grades on an English exam is bad timing, giving too much time to one section and not having enough for another. If you’re not so good at writing to the clock, get down at least an answer to every question, leave some blank space after each, and then go back and add detail to those you can.

By David Bentley

  1. Be sure that you have carefully and fully read all the works on the course; go over your lecture and tutorial notes and, if you missed some lectures or tutorials, borrow the notes from someone whose notes are reliable.
  2. Look over old examinations for the same course and make lists of likely questions based on recurring themes and ideas in lectures and tutorials and in your notes.
  3. List and learn the terms that you will need for the purposes of analysis and discussion on the examination.
  4. Memorize a few keywords and phrases from the works studied on the course to quote on the examination.

Accounting Exams

By Fred Phillips

Rather than assess the ability to reiterate facts, tests in Accounting often evaluate a student’s ability to apply knowledge and quickly solve new problems. To prepare for this kind of exam, I always advise my students to practice, practice, practice. Attempt as many new problems as possible, first without consulting the solution or suggested approach. Then carefully study the approach outlined in the problem solution, and think about the similarities between the various problems and solutions. Look for patterns and principles, not just how to solve a particular problem or example.

Biology Exams

By Brock Fenton

  1. Do not let exams get in the way of your learning.
  2. Read … read something neat every day,  get in the habit of browsing the electronic library. Check out the most recent issues of Science and Nature.
  3. Write … practice writing and challenge yourself.

(It will be obvious that my exams are all essay-based — general questions — and students pick the facts they want to address the question (topic)). During class discussion, I ask: what is the most important thing? My answer is reading. Now, what is the second most important thing? My answer is writing.

Chemistry Exams

By Glen Loppnow

I usually tell students the things that worked for me as an undergraduate (not quite the Stone Age, but at least the pre-Internet Age), when preparing to write a chemistry exam.


  1. Write up a cheat-sheet, whether allowed in the exam or not, as a study guide (NOTE WELL: If a cheat sheet is NOT allowed, don’t use it in the exam; only as a study guide!).  The very act of writing down information and organizing it is a big aid in learning. Chemistry does have some facts, processes, and nomenclature that needs to be memorized and this cheat-sheet is an aid in remembering things.
  2. Instead of highlighting text in the book, write down the important passages of the textbook into a journal.  Again, this repetition aids remembering and learning.
  3. Talk over chemistry problems and concepts with friends over dinner and your favorite beverage.  There may be something at the dinner table that reminds you of a chemistry concept. Talking out things highlights areas where you’re unclear about things and where you may surprise yourself about how much you do know!  And the repetition again helps you learn.
  4. Once you’ve identified areas that are unclear for you, try some problems and re-read that area in another textbook than the one from the course.  The problems will identify whether you can correctly apply the concepts you’ve memorized and understand.


  1. Ask questions if you don’t understand something or you want clarity on a question!  Many students do not do this and it may hurt their performance on the exam.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep the night before and stay hydrated.  It has been shown over and over again that exhausted and malnourished students do not perform as well in any task, even if they spent that time trying to memorize more.  Use time-management techniques so that you aren’t studying for an exam only the night before and don’t do an all-nighter.
  3. Answer the questions you know how to answer first!  Be sure to show the instructor how much you do know, to the best of your ability, then spend time on the questions you don’t know as well.  Manage your time, so that you can spend some time on all the questions. There may be ones that, at first glance, you don’t think you know but you may be able to work through them given some time.
  4. Relax!  It is just one exam.  You’ve made it this far in University, so many people think you have the ability.  One secret is that all your instructors want you to do well! All you have to do is show us what you’re capable of!  I tell my students that they are strong, confident UofA students and that they will do well.

Computer Science Exams

By Adrian Chan

The advice I have is the same for students in any degree program. Constantly, remind yourself that you are here to learn. A narrow focus on grades leads to ineffective learning techniques like “plug-and-chug” or “cram-test-and-purge”. With learning at the university level, you want to achieve the ability to analyze, synthesize, and make judgments. You want to use what you have learned in a variety of contexts. A student who memorizes could correctly answer 2 + 2 = 4. It is simple in this example to see the implications of a person who memorizes addition, with respect to his or her ability to analyze, synthesize, and make judgments.

An aim to learn helps to ensure that you are steadily building your abilities throughout your courses and degree, rather than cramming at the end. When you have truly learned something, it has a lasting effect. It also adds to your foundation, which you can continue to build upwards from. So don’t just focus on “preparing for and writing examinations”. Be sure you are not just memorizing 2 + 2 = 4. Focus on learning, which will inherently prepare you to write examinations. The grades will follow.

Exams in Medicine

By Patangi Rangachari


Not easy to give a generic answer. Obviously, depends on the subject and the nature of the exam. Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) require a very different approach. Fundamentally, in an MCQ, the answer is given to you and you have to dredge through the recesses of your mind to find the correct response. The process by which you get there is irrelevant. On the other hand, in essay type exams, the approach is important because your logic or lack of it is painfully obvious!

