HE Exams Wiki

Making entries and sitting exams

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This site has been put together by people on the HE-Exams Yahoogroup , which discusses the practicalities of gaining formal qualifications as a home-educated young person. 

How to make your exam entries Edit

Once you have found a centre which has agreed accept you as a private candidate (see Finding_an_exam_centre), you will need to make your exam entries.

1.  Make sure you are crystal clear about the exam code for the papers you want to sit.  If in any doubt, ask for help on the HE-Exams Yahoogroup or Home Ed UK GCSEs, Exams & Alternatives Facebook group.  If home educators are able to find answers to our own queries in our own community then we a) appear more professional to the exams officers, and b) make taking private candidates less work for the exams officers, so that they are more  likely to do it in future.

2.  Check the date that the exam is scheduled - see UK government's exam timetable for confirmed GCSE and A-level dates.  For IGCSEs you will have to look on the exam board's timetable, published on its own site.  It is usually easy to find simply by searching, eg, "CIE IGCSE timetable summer 2013".

3.  Email the exams officer, giving the exam code and date, candidate's full name and date of birth.  If the candidate has taken any UK public exams before then they should have a UCI (Universal Candidate Identification) number, which you can quote.  If not, one will be allocated to him or her by the exam board. You may be asked if your child has a ULN. This is a new ID number for the government's pupil database, the Learning Records Service. ULN s are now issued for all state school pupils, but they are not needed for private candidates.

4.  Ask what proof of identification they will require.  Usually they request a current passport, so if the candidate doesn't have one you will need to ascertain what they will accept instead, eg bus pass, other photocard.  They will probably want photo ID. You can usually use the Private Candidate Identification form from AQA, even if you're taking exams with another board.

5.  The exam centre may require additional information and may have its own form for you to fill in.

6.  Payment is usually required at the time of making the entry.  Once the exam centre has made the entry on your behalf, they have incurred costs such as exam board fees and administration costs, so if you later decide to withdraw from the exam, you will still need to pay some or all of these costs. Failing to do so may lead that centre to refuse to take other home-ed students as private candidates in future.

7.  If your child has any special needs for extra time, a scribe, a prompt, or access to a keyboard (known as 'Access Arrangements'), you will need to discuss this with the exam centre well before making your entries as they may not be able to accommodate you.  They are under no obligation to do so. The centre has to be able to show that it has built up a picture of the candidate's needs over a period of time, so you ideally need to start working with the centre a year or so before the exams. Please see our FAQ section on Access Arrangements and Dorothy Murphy's Access Arrangements blog.

8.  Please be aware that exam officers are under no obligation to take private candidates and that we will, for better or for worse, be seen as representatives of the home education community in our dealings with them. Some exam officers are difficult to deal with and sometimes organisation on exam day is not as good as we would like.  It can be difficult to know how to handle this situation when it can be so important to our children.  If you are having difficulties with your exam centre, it may be worth discussing on the HE-Exams group as others there may have experience of similar situations.

Exam Entry Deadlines Edit

Exam boards each have their own standard entry deadline.  This is usually Feb-March for the summer exam series, although it will change slightly each year.  However, exam centres will usually have their own deadline for accepting entries and this will be earlier, to allow them time to complete the paperwork. Often the centre deadline is December or early January.  Note that the entry deadline is not your last chance to enter the exam - all boards accept late entries - but it does incur late entry fees.  If you wish to make a late entry and the exams officer at your centre says this is not possible, you can look up the exam board's own last entry dates and then go back to the exams officer saying that the published final entry date is X, and you are prepared to pay late entry fees.  It is still up to the exam centre whether to accept your entries. You can try another centre. Commercial centres such as tutorial colleges are likely to be flexible.

