Blog: April 2018

Friday, 27 April 2018

Getting it right on exam day

You’ve spent months preparing for exam day and it’s almost here. We’ve put together some top tips on how to approach these final hours in a calm and effective manner.

1. Give your brain a workout
Your brain is an important muscle. When you aren’t studying your course content keep your brain active by completing crosswords and number and word games.

2. Concentration is key
When your Tutor is providing feedback, or when you are reading content that you will need to remember for the exam, remember to concentrate. Concentration is essential to ensure you retain information.

3. Repeat after me...
Repetition ensures your brain can retain information. The earlier you can start repeating key statistics and data, the easier it will be to recall more detailed information for your exam.

4. Don’t pull an all-nighter
It’s tempting to cram in as much last-minute study as possible, but getting enough sleep the night before your exam is really important. Aim to get a full eight hours of quality sleep. This will actually help your brain to retain all the information you need for your exam. Wake up refreshed and ready for action.

5. March on a full stomach
Start your exam day with a hearty breakfast. Research has shown that eating breakfast has a positive impact on exam results – so tuck in. A high protein choice, such as eggs or yoghurt is perfect for keeping you alert, whilst carbohydrates like porridge will sustain your energy levels over the day ahead. 

6. Drink to think
Try to avoid caffeine, especially if you don’t drink it often – as it can make you feel nervous and jittery. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. This will help you to maintain concentration levels and alertness. Keep a bottle of water on your desk, so that you remember to drink regularly during those important last few hours of study.

7. Move it
In the days leading up to your exam, make time to take some light exercise. Even just a brisk walk will get your blood circulating to your brain, as well as helping to reduce feelings of anxiety and boosting sleep levels.

8. Take a break
In the final hours before your exam, make sure you break-off from studying every 20 minutes. Talk a quick stretch and walk around – this will help to keep your brain oxygenated and attention levels sharp.

9. Be prepared
Avoid any last-minute stress by finding out all the details of your exam – such as location, time and access arrangements – well in advance. That way, you’ll arrive in plenty of time feeling calm and prepared. If possible, try to avoid too much pre-exam interaction with others and focus on the task ahead.

10. Read and re-read
At last, you’re in the exam and have the paper in front of you. It’s easy to leap straight in – but take your time and read each question carefully – circling all the key words. Check you fully understand what every question is asking before you put pen to paper.

11. Plan your time
Look carefully at the marks allocated to each question to understand how important it is and how much work it needs. Plan your time accordingly. Tackle questions you CAN answer first – it will help you to settle in and will boost your confidence. If you get stuck, come back to a difficult question later with fresh eyes.

12. Check and re-check
Use any time left at the end of your exam to carefully check every answer for mistakes or to add improvements. If you have a two-hour exam, then ideally try to leave about 20 minutes for checking – these final changes could be the difference that gets you a higher grade. 

13. Relax
Once your paper is handed in, relax. All the hard work is over and you deserve a rest. Try not to get drawn into post-exam discussions about how others answered each question – it’s too late to change now, so try to stay positive.

We’re here to help

If you have any questions or need guidance to help with your exam preparation, please do contact your tutor or our Student Support Team.

Additional services

From past paper marking to additional tutorials on key areas, our tutors offer additional services to help you prepare for exams. To find out more about these services, please get in touch on: 0800 389 2839.

Further reading

We have worked closely with UCAS to prepare a series of free study skills guides, which provide further information and guidance.

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Monday, 23 April 2018

Writing the perfect essay

The word ‘essay’ is also a verb meaning ‘to attempt’. It still retains something of that meaning in it's commoner sense of ‘a piece of continuous prose (not like a series of notes) in which the writer explores a topic’. As essays are one of the ways in which examination boards test you will need plenty of practice in writing them.

There are many reasons why you need to write essays:

  • The experience of note-taking, planning and writing an essay places you in the position of really thinking through arguments for yourself. Few things concentrate the mind as much as having to produce an essay! It enables you to really engage with the issues.
  • Your essay enables you and your tutor to gauge your progress and suggests what further work you may need to carry out.
Clarifying your purpose

When you first encounter an essay question, ask yourself:

  • What is the key verb? Am I being asked to ‘discuss’, ‘compare’, ‘give reasons for’, ‘analyse’…? Your essay will need to address directly the request in the question.
  • What is the questioner looking for? Clearly this will depend on the precise content of the question, but in more general terms all essays should provide:
    • Evidence that you have done enough thoughtful reading and understood the issues at stake.
    • Evidence of an ability to reason effectively - to develop a line of argument, comparing and contrasting different views on the matter.

