Answering the questions

Regardless of your preparation, how sharp your pencils are, or how well you know your geography, the outcome of the exam hinges on how well you answer the questions. It sounds obvious, but it still catches people out every single year.

The exam paper contains different types of questions that require different types of answers, and every single question has been carefully written to give you clues as to the type of answer required. There are short, low mark questions that require single word answers, or a short sentence, there are questions that require well thought-out arguments to be written in good English, and there are questions that expect you to annotate diagrams, examine data and calculate answers.

What is the question asking you to do?

Questions contain what’s called ‘command words’ or ‘command phrases’ that tell you what to do, and if you understand these commands you then know what sort of answer to give. For example, a question asking you to *comment on* needs an answer where you give your own opinion backed up with some evidence, whereas a question asking you to *discuss* something requires an answer that sets out the arguments for and against something in a balanced and fair way. If you give your personal opinions for a *discuss* question you will lose potential marks, and if you discuss the pros and cons of a *comment on* question you will again lose potential marks.

So, learn to spot the command words and know what they mean. We have a guide to them here, Command Words.

Can you make notes?

Yes you can, and it’s a very good idea to do so. Notes allow you to put your thoughts into order, to work out an answer or to do rough calculations.  Do them on the exam paperwork and, when you’ve finished with them, put a single line through them so they are obviously not part of your final answer. Don’t scribble all over them though as it is possible for your notes to give the examiner an insight into your thinking process, and this may help him/her to mark the question.

Whatever you do, don’t write or draw anything rude or offensive though. This could count against you and result in a loss of marks.

If you really don’t know the answer, then write some notes on what you think might be the answer, and come back to the question later on. If you still don’t know the answer, leave the notes, but don’t cross them out. A guessed answer is better than no answer at all.

SPaG  (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar)

Whether you think it is fair or not, a small number of marks are there for the technical quality of your writing and, believe it or not, how neat you are. Your spelling, punctuation and grammar all need to be as good as possible, and you really do need to be able to spell geographical words correctly.  If you have time at the end of the exam go back over your answers, check the punctuation and spelling, and correct any errors you find.  It’s only a few marks out of the entire exam, but even one mark can be enough to go up, or down, one grade.


It’s pretty obvious, but a long answer usually takes more time to write than a short answer. If your paper starts off with short answer questions you should go through them more quickly than you go through the longer, more complicated answers.  Keep an eye on the time so you don’t suddenly discover that you have only half-an-hour left, but two huge essay-like questions still to answer.

Answer everything you should answer

Your exam paper will specify how many questions you must answer from each section. Failure to read these instructions can cost you marks – quite a lot of marks if you don’t answer a high-value question. So, if you need to answer two questions from a section of the exam, it means two, not one and not three. If you answer only one then you’ve just lost half the marks you could have scored; if you answer three then your third answer was a waste of time as the examiner won’t mark it.

Don’t fall into the ‘there was another question on the back page?’ trap either.  ALWAYS check every page before you assume that you’ve come to the end of the exam!