Edexcel's online exam entry system can, in theory, accept entries up to a few days before the exam, although fees rise steeply.  The 'standard' exam entry deadline is 21 February 2017 for summer 2017 exams, but the centre's own deadline will be earlier.  From 22 March, the 'late fee rate' applies, where the standard entry cost is doubled.  After 22 April, the 'high late fee rate' applies, and the standard entry cost is trebled.  The exam board's own standard entry fee for a single-award exam-only GCSE, eg maths, is usually around £33, and for an International GCSE £40.30 for most subjects, and £62.30 for languages. However, the admin fee charged by your exam centre is likely to be substantially higher than this, because it's the exam centre which has to do most work in accepting your candidacy. Expect to pay at least £100 per subject and in many areas £150.  

CIE Exam Entry Deadlines for the Summer exam series; the exams entry 'standard' deadline is usually 21 February and the *final* late deadline 17 April or thereabouts. Check with your exam centre as their own date will be earlier.

How to prepare Edit

Once you've worked through the course, whether that is via a textbook, correspondence course, with a tutor etc, you will need to spend some time doing practice papers / mock exams. Most students find this a valuable experience.

You can usually download past exam papers, mark schemes and examiners' reports from the page on the exam board for that particular qualification.  Have a look at the subject pages on this wiki for more resources on each subject (see Main Page for list of subjects), and if you're still short of material, post on the HE-Exams list to ask for suggestions.  The most recent past paper will normally be secure download only from the exam board as schools use these for mocks.  The exam boards will not allow home educators to download these from their sites, but will sell you a paper copy.  You can also usually source a copy via the HE-Exams list.

  • When doing practice papers, students may find it helpful to mark it themselves and become familiar with the mark scheme so they know what markers are looking for.  Read the Examiner's Report too - reading about other people's mistakes may save you from making some yourself!
  • Pay attention to timing; during practice exams, divide the total number of marks by the minutes available so you have a 'marks per minute' number.  Then, when you look at the number of marks available for a question, you know roughly how long to allow for it.
  • The marks available tell you also how many points you need to make in an answer.  If there are 3 marks available, generally you need to make at least 3 points - even if this involves spelling out something you think is obvious.
  • Do some past papers under exam conditions - in a quiet room, with strict exam timings - to help you pace yourself.
  • If you have some revision time available, but don't have time or stamina to work through a full past paper, you don't need to do one all in one go.  Look at the marks per minute, as noted above, and give yourself questions to suit the available time.
  • You may need to look at the previous specification if there are not many past papers available for your qualification.  Often the changes between specifications are quite small so you may find that the old papers are still good practice.  The exam board may have a document explaining changes from one specification to the next, available under 'teacher support materials' on the subject page. Otherwise, you need to look for questions which are similar in style to the current ones, and compare the specifications.

Revision Tips Edit

All In The Mind from BBC Radio 4, on which revision techniques work.

Quizlet - Free online study tool site offering screen flashcards and various games and options to help you learn them.  Search for a ready-made set on your subjects (eg 'Biology IGCSE'), or make your own.  

Memrise - mnemonic program.  Search for your subject or create your own course.  Especially good for languages but used for other subjects too.

Coggle - free Mind Mapping-style program - free site with tools to create mind maps, flashcards, revision timetables and more.

MindMeister free Mind Map software

Exam Day Edit

What should I take to the exam centre? Edit

  • Photo ID - usually a passport, or other form of ID previously agreed with the exams officer.
  • Your Statement of Entry (listing the exams you're entered for) may be helpful but don't worry if you can't find it, as long as you're sure you are entered for the exams. The exam centre will have your candidate number and will have you on the register for each individual paper.
  • Clear pencil case or bag
  • Black pen for writing, dark pencil for diagrams, ruler, rubber (more details on pens/pencils below)
  • Calculators are allowed unless the exam paper specifies otherwise eg the non-calculator GCSE maths. Any memory function must be cleared before the exam and you must be able to demonstrate how this is done, if requested. No wifi-enabled calculators. If the calculator has a case then this must be removed (in case notes are written on it).
  • Maths - protractor, compasses etc.
  • Bottle of water with label removed.

What should I do on the day? Edit

The exams officer should have told you where to go and who to ask for on the day; if not, go to the centre's main reception and explain that you are accompanying a private candidate. You may be required to sign a visitor's book.  Some centres will require the adult to remain on the premises while the student sits exams.