I do not use MCQs in any of my courses for many reasons. In most of my courses, I give students a menu of options to choose from so they can choose those that fit their strengths and personalities. In some courses, I end up giving exams which I mark personally since that gives me a better sense of what my students are learning or not learning. Many of the questions are open-ended and involve students trying to solve problems. I send them the following note: 

“Dear All:

 You have received the exam schedule and know the date and time of your end-of-term exam.

There are two components to doing well in exams. The first is obviously knowledge. Ignorance is NOT bliss. The more you can convince your examiner that you know an area in depth, the better will be your mark. This may require you to go beyond standard texts and read primary publications/reviews etc. The second is equally important- the art of communication.  You must clearly show the examiner that you know what you know well.

To get good marks, you must ask yourself two questions:

(a) What do I know about the question asked?

(b) How can I convince the examiner in the least painful way?

For the first part, read the question carefully, very carefully. If you do not understand it, ask for clarification. If that is not possible, state what you think the question means so that the examiner knows what you are doing. The second may be a bit risky as some examiners may not be very liberal.

For the second—you have to realize that examiners have to plow through lots of papers like yours. The easier you make it for them, the better it will be for you. 

SOME HINTS (may not work all the time!)

State what you are going to do in a capsule summary, then elaborate.

Draw attention to the points you want to make—underlining/capitals etc. If these are buried in long paragraphs, they may be missed entirely. An examiner should be able to glance at the answer and get the general impression that you know your material before they read it in detail. It is essentially a matter of confidence. Students who know their material well can do this easily. Those who do not, tend to blather (much like politicians do), hoping that somewhere in all that mess, there are a few nuggets of real information. Teachers can sense at a glance where the student is filibustering and their patience is sorely tried.

Space out your answers, by leaving a line or two between paragraphs.

Write simple, clear sentences. In science based course, rarely are examiners interested in soulful declarations of your inner self.

At the end, write a concluding paragraph to make sure the examiner understands what you have done. There is the danger that some examiners may think you are repeating yourself, but a brief sentence will not hurt.”


All the years I was in medical school and even later doing my Ph.D, I followed a recipe that worked very well for me:

I always studied in advance and did not leave matters to the last minute. I was just paranoid since I was never sure whether some emergency would prevent me from studying closer to the date

Two days before the exam, I just closed my books and did not look at them. 

I allowed what I had studied to sink from my brain to my spinal cord, so that it could get processed!

Additionally, I chatted around with others about expected questions, expected answers, so that in that conversational way, what I had studied became consolidated. I tried my best to “EXPLAIN” to others what I had read and again this helped consolidate my knowledge.

NOT opening books calmed me so that I did not get worried about what I had not read. In medicine, there is an enormous amount of information to process, so if you postpone learning it to the end, you are lost even before you begin.

That recipe worked very well for me! I got the gold medal as the best graduate of my year in medical school.

Exams in Medicine Pt. 2

By Dr Jim Silcox

In a professional program like Medicine, you need to be learning for life.  In general, because of the amount of rote material that students in the early years of Medicine must learn, I urge you to learn as you go rather than cram. And, in fact, cramming doesn’t work in Medicine. There is just too much detail. Besides, you remember better if you learn over a period of time rather than on a frenetic learn-write-forget cycle.  It’s best to make the “first pass” at studying a focus on big principles and only go back for the details if you have time for a “second pass” over your material.

I liken medical knowledge to a tree. If you can grasp the concepts, the “trunk” and “branches,” then you will have the tools to practice.  The details are like the leaves on a tree, they are constantly changing and if you want to be a good doctor you will need to develop the habit of going to your texts or journals (or search engines) to get the current facts to use on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, because of the rigorous demands of national accreditation standards, medical schools across the country are doing a much better job of setting exams by making them congruent with their teaching objectives.  It pays, therefore, for you to keep a close eye on those objectives as you set out your study plans.

Physics Exams

By Alan Slavin

The best way to study for tests and the final exam in Physics is to start by making sure that you can do all the questions assigned throughout the course, using just the most basic formulae, since these problems have been chosen to cover the most important areas of the course. (This assumes that you have recorded the correct solutions to these problems as they were posted throughout the course.)  Once you have done all these problems, work through previous tests and exams; these are often available from the Departmental Office. If you can do all the problems on the last few exams in the allotted time, you are virtually guaranteed a good grade on your final exam. Particularly if your current instructor has taught the course recently.

Plant Biology Exams

By Dave Cass

“You need to be able to discuss issues of plant development, not just answer multiple-choice questions.  For that reason, I will provide sample questions from recent years to give you an idea about what to expect.  It is highly unlikely that any of these questions will be on your exam — the previous exams will provide something of a study guide.  As you will see, my exams are a combination of factual and interpretive questions — I imagine that interpretive questions will dominate on your upcoming exam.  Since I am providing these questions to you one week before the exam, I will be available both during my office hours and by e-mail to help you if you wish.”

That’s would I would say!  In my specialty course, I took the time to include copies of my midterm exams and final exams in the laboratory manual so each student had them from the outset.  That makes a huge difference, in my opinion. Once I started doing this many years ago, I received very few questions about the nature of the exams, but more questions about subject matter — that was what I wanted.

Geology Exams

By Alan Morgan

Be aware of the world (i.e. if major natural disasters have happened before your exams so that you can use these if required). Be aware of world geography and economic problems.