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How to Use Past Papers For GCSE Exam Success

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

One of the most underutilised and yet effective techniques for GCSE revision is going through past papers. Whether it’s for maths GCSE revision or GCSE English revision students often either don't use past papers at all, or when they do, don’t use them to improve their exam score as well as they could.

So, if you’re looking to optimise that precious study-time, past papers should certainly be part of the process. In this article, we’ll take you through best ways to use past papers so you can ensure future exam success and get the top grades you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

The MARCKS Method

How to revise using GCSE past papers begins with the analysis. Any pro-athlete will vouch for the power of post-match analysis, which is integral to playing better, as it highlights areas in need of improvement. In the same vein, past papers can help you recognise where you drop points in the exam and how to rectify this.

The MARCKS method offers a solid framework for students to analyse which parts of a subject as well exam technique they need to develop. This method begins with getting students to recognise the fact there are always going to be different reasons why full marks aren't received on a particular question. Reasons such as perhaps you didn't know the answer, or you didn’t understand the question. Maybe the question was understood, the knowledge-base was there but you just didn’t know how to apply your knowledge of the subject for maximum marks in this instance. There are several common issues behind dropping points, and MARCKS gives you a clear strategy to weed out these issues. MARCKS is an acronym noting each of these issues so you can understand which apply to you, and the areas you need to improve.

So, what do the letters stand for?

Maths error

This is when you’ve got the maths wrong, whether it’s through incomplete or incorrect calculations, using the incorrect equation to answer the question or not reading/interpreting a dataset correctly.


Perhaps you were given a difficult scenario you didn’t understand. You certainly "know the subject” and understand it, but applying this to a foreign situation can be a struggle.

Reading the Question

In this scenario you know everything, understand everything, and able to apply your knowledge, but you miss a key term in the question such as “explain” rather than “describe”, leading to you not getting the mark because of how you interpreted the question.


This is where you might know exactly what you need to say and understand the question, but the wording you use to communicate the thoughts that you knew didn’t get the mark. This is one of the more difficult issues to rectify as it mostly involves doing more practice and past papers to understand what the mark scheme wants.


Did you just not have sufficient subject knowledge to answer the question? Perhaps you had weak knowledge and need to go over your topic notes again.

Statements per Mark

If you have a four mark question but you only made two real points whilst putting in some filler to take up space (we've all been there), you know you need more statements based on the number of marks of the question.

Now we know what to look out for in our past-paper-analysis, it's time to do them! Get some old exams together and take the time to do them as you would in the real thing with exam conditions, timings etc. After you're done, whether you're marking it yourself or getting a teacher to help out, put it through the marking process. If you're doing it yourself, use the exam's marking scheme to count up your points.

Whenever you lose a mark, recognise why you dropped a particular mark, identifying whether it comes under the M’s, A’s, R’s etc as above. Tally up the number of times each letter appears, and you’ll soon know where you need to improve most to increase your overall score. If you find that you drop lots of points in R for example, then clearly, it’s time to read the question more carefully.

After this, write yourself a little note of what you're going to do now. You'll know what you've done wrong, what you need to improve on, and what you need to revise more of. Write yourself a note and be specific on what you want to go over, what you need to revise better, and the kinds of questions that you need to practice more. At the end of this process, you will have a game plan specific to you with a method that highlights where you’ve historically gone wrong.

Next Steps

Whilst using past papers for effective revision begins with this MARCKS analysis, it shouldn't stop there.

Go See Your Teacher for Help

Having analysed your paper, if you don't understand something, go and see your teacher. The top GCSE students don't get the best grades because they immediately understand everything in the classroom. Instead, they ask their teachers about the things they don't understand, asking questions until they do. Don't say to yourself, “I’ll look at this more during my revision,” or "I'll ask questions later." Do it as soon as you can! Putting in the effort now will save future you a lot more effort.

Re-do your past paper again

Even if you do badly in a past paper, do it again. Go through the questions and your answers, analyse them, re-revise, and then do it all again: you will almost certainly do better the second time around. Even if it’s just because you’re remembering the answers or it's an essay that you now have the structure of what you want to write in your head, you're not losing anything. You’ll find yourself developing a better exam technique and laying down a solid knowledge-base.

Common Questions

Make a list of common questions. Based on past papers you can collate some common questions and their common answers. So for example in GCSE biology, they often ask you to recall the names of a bond, or list the advantages of this or that adaptation. Whether it's a new spec or not you can spot these patterns and pay attention to the specific wording of those mark schemes. In this way, the next time you do a paper you'll be primed to put down the most optimised answers.

Update Your Notes According to the Mark Scheme

Make sure that whatever you are learning is based off past papers and their mark schemes since this can really help you achieve the top grade. All the specific things you’ve learnt or got wrong, rework them into your notes and update your flashcards accordingly. So for example, if you’ve been saying the word “narrow” in a biology paper when “thin” is what gets you the marks, go through your notes and change one to the other so there’s no chance of making that same mistake when you’re in the exam.


Using past papers truly gives you the best chance possible of moving ahead of the curve. Do as many past papers as possible, whether it’s GCSE English, history essays, maths papers, past papers from your textbook or past papers from the exam boards, and you'll find yourself boosting your scores and exam performance in no time.

If you’re looking for where to find past papers to use yourself, these following links can provide you with the resources you need from a variety of exam boards (AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas, OCR, WJEC, and others ):

Other GCSE Revision Tools

Our online GCSE revision video courses offer a convenient and easy way to support you exam preparation and study. You can view free samples using these links: English GCSE, French GCSE, Maths GCSE


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