Let's consider how you can best provide this evidence.

Planning your essay

Always plan your essay. This is where note-taking is useful. An essay needs to be crafted; it is not just an expression of everything you know about the question. Never begun an essay without having thought through the order in which you intend to lay out the issues. The architect and the carpenter both plan their work first- so must the essay writer.

Your plans can be in brief note form. But do make them. And remember, even when your time is limited you are unlikely to gain anything by omitting this stage.

Essay structure

One approach might be to think of an essay as a courtroom, in which a case is made, with evidence for and against a proposition. You have the choice to be either a barrister or a judge.

As a barrister your aim should be to make your case as strongly as you can to the judge and jury. To do that effectively you need to lay out not only your own position, but also that of the other side.

As a judge. At the end of the trial a judge goes through the evidence of the prosecuting and defending councils, weighing up the evidence each way. She may then advise the jury on the verdict.

The second approach is often the most useful. In either case you need to be fair to all the alternative arguments. For your case or verdict to be convincing, you have to show that you have dealt with all the relevant views properly.

Once you have decided on your approach:

  • Give your essay a clear, brief introduction, stating what you intend to do.
  • Either -
    • Assign a number of paragraphs describing or stating a case, followed by more paragraphs discussing problems arising out of the foregoing and/or the alternative case/s
    Or -
    • Alternate pro and contra in the paragraphs as you go.
  • Finish with a clear conclusion. You may feel that you have no neat answer to the problems you have been discussing, but you need to review what the main issues were in the main body of the essay.

Whenever you can, give examples to illustrate what you are trying to say. Examples often clarify what's being said and show (if you have thought of them yourself) that you have really understood the problem.


When you write an essay, part of your task will be to describe an argument, problem or position. However you should avoid mere description. Try to analyse. Use your critical intelligence to examine claims, weigh them up, check them for flaws, etc. You'll feel more confident about doing this once you have worked the course materials.

Offering your position

By all means give your reader your own views, but always base them on the evidence in the essay. Never make unsupported claims. Show why something is the case - don't just state it. And never pad out an essay with vague generalisations.


Try and enjoy crafting your essay. It can be a very therapeutic way of informing the reader about all you know on the subject, and when you have finished and are happy with how it reads it can be a very satisfying and celebratorary feeling!

Next steps

Why not download our free study guide on academic essay writing from the UCAS website for even more support.

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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Who are the science and technology stars of tomorrow?

Woman working in a hospital laboratory

For years employers have warned that the UK faces a skills shortage in many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) roles. For example, EngineeringUK recently announced that the UK needs 1.8 million new engineers and technicians by 2025.

At the NEC, STEM subjects are amongst our most popular GCSE and A level courses. We recently conducted a survey to understand more about our 2017 cohort of A level STEM students. We wanted to know more about what motivated them to study and their future ambitions.

Our headline results

Subject choice

  • 41% Biology
  • 24% Chemistry
  • 19% Physics
  • 16% Mathematics

Gender divide

  • 52% female
  • 48% male

With women still under-represented in STEM careers, it’s interesting and encouraging to see that our STEM distance learners have an almost equal gender divide – with slightly more female students than male. However, the balance shifts when it comes to individual subject areas:

  • Biology – 68.4% female
  • Chemistry – 53.5% female
  • Mathematics – 34.9% female
  • Physics – 30% female

National campaigns such as WISE (Women in Science, Tech and Engineering) and Geek Girls are seeking to open up opportunities for women to enter STEM careers. It seems the NEC STEM student demographic has a more equal gender balance than the wider UK picture, where currently:

  • Women make up 42% of UK science professionals
  • 11% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female
  • 20% of A level physics students are girls
  • Women make up 17% of UK ICT professionals
  • Women make up 23% of UK STEM professionals


One of the great advantages of distance learning is that it’s accessible and achievable for students of all ages. Our survey revealed that our STEM students range from 15 to 79 years old. However, the vast majority are either in their 20s (52.9%) or aged 15-19 (23.6%) – suggesting plenty of future STEM careers could be in the pipeline.

STEM aspirations

We asked our STEM students about their future fields of interest. The most popular responses were Medicine and related careers (43.8%) and Engineering (12.3%). Overall the scope of fields of interest were diverse and included: Law, Science, Meteorology, Architecture and Computer Science.

“The goal is to blitz these A levels so I can apply to Biomedical Engineering degrees with various universities.” — NEC A level Biology, Mathematics and Physics student

*Data sources: and

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