Morning exams start at 9AM and afternoon exams at 1.30 PM , unless specified otherwise. Standard JCQ guidelines (see below) state that candidates should be ready to enter the exam room 10 minutes before the scheduled start. You also need time to find your way to the correct place etc, so allow plenty of time.

Here are some suggestions for candidates from parents:

Before the exam: Edit

  • Arrive at least half an hour before the exam.  Sometimes it's hard to find the exam room, and it's better to be early and calm, rather than late and panicking!
  • Go to the loo before the exam, even if you think you don't need to!
  • Take a bottle of water, with label removed.  Staying hydrated keeps the brain alert.
  • Wear layers; exam rooms can be freezing cold or stiflingly hot and prepared.
  • The invigilator should tell you clearly when you may start.  If you are not clear about this, raise your hand, making sure it is easy for the invigilator to see that you are trying to get her attention, and wait for the invigilator to come to you.

Banned Items Edit

Check your pockets for banned items. You must not take the following into the exam:

  • Mobile phone
  • Smart watch / iWatch , or any other communication device
  • Pieces of paper eg scrap paper even if blank, tracing paper, notes etc.

If a mobile phone is found on you during an exam, even if turned off, then you are likely to be disqualified from that exam. The exam centre has no leeway on this - it's a JCQ rule.

You are no longer allowed to take your own tracing paper into an exam. If you need tracing paper for a maths exam, ask the invigilator to supply some. This way they can check it does not have any notes written on it. If you're worried that the exam centre may not have any available, you could hand an unopened packet to the invigilator on entry to the hall, so that they can check it and hand a sheet out if necessary.

During the exam: Edit

  • A clock should be clearly visible to you and your start and finish times noted on a board, but just in case, take a watch that you can read easily, and you can note down your start and finish times on rough paper.
  • Keep an eye on timings.  If candidates sitting several different exams are all in the same room, the invigilator may make a mistake about when you are due to finish. If you think a mistake has been made, raise your hand and ask.  You will not be penalised for asking - the invigilator will not be marking your paper!
  • If you need extra paper, raise your hand and wait for the invigilator to come to you.  Remain in your seat.
  • If you need the toilet, raise your hand and wait for the invigilator to come.  Remain in your seat until told to move. You will probably need to be accompanied to the toilet by someone who will wait outside the cubicle.  Much easier to go before the exam starts :-)
  • If you feel unwell, raise your hand and wait for the invigilator.
  • Don't take any exam papers or other exam materials out of the room. This is no longer allowed - spare papers are usually kept secure for at least 24 hours after the exam. This is because some candidates will sit the exam later due to clashes.

General exam technique Edit

More tips from students and parents:

  • Read the question. Then read it again, more carefully. Many marks are lost because people misread questions.
  • Note the marks available and work out how long to spend on this question (see above re practice papers)
  • Pick the low-hanging fruit first; work through the paper, doing everything that you know how to do.  Don't get hung up on questions that you don't know how to do, because if you spend too long on them you may miss out on 'easy marks' later. 
  • If you don't know how to do a question or find it is taking a long time, move on to the next question but make a mark on the exam or fold the corner over, to remind you to come back to the tough question if you have time.
  • ALWAYS attempt a question, even if you don't really know how to do it.  Marks are usually available for method, which means that even if you get the wrong answer, you may get some credit for going about it in the right way.  Do all your working on the answer booklet, and only cross it out if you are sure you have a better answer; method/working marks are available for what is on the answer booklet, but not what's on rough paper, and not what's crossed out.
  • Marks are often dropped if a question asks you to do several things; sometimes students don't answer all parts or carry out all tasks.  You could cross off each task or key word on the question paper as you do it.
  • Use all the available time; if you finish the paper, go back and check your answers carefully.  Look at the marks available per question and check your answers are of a sufficient length. Don't just sit there staring into space, as sometimes invigilators will collect the papers early in this situation and then you have lost the chance to check your work.

