This is probably the thing that has always worried my students most: seeing an exam paper and feeling that all the questions are impossible.
First the bad news: there will probably be questions that you feel you can’t do (and indeed perhaps that you can’t).
The good news: you don’t have to answer every question!
If the paper is a nice surprise and you feel you can tackle several questions:
DO NOT simply pick the question you like most. Pick the question you can answer best. Essays are arguments so picking the right question for you means choosing the one you can construct the best argument for. This may mean that you can answer a question on your favourite text, it may not.
The obvious tip: read the paper carefully but fairly quickly, marking questions you think may be good for you, then decide which you can answer best.
If the paper is a nightmare tailored to drive you to despair:
It’s not as bad as you think (unless you didn’t attend any seminars or lectures and didn’t read any of the set texts, in which case it might be). 🙂
Choose the question that you hate least / find least impossible. Cross off all the ‘impossible’ ones and you’ll be left with one that is possible (even though you probably hate it).
Sometimes in life there are no ‘good’ options so all you can do is choose the least ‘bad’!
The same is true of exams.