How to pass GCSEs: Preparation, practice papers and exam technique

Students in the UK face a huge hurdle when they are nearing the end of their GCSE studies, passing the final exams. 

Many factors may limit your teen’s progress when it comes to studying for and sitting the GCSE exams, including lack of time, poor exam technique, fear of failure, and lack of confidence, to name a few. However, there are steps you can take to ensure their success.

So, how can your teen pass their GCSE exams? Our step-by-step guide covers all elements, from preparation and planning to perfecting revision and exam techniques. 

Preparation and planning

Understanding GCSE Grades

England’s department of education has now redesigned the grading system of the country’s traditional GCSE exams. They have replaced the traditional lettered grade system with a numerical one. 

Here’s the new numerical grading system and their lettered equivalents…

  • 9 = A*
  • 8 = low A* / high A
  • 7 = A
  • 6 = B
  • 5 = low B / high C (strong pass)
  • 4 = C (standard pass)
  • 3 = between grades D and E
  • 2 = between grades E and F
  • 1 = between grades F and G
  • U = U (fail)


Get to grips with exam boards

In order to feel prepared for the GCSE exams, knowing the exam material inside and out is super important. To ensure your teen knows exactly what content is in all of their GCSEs, check which exam boards are hosting each of their exams. Common ones are AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC. The course syllabus is often dependent on the exam board, so you should know which board is hosting which exam, to get the most out of revision.


Find out how each of the final exams will be graded

To find out how the GCSE exams will be graded take a look at the examination board’s website. Each exam board has its own way of grading GCSE exams, so students must check with the specific board for each exam. 

It’s also important to know how much time should be allocated to each paper and how much it contributes towards the overall GCSE marks for each subject. 


Plan effectively for the year 

Having everything written down in front of you will ensure nothing gets forgotten and gives you a basis to work from. This can make a real difference when your teen has multiple subjects to study for.

Students need to consider the following when planning for their GCSE exams…

  • Figure out their strengths and weaknesses subject by subject
  • Prioritise the following activities at school:
    – Taking great notes in each class
    – Having a thorough understanding of all topics
    – Gathering all the information they need to revise
  • Revising the key topics and fundamentals of each subject syllabus 
  • Revising the specific details which will push them to achieve their desired grade bands


Early revision

Early revision is key. It is easier to create solid, consistent study preparation at the start of the exam year to achieve high grades rather than attempting to cram for exams at the last minute. 

Cramming has been linked to underachieving and can lead to high stress and anxiety levels, therefore adding to the overall pressure of exams. Cramming also means no long-term retention, and all information will likely be forgotten by the time students come to sit the exam.


Get motivated

There are a lot of things that go into preparing for exams. But without motivation, students won’t get very far. Here are a few tips on how to get your teen inspired and motivated for their exams;

  • Organise study groups. This will help keep them all accountable and encourage them to focus.
  • Vary revision with different activities and learning resources. This will mix things up and prevent boredom from setting in.
  • Make a study plan and stick to it. Having a plan will help to stay organised.
  • Set realistic goals and strive to meet them. This will help keep their confidence up and increase motivation levels. It’s always better to aim high!
  • Introduce rewards after each small goal is completed. This will help them to stay positive and engaged.
  • Stick to a daily routine and ensure they give themselves enough time to prepare for each exam to avoid feeling panicked and stressed.  
  • Use a study planner or set a reminder on your calendar to help with spacing out study sessions. 
  • Ensure they have regular meals and plenty of sleep and encourage them to exercise early in the day.


Build a daily revision routine

A productive way to get started is to take the time to draft a revision timetable that shows how many hours of study is achievable each day. This will help your teen organise their time and ensure all topics are covered. Try to be realistic about how much time is dedicated to revision each day – you don’t want to overload them.

Spread all their subjects across the timetable and make sure to prioritise those that are the most challenging and content-heavy. When following a revision system, your teen will start to learn more about how they study, what they find most effective and how long they can focus. This will ensure an easier transition when it comes to revising more intensively as the exams approach.


Have an exam day routine

Planning exam days are key. It’s best to have a pre-exam day routine that helps students stay organised and calm. Here are some tips for having a successful pre-exam day;

1) Get plenty of sleep the night before. This will help improve concentration levels.

2) Eat a healthy breakfast that includes protein and slow-release carbohydrates. The best energy-boosting brain food includes porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli with berries.

3) Make a list of what stationery is needed for the exam. This will help minimise stress on exam days and ensure nothing is forgotten.



Perfect your GCSE revision technique

It’s super important to find a revision technique that works for your teen. Some students prefer to study in short bursts, whilst others prefer to revise gradually over a longer period of time. There isn’t necessarily a “right” way, so find what works best for them and ensure they stick with it.


Effective revision techniques 

It’s not going to be the students who revise the longest or make the prettiest notes that will achieve the top grades. The highest performers will use effective and efficient revision techniques. 

The best revision techniques to use for GCSE preparation are;


Active recall 

Active recall is the act of recalling information and allows you to move information from your short term memory into your long term memory. 

There are two main active recall techniques;

  • Blurting
  • Flashcards


Blurting is where you quickly read over a textbook or exam specification, close the book and write down as much as you know or can remember. Once you have done this, you reopen the book and compare your notes to the textbook to see what areas you know more about and what areas you need to focus on. 

Flashcards are used for a question and answer scenario. Write the question on the front and answers on the back. It is important to not just know an answer but be able to apply the information you learn to show your understanding.


Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition uses active recall techniques and takes the information you need to memorise, repeating it over increasing intervals.

Memory works just like a muscle. The more we train it, the stronger it gets. When it comes to improving memory, slowly building on information over time and repeating the concepts we learn will ensure nothing is forgotten. Applying this technique to studying is really important. It’s recommended to revise flashcards every two to three days to keep your muscle memory engaged.



Practice papers and GCSE resources

Doing practice and past papers is key to perfecting exam technique. 

Students should make extensive use of practice papers and exam resources as they help acclimatise students to how best to approach exam questions in general and help with exam time management. Practice papers can also highlight the areas which still need further study and will help to boost a student’s confidence. 

Ideally, revise a specific topic first and then answer an exam question focusing on that area. 


Take mocks seriously

If your teen treats the mocks like they were the real thing and revises them as much as possible, the final exams should be a lot more manageable. 

If they put in the effort before their mocks, weaker areas in the syllabus will be identified earlier. So, when it comes to revision for the real thing, they can prioritise the more challenging topics until they feel confident and prepared. Revising intensively for the mocks will also give students a better idea of their preferred learning style and concentration levels.


Exam technique

​​Even if your teen has an excellent grasp of the exam content, they may fail to achieve the results they deserve, as a result of misreading questions, running out of time, failing to elaborate on points or misunderstanding command words.

Here are our top tips to improve exam technique…


Have a set technique for every exam 

Each GCSE subject has its own syllabus and exam format, so this must be reflected when it comes to sitting each exam. 

There are many different types of exams. From multiple choice to essay-based exams, students must know their approach for each…

  • How many times do you read the question to ensure you fully understand it? 
  • In what order do you answer the questions? 
  • Where are the most marks to be won? 
  • Where (what topics) do you feel most confident scoring the most marks? 
  • How much time do you leave to check through your answers?
  • How long do you spend planning your essays?


Think like an examiner

In the early stages of revision, it’s good to get teachers to mark papers and offer feedback. If possible, ask a teacher to provide model answers and run through their thought process when answering the question.

Not only is it important to read and understand the mark scheme, but a lot can be learnt from analysing each answer. How many marks should be awarded for that answer and why?


Understand the meaning of command words

Many students fail to answer questions properly due to a lack of understanding of key commands words and how they relate to that subject. For example, whilst many students panic when they see the term “suggest”, it is important to remember that the examiner simply wants them to suggest an idea by applying knowledge and not necessarily knowing the precise answer.


Practice time management and question planning

One of the key challenges for many students is trying to get all their points across in a limited time. Rather than diving into the first question of the exam, allocate time to think and prepare. So before writing anything:

  • Students should read over the whole paper at least once and decide the order they want to answer the questions in – answering their best questions first can really boost confidence.
  • Highlight command words and key terms and make a few notes for each question, such as key points to cover and how much time should be allocated for each question.


Make use of all the allocated exam time

Whilst it is tempting to leave an exam hall early, don’t! Use any spare time to read through the whole exam again and check;

  • For any spelling or grammar errors
  • Whether what is written makes sense or needs clarifying
  • Whether it actually answers the question? Can it be improved in any way?
  • In the case of calculations, check workings out again and ensure it matches the written answer.


How to pass the GCSE maths exam

Passing GCSE maths will provide a good base for a wide variety of careers as well as being helpful in so many other aspects of life.

Some top tips for when it comes to sitting the maths GCSE exam;

  • Cross out working neatly – method marks can still be awarded for crossed-out work
  • If different methods are used for the same question – ensure the answer line isn’t used to show workings out
  • Only put an answer on the line if you are sure it’s definitely correct!
  • Always show working out for the follow-through marks



How to pass GCSEs: FAQs

How many hours should you study a day for your GCSEs?

Aim for 30-45 minute sessions with short breaks in between and ideally no more than 4 hours of study per day. This way you’ll have more productive bursts of revision, rather than trying to cram multiple subjects for hours on end.


How important is it to pass your GCSEs?

GCSE exams are an important part of a student’s academic journey. For many subjects, you need to pass them at GCSE in order to study them at A level and, consequently, higher levels (like a degree) too. 

While it is important to keep GCSE grades in mind when choosing a future career path, it is also important to remember that they do not tell the entire story. Avoid putting too much pressure on yourself to succeed.


How long before GCSEs should I start revising?

In theory, you should start revising as soon as you can once you begin the courses and we’d recommend at least six months in advance of your GCSE exams. The amount of time spent revising as well as the revision focus and dedication should increase at the three-month mark, then again at the one month mark and two-week mark.


How many subjects should I take in the GCSE?

You should expect to take around nine or ten subjects. Most courses and jobs you might want to apply for in the future require you to have grades between 9 and 4 in a minimum of five subjects.


Do I need a tutor to pass the GCSE exams?

Many students feel that their individual needs are not consistently met at school. A tutor is an ideal way of spending focused time on the topics that you’d like covered in more depth. GCSE tutoring offers support with exam grades, building and developing confidence and reducing anxiety around the exams. A good GCSE tutor will have current knowledge and experience of topics covered in the exams.


Our Maths GCSE exam tutors provide…

  • Live 1 hour online session with a specialist maths tutor once a week
  • Targeted practise of tricky areas
  • Unlimited access to revision materials and mock papers for your exam board (AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and OCR)
  • Homework support

Hopefully, this has answered your questions about how to pass the GCSE exams, but we’re here to help in case you have plenty more! Book a free trial to find out more about our GCSE maths tuition.

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