‘Timing is crucial’: How to make the most of the Leaving Cert and Junior Cycle mock exams

Active study, marking schemes and past papers are key to realising your potential in the Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert

The Leaving Cert and Junior Cycle mock exams are almost upon us – and with them comes varying degrees of expectation.

But how much weight should students (and their parents) place on these exams and their results? And how can students get the most out of the experience?

“The mocks are like a challenge match before the championship game,” says Donnchadh O’Mahony, careers guidance counsellor at Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, who also runs the Instagram account Leaving Cert Guidance.

“You want to get a feel for the environment. This is what the exam is going to be like. You’re probably going to be in the same exam hall, the same chairs, tables. Get used to the noise of pens dropping, people coughing, stuff like that,” he says.


“It’s just to get yourself used to it, because you have to remember, this particular group [of Leaving Cert students] didn’t sit a Junior Cert exam, so it’s really important for them to get the benefit of the mock experience.”

And so, to cram or not to cram?

Instead of doing passive study - reading the text book and writing out notes - students should now be involved in “active study,” O’Mahony says.

“To me, active study is exam paperwork. Understanding the exam paper. Familiarising yourself with how questions are asked, or what they’re looking for.

“Active study methods are timing yourself, testing yourself without the textbook and notes, and then seeing how you get on. And then when you’re correcting yourself, self-assessment ... you are looking at what you have left out. Okay, well, is that a little part you need to study and work on for the future?

He advises students to sit down with their exam papers, look at what questions are weighted more than others and to figure out how much time to spend on them. “And time yourself, because timing can be as crucial,” he adds.

Chemistry, biology and maths teacher at Athlone Community College, Natasha Feery, says it is important that students talk to their teachers beforehand to make sure they’re familiar with the regular topics that crop up on respective papers.

“They’re the areas that come up regularly every year, anyway. There are certain areas that they just have to study and I’d make sure that I had those areas covered going into an exam,” she says.

How important is it to be familiar with the marking scheme?

“It’s really important to understand the marking scheme, to understand the layout – particularly at this time,” O’Mahony says. “What exactly are they looking for? Because you’re preparing for an exam, and this is a great test to prepare for that exam in June.”

Feery agrees and says when students are practising questions, they need to correct them with the marking scheme. She says students need to be aware, that on different papers, “sections are not weighted equally”.

Different questions and sections can carry different amounts of marks and that has to be taken into account when allocating time to questions.

Marking schemes for previous exams are available on the State Examinations Commission website (examinations.ie/exammaterialarchive/).

Do the results matter?

O’Mahony doesn’t feel too much emphasis should be placed on grades.

“There’s still lots of time and lots of course work to cover,” he says. “It’s more about the experience and then, retrospectively, you can have a look and question what worked for you in the mocks, in your preparation. And what didn’t work well for you.

“Whatever didn’t work well you want to put that to one side, and whatever worked well for you, you can take it into the Leaving Cert in June.”

Should students let their mock grades influence whether they continue with a subject at higher level, or move to ordinary level?

O’Mahony feels it shouldn’t be “just the mock results”.

“This is a conversation you can have with your teacher. And the teacher will make a recommendation whether you should do ordinary level or higher level, but ultimately that decision is up to you.” And that recommendation, he explains, is likely based on class tests, summer tests and Christmas tests.

As for considering changing level in advance of the mocks, O’Mahony says while a student can, there’s no problem “taking the higher paper. If it doesn’t go well, that’s okay. Lesson learned.

“This is all in preparation for June, whether you’re doing higher or ordinary level. But if you feel you’re not able for the higher level, absolutely drop down to the ordinary level, but just be aware of course requirements,” he says.

Feery agrees. “Take the higher and see how you get on, before you make your decision,” she says. She’s not convinced a failed mock exam should necessarily result in a student opting to take the lower paper in June, either. “If you were 30s and above, you would bring that up in the actual exam.”

And so to maths

Yes, maths. Last year’s Leaving Cert higher level exam was traumatic for many. Given that it offers a potential extra 25 bonus points, some students can feel under pressure to continue with higher level, even when they’re struggling.

Eoghan O’Leary, head of maths at The Tuition Centre, says it is normal for many students to feel underprepared as they may not have finished the course and, consequently, will face less choice.

“Often, they will have to try difficult questions, which they are seeing for the first time, and this is stressful when in a constrained, pressurised situation,” he says.

His advice is to treat the mock exams as a learning experience, as he outlines in this half-hour preparation video.

“Do your best in both preparation for the exams, and within the exams, but try not to worry overly about the results. There is still plenty of time to improve before the State exams,” he says.

In his experience, he says it is quite common for students to improve their grade by about 20 per cent in the real exams.

The best preparation is practising past papers to see the question types that are likely to come up, he says, which can be very different from the textbook.

He cautions against teaching yourself topics you haven’t covered in school, which can lead to extra stress, and to master the topics you’ve covered.

“One unusual tip,” he adds. “Don’t buy a new calculator on the day of the exams. The newer ones are very different from the ones most students are used to. During an exam is not the time to try to figure out how a new calculator works.”

TJ Hegarty of Breakthrough Maths says he can’t emphasise enough the amount of stress that can build with the maths exam.

“The worry of ‘I must try harder’ actually impacts the other subjects,” he says.

He feels a poor grade in the maths mocks may mean it’s time for Leaving Cert students to consider taking the ordinary level paper.

While Hegarty says he generally sees students improve 10-15 per cent from mocks to Leaving Cert, he still isn’t convinced it’s “worth it”.

If the student decides they want to continue, the parent can support them. The difficulties can arise, he says, when a parent forces a student to continue, but they’ve had a bad experience and don’t want to.

For students finding ordinary level difficult, Hegarty says they should try to stay in ordinary level “by hook or by crook”, if they can, rather than move to foundation level maths.

For Junior Cycle mocks, however, Hegarty’s advice is different. He feels students should continue with higher level maths, even after a poor mock result – unless there’s a really good reason not to.

“The challenge is the pass and the glory arrives in the pass,” he says, adding that the failure rate is very low.

“Maths should be one of your five-a-day,” Hegarty says. “Do half an hour, 20 minutes a day, but it’s a daily practice. It only needs to be “one topic, one question”, he says. “Back of the chapter, plus one exam question” is a good way to revise, he says.

Hegarty suggests making a revision plan together and cautions that – for parents – “the constant nag never works”.

“Think in ink,” he says. “Write concepts out. Studies show that you are twice as likely to remember something by writing it out, than by just reading it.” And get enough sleep, he adds, explaining this helps build your “long-term memory store”.

As for the exam itself, he says: “Start with your best question and remember you have choice.”

Beware of codding yourself

“The whole idea of trying to get your teachers to tell you what’s on the paper. The whole idea of trying to talk to your friends in other schools to find out what’s on the paper, that’s of no benefit,” Feery says.

“It’s no help to them, because they’re not going to have that luxury in the actual exam. They’re only codding themselves.”

How can parents support their students sitting mock exams?

“Just be there for the student. It is a very nervous, anxious and stressful time for them,” O’Mahony says.

“Provide them with a healthy, nutritious meal, make sure they’re getting sleep. Just letting them know if they need anything, you’re there for them. It is a tough and very intense two weeks – physically and mentally, it’s quite tough.

“With regards to the results, it doesn’t really make a difference. I know a parent might see a son or daughter who are not really putting it in and they’re trying to encourage them to do a little bit more. But if you feel like your son or daughter is working already, try not to make it too intense for them.”