Past papers are an essential Chemistry revision tool. They are a great way to find the gaps in your knowledge, what you need to improve on but also to give you a confidence boost finding out your revision is paying off. They are also the closest thing you’ll get to a practice run of the exam itself and will help you get to grips with exam technique.
No matter if you’ve just started your course or your exams are fast approaching past papers are useful to everyone studying A level chemistry.
Do every past paper you can find, as many times as you can. Getting used to the past papers will help you to understand the way your subject is structured. While simply going through past papers and answering the questions is useful in itself there is actually so much more you can get out of them to really improve your chemistry grades.
With just a few tips you’ll be able to use past papers to really get on top of your subject and nail your exams.
Don’t Ignore the Mark Scheme
Mark schemes will help you work out where you’ve gained and lost marks, and how well you’re answering the questions.
Mark schemes are very specific. There are certain points that you have to mention in order to get the marks on a question. Even if you know the topic well, it doesn’t mean you will get the marks if you don’t know what the marker is looking for.
It isn’t just about your knowledge of the subject but of the marking scheme too. You have to answer the way the examiners want you to. Be succinct in your answers, don't waffle on with descriptive words. The examiner is looking for key points that efficiently and correctly answer the question. Think explanation not description.
Self-marking your past papers against the mark scheme will also help you spot areas where you have gaps in your knowledge and so can help focus your chemistry revision efforts.
Read the Chief Examiner’s Report
The chief examiner’s report is basically a cheat-sheet on what not to do on an exam. The report compiles comments from all examiners in one year and details the most common mistakes students make and what they do wrong.
These are really useful as they let you know what examiners are looking for. By reading through them, you can learn what not to do, and what mistakes you need to avoid.
Of course, you don’t know what will come up on your exam, but it is good practice to start thinking of how the question will be marked so you can be sure to hit the points needed to get maximum marks.
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Learn the Structure of the Exam Paper
Past papers help you get used to the structure and wording of the exam. Structures of papers usually stay pretty much the same year to year so past papers are the closest you’ll get to seeing what your exam will look like.
Even if you don’t know what topics will be on your paper you can still familiarise yourself with the style of wording the papers use and the format so you don’t lose marks on just not understanding the question.
If there are certain terms in the questions that keep coming up in past papers, ask your teacher to explain them to you.
Make sure you get your head around the structure of your chemistry paper and ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is the paper divided into sections?
2. Are the questions single or multiple choice?
3. How much time should you spend on each section?
Knowing what to expect will mean there’s no surprises on exam day. Knowing what to expect will also mean you don't waste unnecessary time trying to figure out the exam format. Plus you'll go into the exam hall confident that you know what's coming.
Going through past papers as a group can be a useful addition to your revision techniques.
Go through the questions together to check everyone’s understanding of the exam format. You can answer questions individually then peer-mark each other’s papers using the mark scheme as a guide.
That way you’ll be able to highlight where everyone is doing well and what still needs work. If you’re all struggling on a common concept you should ask you teacher for a refresh in class.
Peer-marking is a great way to get into the mind-set of the examiner. Your peers will mark your papers and you can mark theirs as if you were a real examiner. This practice will get you into the habit of having a critical eye and making sure each answer hits the key points as specified on the curriculum.
It can also be useful to create a ‘model’ answer for each question so you can be sure to cover each point you need to hit the marks the examiner is looking for. Plan answers to several papers, then compare them with each other.
Of course you don't know what questions will come up on the real exam but it's good to practice using the right scientific vocabulary. Remember that we said it's about explanation not description? It's essential that you know the correct vocabulary to demonstrate your knowledge. There's a big difference in knowing something and trying to explain it.
Take a topic and try explaining to your classmates. You'll find it's pretty difficult to do this properly and clearly without using scientific vocabulary. If your classmates don't understand the topic that means you need to revise your vocab! You should be able to explain a topic without too much descriptive language.
If there's something that you don't understand in class or you don't know how to accurately explain a key-term, you might find that a peer can explain in a different way that you find easier to grasp.
Don’t underestimate the power of bouncing ideas off peers!
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Make sure you do some of your past papers in exam-like conditions. While discussing the papers with friends is a useful tool, practising a paper under restricted time and without any revision notes is really important.
Set a timer and sit in a quiet room with no distractions to really emulate an exam situation; this is closest you'll get to the real thing! The more you can do to prepare for your exam day the better. You’ll feel less stressed in the lead-up and will go into the exam hall knowing exactly what to expect.
Use your papers as motivation; if you didn't get a great score on one, don't panic. Use this as motivation to go and revise and learn about the topics you struggled with in the paper. If you got a good score then don't hesitate to write your score on the front of the paper in bold pen. Keep it somewhere where you'll see it daily. It will serve as a great confidence booster if you're ever feeling overwhelmed by all of your revision.
Where to Find Past Papers
You can find past papers and chief examiner reports on the website of your exam board.
There you’ll find past papers from previous years and there will also usually be papers from summer exams and resit periods so there will be plenty to practice with.
Your teachers at school will most likely give you past papers to practice in class and will read through the question structures with you so you’re best prepared.
Good luck and happy practising!