Mock exams: Why they matter (and kinda don’t)

Jul 17, 20190 comments

Mock exams, (practice exams if you conform to the rebranding) pinpoint the time of the year where you begin to realise that exams are real and that we’re usually unprepared for them. 


Everyone approaches mocks in different ways and just like personal study, there’s no one right way of doing it. In this article, we’ll shed some light on mock exams and (hopefully) help you figure out how you’ll approach them, and maybe even change a perspective or two.


Why they even exist  


Despite popular belief, mocks are not to shame students into studying or highlighting everything you don’t know. Rather, they’re a back-up for your final exams in case of an emergency, extraneous circumstances, or if you ate some weird KFC the night before and can’t leave the bathroom for more than 5 minutes at a time.


Mocks are kinda like cooking the first pancake; it’s always a bit weird. There are a few things that contribute to this as well:

  • Have you completed every external in class that you will be sitting?
  • Are you sitting all the exams during mocks that you will at the end of the year?
  • Have you been studying?



If you answered no to any or all of these, you’re working at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the end of the year. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean you should bear it in mind when looking at your grades.


Because we sit these exams before the end of the year, it’s highly unlikely that we go into these with the amount of knowledge we will have at the end of the year when we sit the real thing. 


Think about the amount of cramming you can do the night before and then pace that over the approximate 4-week gap between mocks and final exams. You can make an insane amount of progress in this time!


Tl;dr: They’re meant to be a back-up grade, but are not a reflection of your understanding at the end of the year.


How mocks are made


Schools have a few options when deciding how to go about mock exams. The first thing is how they source the papers themselves:


Previous papers


A simple option, teachers may source the mock exam straight from the NZQA source and just take a previous years’ exam for that standard.


Usually, teachers will opt for the exam sat the year before as this will be the most accurate representation of the standard content and format. Going back much further than 2 years’ may result in a slightly off-key exam as they’re constantly changing and being adjusted.




Private companies can also be employed to create mock exams for schools. These can be a bit hit-or-miss for a couple of reasons:

  • The formatting and language used doesn’t always align with NZQA which can be a bit confusing.
  • The difficulty of the questions can be much more varied (e.g. either way too hard or easy).


Both of these can lead to students having incorrect assumptions about what they’ll be sitting at the end of the year.


If you’ve had a look over past exams though you should be able to spot the differences between NZQA and another company. If you don’t spot many differences that’s great! No exam will be identical but there are always trends in the standard which you’ll become familiar with (e.g. biology exams always want definitions).


Made in school


If your teachers are confident, they may even create the mock exams you sit. Teacher’s have a good understanding of the way NCEA is assessed and formatting, so questions usually reflect this. 


However, if you haven’t quite completed a standard yet teachers may scale the exam to reflect your current knowledge, rather than the scope of the entire standard. 


The important thing to bear in mind here is that you should prepare for the whole standard, not just what you were assessed in during mocks. 



While you may not know which of these options you’ll be getting, it’s useful to consider them in regards to how you will study. For example, if it’s a previous years’ paper, practicing questions from past papers is a solid option.


The second thing to consider is when you are sitting your exams. Most students sit them at the end of term 3. However, some schools sadistically choose to have them in term 4 instead.


If you’re sitting them in term 3, you have less time to prepare, but more time to learn from the mock. Again, think about the amount of progress you can make by the time final exams roll around.


If you’re sitting them in term 4, you should probably be more prepared for mocks because you’ll have less time for final exams. 


You can prepare around both possibilities to maximise your study and understanding, but your strategy may change a little depending on which it is (e.g. more serious study for term 4 mocks because they’re closer to real exams).


Mock strategy


Going into mocks can be a bit of a scary time where you’re working with a lot of unknown variables. With this, preparing yourself as best as possible can seem like quite a task so here are some tips on getting through:


Study plan


We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, consistent study is the best way to ensure that you’re ready for anything an exam may throw at you. The best way to achieve consistent study is by having a study schedule or plan. 


You can find out how to make a study schedule here.


Know what you’re getting into


Consolidating all of your exams is a really useful way to frame your study and get an idea of what you can expect in your exams. Here are a few questions you should be able to answer:

  • How many exams are you sitting?
  • How many standards will you be sitting? What are they?
  • When are all of your exams? You can find this years’ exam timetable here.


Having this kind of information before going into exams is critical in understanding what you’re getting into so you can plan ahead and figure out the best course of action


Don’t be too hard on yourself


Like the real exam season, mocks are a stressful time for everyone involved. It’s important to bear this in mind and be kind to both yourself and others.


When you look over your results, focus on what you can do, rather than what you got wrong. Celebrate these successes and use incorrect answers as a learning opportunity.


In planning your next steps, it’s useful to consider:

  • What areas need the most work
  • What exactly you’re struggling with the most, how will you go about addressing this?
  • What are your strengths?


With this, don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you’re really finding something challenging, ask a friend, teacher, or anyone you know who may be able to answer your questions. A great community of students on Facebook is the NCEA help, resources and banter page where students help each other out, as well as talented and knowledgeable tutors who work around the clock to answer your NCEA queries.



The way you choose to approach exams will be unique to you and there are many more things which you will find work for you. Do what you can with what you have!


Round off


Moving into mock season really pinpoints the time of the year where everything is kicked into next gear, where all the work and habits you’ve developed throughout the year will come to fruition.


Do your best, be considerate of others in the same way you want to be treated when you’re feeling stressed out, and remember: your grades won’t make or break you.


Looking for more resources for your study?

Try out our printed Walkthrough Guides. They cover everything you need to know to ace the external exam.


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