While the exact content of the exam papers changes each year, GCSE and A-Level students can still find much value in using papers from the past as part of their revision. ‘What is the point?’ we hear you ask. ‘Those questions are not going to come up again any time soon!” While it is true that those exact questions will not emerge, and perhaps not even the topic (depending on the subject being examined), the past questions give valuable insight and experience in answering question forms. The fact is that while exact content changes, the primary form of the tests often stays the same or at least similar.

Let us take English Literature as an example. Suppose you have studied “The Merchant of Venice” in detail. In that case, you will not know if they will ask you about one particular theme or how Shakespeare presents the relationship between two or more characters. However, after practising old papers, you will come to realise specific patterns. “To what extent do you agree…”, “How does xxx develop the theme of yyy?” Besides this, there are many other significant advantages to using past papers as an integral part of your GCSE and A-Level preparation.

Advantage #1 - They are the real deal

Past papers are not just mocks made up by your teacher or head of the year. These are actual papers that real students like you have attempted in the past few years. The most practical assessment form is as realistic as possible, as close in content and feel to the real test as you can muster. Nothing can surpass past papers in this regard.

Advantage #2 - Realistic training of time management

As you practice past papers, you can become increasingly familiar with the time requirements for each question and learn to control your time and maximise your efficiency. It is one thing to have all the knowledge inside your head, but GCSE and A-Level exams follow patterns where some sections are worth more points than others. When you are familiar with the papers, you can practice finishing low-mark questions quickly to spend more time on getting the big-mark questions done well. The odd mark here and there you can afford to lose, but not one of the critical questions. That is where final grades start to slip.

Advantage #3 - They clarify your strengths and weaknesses

Answering fundamental questions on past papers will show you very clearly where your strengths and weaknesses are currently. You can quickly answer the questions in the first part of the paper, but you constantly struggle with the same kinds of questions. You will also reveal the gaps in your knowledge. If you are asked, for example, to answer on reasons behind Louis XIV of France’s religious policy and its success or failure, then you know to go back and study that part in detail. Never forget that while the content may not appear in the same section in the same format, it might appear in another, so fill in those gaps as best you can, as indicated by your past paper practice.

Advantage #4 - They cover much ground

When you finish just a handful of past papers, you might cover half or even more of the topic areas that you are supposed to cover in this subject. It is an efficient way to sweep across different topics broadly, which links up handily with Advantage #3. The more topic areas you can cover, the more likely you are to discover the fatal flaws in your knowledge base.

Advantage #5 - You will be able to distinguish the different “command” words

All questions on all papers across all subjects will feature one or more “command” words that indicate how exactly you should approach your answer. You must have a strong understanding of the differences between, for example, “explain,” “outline,” and “analyse.”

Explain - You need to give reasons and probably support with examples

Outline - You need to give a summary of the main points.

Analyse - You need to go into detail in your answer; explore it in some depth

The more practice papers you do, the more of these command words you will come across and you can hone your writing skills to make your answers fit the question perfectly.

In conclusion:

Of course, you cannot rely entirely on past papers to complete your revision. It is probably best to save them until after some revision on the essential knowledge and concepts. After doing that, you can use past papers as an assessment of your progress. There is no better barometer for how well you are progressing in your GCSE or A-Level preparation. Best of luck with your revision! And, remember to take regular breaks, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep each night.