Before the exam:
Go to revision sessions!
Read information about the exam on notice boards / course documentation. Check if there are restrictions on which writers or texts you can write on, for example.
In the exam:
Read the rubric (that’s the bit at the top of the paper that tells you what you have to do). The rubric structures the exam eg it tells you how many questions you have to answer, how many questions you must answer in each section, what writers / texts you can write on in each section, how many texts / writers you need to write on etc.
This is a rubric from a (real) 1 hour University exam paper:
EN3050: Literature 1680-1780
January 2004: ONE HOUR
Candidates should answer ONE question
Candidates should refer in detail to at least TWO writers from the module in the course of their answer
The rubric tells students exactly what to do: write 1 essay referring in detail to at least 2 writers. It requires reasonable detail (not exactly half and half) on 2 writers so if someone were to write on 1 writer and just mention a 2nd or provide 2 lines on the 2nd writer, they wouldn’t be following the rubric. ‘At least 2’ means that you have to demonstrate detailed and in-depth knowledge of 2 writers. You can refer to other writers where relevant to demonstrate breadth of knowledge but you must refer to at least 2. If you write well but on only 1 writer you will not be doing what the exam asks you to do so you are likely to be penalised.
Say you have a 3 hour exam. If the rubric tells you that you need to answer 3 questions, with at least 1 essay from each section & there are 2 sections, you need to write either 1 or 2 essays for section 1 and the remaining 1 or 2 from section 2. If you write 3 essays from only 1 section then you are likely to be penalised because you’re not doing what the exam asks you to do. Usually different sections address different writers / periods so asking you to answer from both sections is a means of getting you to demonstrate breadth of knowledge.