Exam Technique for the Source Paper

Written by Aaron

(Scroll down for a short summary)

CIE’s Source Paper is incredibly time-pressured – you can’t just waltz into the exam room and write away leisurely. Every minute counts. Your success in the Source Paper breaks down into three things:

  • How smart you are
  • How well you write
  • How well you can do the exam

The first two we’ll cover elsewhere – this article is about that third component: becoming good at doing Source Papers. Yes. Your education requires you to learn this skill, even if in the grand scheme of life it’s not very useful to know. The system isn’t perfect – let’s just work with it.

1) Get a stopwatch

You’ll be using it a lot. I use a digital watch which doubles up as a stopwatch (as pictured below). This is usually allowed in an exam hall – but if you are using another kind of stopwatch do check if you can bring it in (legit – your exam centre may have different rules).

2) Use the stopwatch

The moment they announce the exam has commenced, start your stopwatch. We won’t be relying on clocks – we don’t want to be calculating what 10.35 a.m. means to us. We want to immediately know how much time we have left, how much we’ve spent, and which ‘time marker’ we are on.

3) Starting the paper

This is all about optimising the time you have. The moment you open the paper, flip to your section and find the question for part (a). Don’t even dare reading any of the sources yet – it’s pointless right now. Read the question a few times, then start reading the specific sources mentioned in part (a) – don’t read the other sources.

4) The breakdown for timing

It’s very, very easy to get carried away in the paper. The Source Paper doesn’t give you a lot of wiggle room – it’s a focused fight till the very last minute.

To mitigate the risk of screwing up the entire paper due to a lack of time, I use time markers to keep track. I have targets to meet throughout the paper. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. At the 4 minute mark, I force myself to start writing my intro for part (a)
  2. At the 7 minute mark, I must have finished my intro and start with the first point.
  3. At the 12 minute mark, I must have finished my second point and begin work on the 2nd
  4. At the 17 minute mark, I’m starting on my conclusion to part (a).
  5. At the 20 minute mark (max: 22), I begin work on (b). I read the final two sources and start planning my structure.
  6. By the 25 minute mark, I begin work on the intro.
  7. By roughly 29 minutes, I begin my first point.
  8. By roughly 35-36 minutes, I begin the second point
  9. At 42-43, I begin the third point.
  10. At 49-50, I begin the fourth point
  11. By 56, I must be writing my conclusion.
  12. Finish at 60. Go cry in a corner.

You do not need to follow these timings exactly, but you should definitely have your own markers and keep to them strictly. Running behind time? Speed up. Make decisions on what to include and exclude – maybe writing another paragraph on the Treaty of Versaille is going to cost you your conclusion.

Your ultimate goal is to reach your conclusion on time. You need, at a minimum, 4 minutes.


  • Use a stopwatch — you can use the time markers above as a guide
  • Don’t read the sources immediately. Always read question (a) first.
  • After reading question (a), only read the sources question (a) is asking you to compare.
  • Use the stopwatch. Seriously.