This Guardian article is aimed at undergraduates, but still has some useful tips for any exam candidates: 10 things academics say students get wrong in exams

Pens and Pencils for writing and diagrams Edit

Should I write in pen or pencil?

Here are the JCQ regulations on writing materials in exams, but see below for more detailed guidance from Edexcel:

You must write in black ink. Coloured pencils or inks may be used only for diagrams, maps, charts, etc. unless the instructions printed on the front of the question paper state otherwise. (B6)

Edexcel's advice on writing in pen or pencil Edit

Here is the reply received by a member of the HE-Exams group from an Edexcel Subject Specialist June 2013 answering questions about the use of pencils in exams:

1.  On the home education forum, many of us are in the dark about what the general rules to follow are on the use of pencil in exams.  Is it that in order to read the answers easily, the use of pencil should be kept to a minimum - perhaps only to draw lines on graphs and bar charts, and everything else should be done in pen?

Answer: Examination scripts are now marked using e-pen technology which improves quality of marking and reduces the need to deal with thousands of paper scripts. To ensure candidate responses are electronically read for examiners the main issue is requesting candidates to use black or blue pen to write with and use a sharp HB grade pencil to draw graphs and diagrams using a quality white rubber to erase any mistakes during graph work and drawing.

The whole page of an exam script is scanned so that all candidate responses, even the crossed out, are seen in order to credit relevant contribution where applicable. To this end a black/blue pen and HB pencil scan very well indeed. In the rare event that something does not scan well, e.g. a very feint pencil being used,  the computer indicates this and the script is directly marked in the traditional way.

1. When drawing graphs:

The numbers on the x and y axes are written in pen

A. Sharp HB pencil is OK too, especially if candidate changes mind later.

Titles written in pen (can be horizontal or vertical depending on the space)

A. Sharp HB pencil is OK too, especially if candidate changes mind later.

Lines drawn in pencil with x marking co-ordinates

A. Sharp HB pencil is best, especially if candidate changes mind later.

If asked to use a ruler to join the points - are you being asked to draw a line of best fit?

A. If the question instructs a line of best fit, then do so, otherwise the candidate must use their skill and judgement using the context of the subject to decide upon best type of line.

If you have two lines on the graph, can you label them on the graph paper in pen or do you have to use pencil?

A.Sharp HB pencil is best, especially if candidate changes mind later.

2. When asked to draw a table with results on a blank space: Do you draw the lines of the table in pen or pencil?

A. Sharp HB pencil is best, especially if candidate changes mind later.

Results in pen or pencil?

A. Pen or pencil.

3. If asked to draw a table of biomass on graph paper, do all the lines of the table need to be in pencil or can you use pen?

A. Sharp HB pencil is best, especially if candidate changes mind later.

Can you write headings like dunnock, sparrow hawk etc in pen on the graph paper or do you have to use pencil?

A. Sharp HB pencil is best, especially if candidate changes mind later.

CIE advice to candidates ===== Can students write in pencil on the mathematics examination paper?

In section 3.2.6 Stationery, Materials and Other Equipment in the Handbook to Centres it states:

“Candidates must write their answers legibly in black or blue ink. Candidates should be warned that the use of pale blue ink contributes to illegibility. Red ink must not be used. Soft pencil (type B or HB is recommended) must be used for multiple choice tests. Pencils or pens in other colours may be used for diagrams and maps only.”

Mathematical constructions and graphs would fall into the same category as the last sentence and so it is permissible to use a pencil for questions assessing these skills. Other than that, blue or black ink should be used as (a) it can’t be altered after the examination and (b) the examiner can see the way the student was developing the question even though the final answer may be incorrect.

Can students have extra paper for rough work?

For each paper students should write all their answers and working on the question paper.

