It’s already a week into study leave and you have not once opened your school bag. Every morning your mum greets you by asking how study is going but you brush her off, assuring her you’ll get onto it soon and that your exams aren’t for ages… Right? 


You fish out the exam timetable for 2020. Your first exam is in 2 days. You can’t even name the papers you are sitting in this exam, let alone any actual content. You have well and truly stitched yourself up. 


Fear not! StudyTime is here to help! Behold; your own NCEA-specific cramming guide to turn that frown upside down. Or at least, that fail into a pass. Hopefully.


1. Utilise Available Resources 

Checklists and Condensed Notes

Now is not the time to create colour-coded, handwritten notes for the exam. You probably don’t even know where your class notes are stashed anyway, so what can you do about it now? ‘Borrow’ some already made by someone else. There are only a few externals that exist for each subject which means there are tonnes of resources available for you to use, free of charge. Just Google search for your specific paper and voila!



With some papers, there is so much content that it can be overwhelming to remember what is actually in that paper. Checklists are exactly that- a big list of all the stuff. They do not have any explanations, they just list the concepts that could be asked about in that exam. Checklists are great as a starting point to see if there is anything on the list that you don’t recognise. If so, refer to some condensed notes to see if they can jog your memory of the concept.

Condensed notes

These are very brief summaries of the concepts in the paper. If a few sentences on the topic still leaves you clueless, try finding expanded notes to reteach yourself that concept. Condensed notes are a good place to go to over full notes since full notes usually include in-depth explanations and examples which will use up your time to read.

Check out our Studytime checklists and Walkthrough Guides here! Available for English, maths, science at all three levels.



Phone a Friend

Sometimes the internet can become an information black hole instead of a helping hand. You try to find some information to clear up a concept but instead trip into the void, spiralling further and further into unnecessary information. You have wasted your precious time and are now even more convinced you know nothing about the topic. 

Of course the best solution would be to email your teacher and ask for clarification but with time running out, you don’t have the luxury to be waiting days for your teacher to reply (with a generic response that will be no use lol).

Know what you need to know

Take a breath and close all the tabs of your internet blackhole. You need to find out what you need to find out. Who better to ask than someone who is studying for the same exam? Text your clued-up friend in that class (or an acquaintance if you are that desperate) and grovel for help. Ask them to what extent you need to know that specific concept and do not waste time learning further than that.

Beg for notes

Another way your friends can help is by letting you use their notes. This is of course a long shot and requires you to have friends in that class AND for those friends to have somewhat helpful notes. To be honest, if it’s two days from the exam and you have only just started studying, they might just feel bad enough to help you out. Totally cool if you are not comfortable doing this but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.



2. Past Exam Papers

Compare Different Years

NZQA is very conscious of the environment- they like to recycle their questions every few years. Whether that is changing the context, numbers given, or order of the questions, there are really only a handful of types of questions they ask in each paper. This is why a stellar piece of advice is comparing the past papers available on their website. 

Go through each exam and note down the style of questions that come up. You will begin to see strong trends of certain questions shine through such as:

    • Definitions of certain keywords.
    • Topics asked about every year.
    • Equations used every year.

Bullet Point Your Practise Answers

Although the best use of past exam papers is to recreate exam conditions and sit silently for hours, you probably do not have this time luxury if you are reading this article. A method you could use is attempting the past papers but bullet-pointing your answers instead of writing out grammatically correct sentences or 6 step calculations. This is still best done under exam conditions with no notes!


For English based questions make bullet points for each answer as if you were planning a mini-essay. Include key terms you would use and how you would link these together. For calculation questions, find the equations you would use and how you would theoretically link these together but don’t waste all time doing any actual number calculations. After you have completed the paper, pull out your trusty marking schedule and see if your thoughts were on the right track.

Make the Marking Schedule Your BFF

The marking schedule (assessment schedule) will be your best friend during your cramming. This is a document with the answers to the past papers, including what mark each question is worth. This is literally what the markers have next to them when marking your exam. NCEA marking is very based on keywords and concepts so getting familiar with previous marking schedules for your papers will be a huge help to knowing what the marker will be looking for. 

When marking your past paper answers, focus on what you got wrong. Although priding yourself on the question you knew the answer to might make you feel better about the situation, it is way more helpful to focus on the questions you messed up and why you got it wrong. Make note of these so you can revise them later.

Tips for analysing wrong answers

    • Do you understand where you went wrong?
    • Do you understand the steps to get to the correct answer?
    • Was it the concept, wording or something else that tripped you up? 
    • Did you just mess up a silly calculation?
    • Did you just have totally no clue what the question wanted from you? 

Interrelate Concepts Together

If you are aiming above the achieved mark you will need to link different concepts together for more advanced answers. You should get an understanding of this by looking at the past paper answers. You may need to compare and contrast concepts, smoosh two equations together, explain why something isn’t a particular concept, or how multiple concepts link to explain one overarching idea. Just knowing the concepts in isolation will make these sorts of questions tricky so it is useful to understand how things relate where relevant.


3. Tips for English-based Subjects

Depending on what exam you are sitting, different techniques will be best to optimise your study. The key with NCEA is understanding what the exam will actually want from you. Depending on what subject your essay is for, this will slightly dictate what you need to memorise and how you structure it, so it’s really important to find out before you begin cramming.


