3 ways University exams differ from other exams

Are you stressed and overwhelmed with revising for your University exams? You look at all those notes you made in lectures and you can’t remember ANY of the material. You want to start revising, but you don’t know which topics will come up in the exams. You quietly close your folder, or laptop and figure you’ll begin revising tomorrow.

It was bad enough when you were studying at school or college and had a teacher to guide you to past papers and give you advice on what was likely to come up in the exam. But you’re back home for the Spring break, there’s nobody you can ask for help and you’re fighting a rising tide of panic as you realise you’ve got to figure it out on your own.

Take a deep breath.

Whether you are a first-year student sitting University exams for the first time, or a second year who is freaking out because last year you figured a pass was acceptable, but that approach won’t cut it this year - I’ve got you covered.


Revising for University exams doesn’t need to be a test in itself. With a clear understanding of the main differences between Uni exams and those you’ve taken previously, you can identify the questions likely to come up, plan your revision, learn your material and memorise it. All without working flat out for a month and second-guessing whether you’re on the right track.

Download the free checklist and I’ll take you through the three major differences between Uni exams and those you have previously experienced. By the time you have read to the end you’ll know exactly how to get started with your revision.

So, how DO University exams differ from other exams?

  1. They are set by the person leading the course, rather than a national exam board
  2. There is a more flexible marking scheme
  3. There is considerably less guidance about how to tackle the exams

Today, I’ll talk through in detail what these three differences mean and how you can use them to your advantage to revise and succeed in your exams. Let’s go!

University exams are set by the module leader or main lecturer for each course

A lot of first time University students get stuck about what to revise and it’s easy to understand why. The first difference you’ll notice about exams at University are they are not set by a national or regional exam board. At college or school your teachers would be familiar with the curriculum for the exam you were taking and would have probably taught you the whole curriculum and very little else. The exam would be set by external examiners and would have been marked by one of a vast pool of markers tasked with the job. You would have been graded by someone who was not involved in setting the exam or teaching you the subject.

At University, exams are usually set by the person who has taught most of the module or course and the exam questions are moderated by the University’s exam board. After the exam, the scripts will likely be marked by the same tutor or lecturer who set the exam, or in the case of a course with hundreds of students enrolled, by other faculty staff who have a deep knowledge of the topic.

How can you use this to your advantage?

Well, the topics covered in the exam will be those which have been taught during the course! Your tutor is not going to throw something into the exam that they haven’t taught, so there is little chance you’ll get a question where the topic hasn’t been covered in the lectures.

If you’ve attended all the course lectures, tutorials AND completed the additional recommended reading, you will already have a good grasp of the topic. You can use the materials you’ve obtained and created during your course to put together a solid revision plan and spend the time between now and the start of the exam season to memorise your material and practice your exam technique.

Okay, so far so good Rachael. But how EXACTLY do I know what topics to revise?

I’m glad you asked, my savvy student! Here is a simple workflow:

  • look at the syllabus provided at the start of the course
  • examine the lecture topics and the way in which the course is structured
  • pick out six main topics or themes covered in the lectures
  • pay attention to the slides from the final lecture – these often recap the main themes
  • use this information to create your revision plan

Ta-da! You’re on your way!

University exams have a more flexible marking scheme

Another area that confuses students is how their exams are going to be marked. At A-level or its international equivalent, you've probably been taught to use specific terms (and perhaps specific words!) to gain marks in exams. This is due to the detailed marking scheme required to make sure the marks assigned by the hundreds of people marking the exam scripts are fair and just.

University exams are different. If you’ve been taught on a module where there are less than 100 students, then its highly likely your exam paper will be marked by the lecturer who taught the subject. Even if it’s a much larger course, a significant number of exam scripts will be marked by your main lecturer, with the remainder being marked by colleagues who may have also taught on the module or who have expertise in the subject matter. That allows the marker more flexibility.

Hey, you said I could use this difference to my advantage too. How?

As your exam script is likely marked by someone involved in your teaching, they’ll be very familiar with the material that’s been covered. They can assign marks for any additional reading you reference and extra knowledge included in a way that simply doesn’t happen in exams with a strict marking scheme (like A-levels). That’s good news for you because those moments when you go over and above what’s been taught, for example by including references to additional reading, are going to be rewarded instead of penalised. Hooray!

So, what DO you know about how you’ll be marked and how can you prepare?

  • Get a copy of the University’s general marking rubric
  • Look at the skills which need to be demonstrated for each degree classification
  • Decide on the classification you're aiming for – maybe a first (1) or upper second (2:1)
  • Write down the skills you need to evidence for the classification you want
  • Work out what those skills look like for each module where you have exams.

There is considerably less guidance from your tutor at University on what to revise

The third difference University students discover is there is far less guidance on how to prepare for exams and revise independently. This can be a problem, especially if you’ve previously had a teacher who provided you with structured revision sessions. Yet one of the main differentiators of University is the focus on building independent study skills alongside learning the subject content. Exam time is a perfect opportunity to learn to be self-reliant and develop personal study skills which will benefit you long after you’ve finished Uni.

Okay, so I’ve got to create my own revision sessions? Where do I begin?

  • Take the list of six or more key topics you gathered earlier from the module material
  • Get copies of past exam papers and add any other major topics covered in previous years you may have missed off your original list
  • Revise by reading through your material and memorising it
  • Test yourself to make sure you can recall or recite the information
  • Practice writing under exam conditions to develop your exam technique

Let’s recap:

I’ve covered three main ways exams at University differ from those in college.

  • They are set by the person leading the course, rather than a national exam board
  • There is a more flexible marking scheme
  • There is considerably less guidance about how to tackle the exams

I’ve explained how having the exam set by the person who has taught you (and will be marking you is to your advantage. Plus, how the greater discretion in the marking process benefits students who go over and beyond the recommended reading. Finally, I’ve covered how to pull together materials that are readily available to create your own revision sessions.

Now you’ve got an understanding of the key factors that shape University exams. Once those are clear and you have the tips in this article, you can move forward with your revision knowing you’re tackling them in the right way.

Which of these three differences surprised you the most? Leave your comments below.