(Source: CIE Maths Frequently Asked Questions

Exam Guidelines and RegulationsEdit

JCQ is the Joint Council for Qualifications, a collaboration of all the major exam boards.  It oversees exam administration and provides guidelines on things like appeals, transferring credit for units into a different exam board or specification, etc.. They publish guidance for candidates on written exams, controlled assessment, on-screen tests and other situations.  See JCQ Guidance for Candidates.  Below are some of the most commonly-asked questions which are answered in the Guidance for candidates in written exams .  The section numbers are in brackets after each answer.

What items are banned from the exam room?Edit

You must not take into the exam room:

  • notes;
  • a calculator case/instruction leaflet;
  • a reading pen;
  • a mobile phone, iPod, MP3/4 player, a wrist watch which has a data storage device or any other product with text/digital facilities.

Any pencil cases taken into the exam room must be see-through.
Remember: possession of unauthorised material is breaking the rules, even if you do not intend to use it, and you will be subject to penalty and possible disqualification. (A4)

After the Exams Edit

Collecting your results Edit

Your exam centre should tell you how they will make results available. Make sure you know how this will happen.

Some will email results to you on the day they come out, while others will only post them and may require an SAE. Some require them to be collected in person, and may require written permission to release them to parents if the candidate is not present.  

Some exam centres use online results services like Edexcel Results Plus, where candidates are given an PIN and can log in to obtain their results plus, sometimes, analysis of their score in relation to grade boundaries.

The date for release of results to candidates for GCSEs taken in Summer 2016 is Thursday 25 August 2016, and for A-levels and AS-levels it's Thursday 18 August 2016.  See the JCQ Key Dates for results dates for other exams.

AQA has a helpful page with information about results day. It tells you about how marking works, what a statement of results might look like, and where to get more information relating to results.

What do my marks mean? Edit

Different exam boards give your marks in different ways. CIE results can be slightly more confusing than the other boards' - see below.

CIE - Understanding your results, including how they set their grade boundaries.

Edexcel - Understanding Marks and Grades - page full of information, presentation on grading and how grade boundaries are set. Edexcel IGCSE grade boundaries are given in raw marks.

AQA Results Day for Students - Understanding Your Results

Understanding CIE results Edit

On the initial results slip from your centre you may see one overall percentage. This is not your direct score from the papers, which is why it doesn't tie in to the published grade boundaries. It's something called PUM which only CIE do. The other exam boards' Uniform Marks (UMS) would be in this box.

The PUM shows whether you got, say, a high C or a low C.  So A* is always 90-100% on this scale, but it's different from the raw marks.  Explanation of Percentage Uniform Marks (PUM) from CIE.

How are grade boundaries set? Edit

Grade boundaries change every year to reflect the difficulty of the questions. Exam boards can be a little secretive about how they set their grade boundaries, but generally there is some combination of 'criterion marking' and 'norm referencing'. Criterion marking means that you are expected to know a certain syllabus and are marked according to how well you demonstrated this. Norm referencing means that you are ranked against other students rather than graded solely by your own performance. There is a great explanation on Criterion- Versus Norm-Referenced Testing by Huitt, W.

Usually, grade boundaries are only set after all the raw marks have been collected. The exam boards usually use some degree of norm referencing to adjust for the difficulty of the questions, on the assumption that the ability range over large numbers of students won't change much year-on-year.

Enquiries About Results Edit

Enquiries about results (known as EARs) can include a review of scripts, review of marking, or requesting "access to scripts". These are all known as "post-results services". Normally you must make these enquiries via the exam centre where you sat the exam. AQA say that they will respond to enquiries about results directly from private candidates, but in practice you may well get a speedier response via the exam centre.

Access to scripts means you get a copy of the marked exam paper back so you can see where marks were lost. You can't usually get this until after any review of marking has been carried out.

Edexcel guide to post-results services

AQA guide to post-results services

CIE Enquiries About Results

Collecting your Certificates Edit

Exam certificates are usually issued by the end of October for examinations taken in the summer. The exam centre is obliged to ensure that these are kept safe until they are passed to you, so please do the centre a favour by collecting your certificates promptly! Ask the examinations officer whether you should collect the certificates or if they can be posted.

See the JCQ Key Dates document for confirmation of these dates.  

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