No matter what type of essay you are writing, it needs to have an easy flowing structure for the examiner to actually understand your point. Not only will it waste your time in the exam, but also make your arguments sound weak and can even lose you marks.


This will be your starting paragraph where you present your main argument and the points you will be making to support said argument. 

Body paragraphs x 3

Here you will create a paragraph for each of your points. You will need to include ‘evidence’ throughout these paragraphs to show the marker that the point is actually backed up by something. A good structure for paragraphs is TEXAS. 

Topic sentence, Explanation, eXample, Analysis and Summary

      1. Introduce your point.
      2. Give some more information.
      3. Back this up using a real example.
      4. Explain how the example relates to the point.
      5. Summarise your first sentence again to wrap everything up.

        End with a summary of the entire essay- something loosely based on the introduction to re-emphasise your points.

        For more help with English study, check out our article here.

        Be Selective with Evidence

        For both of the English essays (and even other essays), you will have to include some evidence from your written text or film or whatever. Different evidence will be relevant for different media but you should have already covered this in class (dig through your handouts or ask a friend). The issue YOU are currently facing is time so memorising all of them will simply not be possible. It is essential you select the most effective evidence to remember. 

        Always be thinking about how you will potentially use this evidence in your essay. It is not a competition of how many Forest Gump quotes you can memorise but rather knowing when to include which one to support your point. Evidence can be super specific and illustrate one point really well, but has no use in any other argument. This is a pretty big gamble. Instead, aim to choose evidence that can support different arguments which you could mold for a number of essay questions.


        Unfamiliar Text

        This paper is all about spotting language features the writer uses to get across different points. It all really depends what texts NCEA throws at you to dictate how you tackle it, so the only cramming you can really do for this one is learning some language features. 

        Language features

        Find a big old list of them and memorise a bunch of easy ones. They are the essence of this paper because if you can’t identify any, you won’t be able to do much with the texts. It is also helpful to be aware of the impact of different language  features as they are usually used for specific purposes, regardless of the words in them. 

        Past paper answers

        This paper is really unique in how it wants you to structure your answers so it is important you get familiar with this. Pull up some past answers and look at how each question is answered to get an understanding of the deep, insightful answers NCEA desires. Be careful not to waste too much time on this though as every year is new texts with different features- what you are focusing on is the style of answer they want.



        4. Tips for Science-based Subjects

        Learn Your Definitions

        Definition questions often pop up in the exam for easy achieved marks so they are definitely worth learning. Even in the more complex questions, just writing out the definition of a concept in the question will usually gain you something. On top of that, if you know the concept it makes it exponentially easier to try to fluff out an answer. Even if you don’t really understand it, take a shot at applying the definition to the question context and hopefully something in there is enough to gain you a few marks. Leaving the question blank guarantees no marks so what have you got to lose!



        Everyone’s favourite NCEA subject. Physics is hard enough to master with maximum in-class focus and a tutor on the side, so cramming the whole subject is not looking ideal. All the physics externals revolve around the equation sheet provided to you in the exam (I really, REALLY hope that you know what I’m talking about by this late in the year). 

        But, being provided with this sheet is no use if you don’t understand what the letters in the equations stand for. So learn them. This is your best shot at maximising marks in the exam. Simpler questions often hand you the number values on a silver platter and all you have to do is put them into the right equation and churn out the answer. Find some online resources that explain the equations relevant for your level and get memorising.


        Bonus Tips


        This will be a huge aspect for you considering you have little time on your hands. Spend time listing down all the tasks you ideally want to do for study for each paper/exam. Analyse the tasks and rank them by priority. Get rid of the bottom half of the list– you will not have time for it. A prioritised list should help make your study running smoothly and once a task is done, you need not waste time pondering what to do next as it is already planned out.


        Play it Strategically

        The NCEA system works on a set number of credits needed to pass that level. More likely than not, for a year of study you will have attempted for way more than this amount which gives you a bit of leeway and choice. If you are really struggling and have a three-paper exam tomorrow, maybe consider only attempting two. You can prioritise study for those to secure passing rather than spreading yourself too thin and potentially failing all three. Talk to your teacher about which paper they recommend to ditch and if your academic status will allow this without having any impacts on your credit count or UE status etc. 

        Don’t Forget About Your Other Exams 

        It will be first nature for you to obsess about the exam you have in 2 days time but then what’ll happen after you are finished with that one? You will be forced to repeat this whole cramming cycle again for your second exam, then for your third and so on. We want to avoid this stress!

        In the big picture, you need to be looking at your exam period as a whole, not just one by one. You should be thinking ahead to mentally orientate yourself around your other exams, time out from study for your dog’s birthday party or for work and so on. Here’s some tips for juggling your exam period:

              • Even if you are struggling for all your exams, one, in particular, you might be truly lost about- structure your study proportionally and allow more time for that paper, do not just go by what exam is next.
              • You could have a huge gap between your first and last exams so focus on your first block first, and go hard for the second block during the gap. 


        These exams may seem like the biggest thing in your life right now, but there are a lot of more important things. Remember to keep your mental health healthy and sleep during sleep time- running yourself into the ground is going to be no use for anything. Cramming is a sprint yes, but like… a long one. You need to be able to sustain this for days or even weeks (depending on how much cramming you have to get done).

        Remember to keep a balance with your non-academic life and be realistic. All we can do is try our best and promise to be better next year… but maybe bookmark this article just in case…



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