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Written exams

language examsWriting exams for a foreign language can be very different to writing an exam for any other subject. Since language is a skill, it’s impossible to cram all your revision in the night before and to pass with a decent grade- language needs to be practised in order to be acquired, so regular revision is important.

Read on for University of Southampton modern languages student Elizabeth Grant's tips to help you prepare for a sit foreign language exams.

  • Start revision early. Try to make a regular revision session each week and spend and hour or two going over the new constructions and vocabulary you learn in class, testing yourself on what you remember and practicing any weak areas that emerge.
  • Find copies of past exam papers early on. Prepare yourself  for the kinds of questions that will be asked. If you’re at school sitting a general exam like the GCSE or A-level, then there are plenty of past papers available online and probably from your school too. At university, the faculty database will usually have exam papers from previous years. 
  • Practice doing the past papers under exam conditions. Time yourself and allow yourself no other resources than the examiner would allow you. Ask a classmate, teacher or native speaker to correct it for you.
  • Practice writing the best version of several types of texts. Often language exams will have set formats i.e. ‘write a letter to a penfriend; write a description of your house; write an application letter for a job’. In other words, if you write a near-perfect composition describing your house and learn it off by heart, you can recycle it into a letter to a friend asking about their house, or many other things when actually writing the exam.
  • Structure your revision. You can schedule it according to theme e.g. ‘Cinema; Tourism’ The Environment etc.’ or according to grammatical construction ‘Past perfect; subjunctive; passive in academic writing etc.’ You could also just follow the order in which your classes were structured.
  • Find new and more impressive vocabulary to use in your exam. Look up articles related to the themes you’ve studied in class and pick out impressive key words. Everyone in your class may have learned the word ‘cameraman’ but you may score extra for using the word ‘cinematographer'.
  • Make sure you have everything you will need before leaving home. Also, get a good night’s sleep, eat something healthy before going into the exam and bring a bottle of water with you to stay hydrated.
  • Listen to some music, watch some TV or chat to someone in the target language beforehand. This will get you thinking in the target language. Don’t look over any notes or revise any concepts for at least an hour before the exam.
  • Read through the entire paper before starting. When you get your exam paper, you should already be familiar with the format from past papers and/or from your teacher’s instructions.
  • Allocate your time according to the weighting. For instance, if your exam is two hours long and your paper consists of Question A worth 30%, Question B worth 50% and Question C worth 20%, then you should spend 30 minutes of Question A, 50 minutes on Question B and 20 minutes on Question C, leaving you 20 minutes for checking and revising your answers for mistakes.
  • Try to think in the target language. Don’t revert to translating but if you really can’t remember how to say something, an intelligent guess is probably your best bet!
  • Read through the text backwards to check for mistakes. Errors and mistakes tend to be more obvious this way.

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