Why is timing important?
The STEP papers are 3 hours long, which may be the longest exams you’ve taken up to this point. They are also open ended, with no specific number of questions to attempt, and unpredictable, it is easily possible to get stuck for a long time on one question but speed through another.
All these things make it very difficult to time the exam so that by the end you have used the time most effectively. You can improve your timing by practising timed past papers, this is vital preparation. But you can also follow some simple guidelines.
Where should you start?
To improve your time management, you must know your current level and what you are aiming for. This should give a guideline of how many full answers you should be looking to complete. For example, in 2019 you needed 68 marks for a grade 1 in STEP II, so you should be aiming for four full answers (plus some partial answers) if you need a 1.
Dividing your three hours into this number of slots gives a rough guide to how long you should spend on a question. You can use this as a guide to when to move on from a question if you get stuck.
What worked for me?
My personal method in the exams was different though. I would first go through all the questions available and choose the 5 or 6 which suited me most. I would then attempt each question, moving on immediately if I get stuck or notice a mistake. Sometimes I would complete a question on the first attempt, but mostly I would only get halfway through before moving on.
I would then repeatedly cycle through the questions, often finding the places I became stuck were not too difficult after all when viewed a bit more freshly. Any questions I did not make much progress at all on were swapped with other ones. This would continue until the end of the time.
The benefits, for me, of this method were numerous. I couldn’t fixate on a single question for a long time, meaning I always ended up with enough answers. Also, having the time to think on questions in the background and then go back to them I found to be very effective. Finally, I always had a sense of how well the exam was going, I knew I wouldn’t be rushing to finish an unexpectedly hard question at the end.
However, if you are the sort of person who needs to concentrate 100% on a single question at a time, this will not be for you. Also, with this method you need to be wary of missing out the last pasts of questions, which can often be worth more marks than their size would suggest.
Keep track of your progress throughout the exam
Knowing how well you are doing in the exam is very important, as it can help you know whether to move on from a question, concentrate on a fewer number of questions, work quickly with the risk of making mistakes, or go back over questions to check for mistakes. Because of this, it is important you always keep an eye on the clock throughout the exams and a mental (or physical) note of how well the different questions are going.
Taking five minutes when you are two hours through the exam to look through everything you have done, checking how many complete questions you have etc., could be five minutes well spent.
The best way to work out what works for you is practice. Which is why it is so important to practise not only STEP questions but also timed STEP papers, so you get used to managing those 3 hours as effectively as possible.
In addition, keeping an awareness of the time and your aim can go a long way to making sure you spend your time most effectively.