Why is presentation important?
The presentation of your answers is something easily overlooked when preparing for STEP, but it can seriously affect your result. It is easy to get carried away with rushed algebra and end up with an illegible mess scoring few marks, or have a proof littered with crossings out and dead ends, or have graphs which are inaccurate and too small, or have diagrams which are mislabelled. All these things can cost marks, and waste time, as you are marked on what you hand in, not on your intentions or understanding. Also, messy work is very hard to fix if you find a mistake.
Below are some simple tips and techniques to help improve your presentation, enabling you to get the marks you deserve.
Take your time
I would say the most important piece of advice is to take your time. You have three hours to plan (see Exam Timing) and it is easy to waste more time by rushing and making mistakes. By going more carefully, you are less likely to make mistakes and foresee difficulties, making your presentation more understandable.
Writing clearly is also very helpful when checking for mistakes, as you do not have to waste time trying to understand yourself.
Taking your time also helps you remember to use the other tips below.
Write what you are doing
Writing what you are doing can be very useful for gaining marks and making it clear to the examiner that you know what you are doing. Instead of skipping steps and doing things which seem to come from nowhere, lay out your method as you do it. For instance, when doing a proof by induction, say you are doing a proof by induction at the start!
Doing this helps both the examiner and yourself, if you look back over to correct or check for mistakes.
If you run out of time, it can also be beneficial to write out an outline of what you would have done, as you can get some marks for knowing the method.
Rewrite when needed
I would often rewrite parts of answers, or whole answers, if I didn’t think they were clear enough to be read and understood. If I couldn’t find a mistake in an answer which I knew was there, I might also write it down again, which is very useful in making you check each step individually. This can be especially beneficial if you have time left at the end with nothing left to add.
Don’t, however, write too much on scrap paper, as you will want to hand in everything possible to be marked. You also don’t want to be spending more time writing answers than solving questions!
STEP is quite free when it comes to using stationery, so I strongly suggest using it. Rulers for diagrams, compasses for circles, different colours for annotations, and pencils for times you might make a mistake; all of these things can dramatically improve your presentation and help examiners have a clue of what is going on.
Especially with complex algebra, leaving an empty line between each line can clear things up immensely. This allows you to correct things later on, add an extra step or explanation, or run over if there is too much for one line.
Also, leaving a wider margin on either side can have the same effect while allowing diagrams to help explain what you are doing.
Manage your time
Time management and presentation go hand in hand. If you manage your time badly, you can end up rushing and your presentation can go out of the window. At the same time, if you have poor presentation you can waste time with mistakes, dead ends, and confusing diagrams.
Speaking of diagrams, draw them big! Give space for labels and extra lines and workings out! Use colours and rulers and compasses! Don’t draw tiny circles which then become cluttered with lines and angles! Don’t draw graphs with short axes which end up useless and illegible!
For your benefit, and the examiner’s, draw your diagrams big and clear, it will be very beneficial in the long run.
The main thing you should take away from this is that your presentation is important and easily improvable, especially if you take your time when writing your answers.
Remember, presentation is not about how pretty things look, it is about how clearly you can convey your understanding and your solutions.