10 Tips For Your AQA Geography GCSE Exam

According to the Geographical Association (2023), Geography is the 6th most popular subject at GCSE, and no wonder - students explore volcanoes, migration and climate change - all hot topics (sorry, couldn’t resist).

It pulls together numerical, observational and literacy skills, enabling students to be a jack of all trades and masters of evaluation. But how to get the best grade in exams? Here are ten top tips for acing your Geography GCSE exam:

1. Know what examiners are looking for via the Assessment Objectives (AOs). 

These are: knowledge (AO1), understanding (AO2), evaluation (AO3) and skills (AO4 - more on that below). Geography has moved far beyond knowing the names of capital cities. AO1 is assessed in papers 1 and 2 only; the other AOs are assessed across all 3 papers. In other words “knowing facts” (e.g. the capital of the UK) forms the smallest proportion of the marks.

The focus is more on understanding why London is the capital city, evaluating its importance, and being able to represent that data in a suitable format. That said, in a 9-mark question in Section A, AO1,2 and 3 are equally rated. For example, consider the question below (taken from Paper 2, June 2022):

An example response might be:

In Granby Four Streets, Liverpool, there are houses on sale for £1 (AO1). The price is so low because they are in poor condition, and couldn’t be sold otherwise (AO2). This is a problem because the area has been very slow to be redeveloped, and the local economy has stagnated. (AO3).

Here we see the response has accessed each of the AOs for a 9-mark question, not just regurgitated facts/knowledge about a particular place.


2. Know the paper formats. 

Each paper has questions of the following formats: multiple-choice, short answer, levels of response (i.e. 4 and 6 mark) and extended prose. The shorter mark questions are found at the start of each section. Allocate approximately 1 minute per mark, and practise these by going through past papers - all freely available online, along with the mark schemes on the AQA website here.

The exam papers changed structure slightly in 2022 - GCSE now has (very slightly) changed structure, with swapping 9 for 6 mark questions in Section B, then 5 more marks in Section C in Paper 2.

3. Brush up on your maths skills (AO4). 

Maths-based questions form 10% of the overall GCSE mark, and there are multiple ways to lose out on easy marks if you’re not up to speed. Practice skills such as drawing and interpreting graphs, plotting lines of best fit and working with isolines (e.g. contours). But don’t miss out on the basics - watch how many decimal points you are required to work to, and know your means, medians and modes.

4. Be confident and well-rested. 

Confidence comes from being prepared - cramming is never a good strategy, so get revising early. In the few days leading up to the exam, give yourself time to relax. You can’t perform at your best when you’re stressed and tired. Being prepared also means being organised, so don’t miss out on the small details. Have a sharp pencil (seriously - you can lose marks from sloppy and inaccurate plotting), rubber, ruler and calculator.


5. Add labels/annotations to enhance diagrams in four-mark questions. 

These questions often ask for “one or more diagrams”. So if you can use two as a timeline - even better. Consider the example below from Paper 1, June 2022:

Response 1:

Response 2:

6. Pick out common themes within topics. 

For instance, town planning is a mitigation strategy common to all hazards, therefore worth nailing for the “Challenge of Natural Hazards” (Paper 1, Section A). Similarly, migration is an important process for cities in LICs/NEEs and within the UK (Paper 2, Section A).

Using Venn diagrams can be an effective way to identify common threads amongst different topics (see example below). These common threads also act as anchors for you to attach other knowledge to.

7. Get used to looking at different types of maps.

For example, consider isolines (e.g. contours), choropleth and dot maps (see below). The Ordnance Survey website has examples of thematic maps that can be applied across the specification (see link below). When referring to a map in an exam figure, use compass directions e.g. in the Northern hemisphere not the top of the map. Also, use the scale and your ruler (see also point 3). 

Examples of choropleth and dot maps, taken from the Ordnance Survey website (2020).

8. Be able to define key terms. 

Making flashcards is a great way to do this, and don’t just re-hash the words. For example, if you want to define sustainability - “being more sustainable” isn’t adequate…what actually is sustainability, and can you give an example?

9. Only using direct quotes from the text or a figure will limit your marks.

Instead, go on to explain why the quote is relevant, and/or how it links to another example and why it’s important. For instance, consider the question below:

A response could be:

Some people thought leaving the UK was a good idea because they could take back control”. However, you’ll spot that the question asks you to “use Figure 7 and your own understanding”

A better response therefore would be to explicitly show examiners you have referred to the figure, then elaborate as to why this is important. For instance:

Some people thought leaving the UK was a good idea because they could take back control”. However, you’ll spot that the question asks you to “use Figure 7 and your own understanding”


10. In longer mark questions, think SPEED. 

The helpful acronym SPEED stands for Social, Political, Economic, Environmental and Demographic). If you are describing the impacts of a particular event or process, see if you can give examples of the impacts across different SPEED categories.

That way you get to demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge and integrate different ideas and concepts for a more thorough evaluation. (NB: There is a bit of crossover between Social and Demographic impacts, but “SPEED” is easier to remember than “SPEE”). Consider the question below from 2022 Paper 2:

You might give the following response:

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Following the 2002 Nyiragongo Eruption, the United Nations delivered aid in the form of food (e.g. biscuits and beans) and health care. One social impact of this was a reduction in the number of deaths from starvation and disease (e.g. cholera). An economic impact was that people were more quickly able to continue working and therefore afford basic necessities”.

This response covers two SPEED categories and uses the keywords themselves to demonstrate to examiners you have a broad knowledge. You might then want to evaluate their relative importance (if the question requires it).

In summary, for any exam, you need the knowledge before you walk into the exam room. There is no substitute for hard work, motivation and self-discipline. But with a little planning and knowing how the exams work, your hard work stands a better chance of shining through. Good luck!

Sources of info:

The Geographical Association (2023). Geography Results and Entries, 2023. Accessed 21/3/24

AQA GCSE Question Paper: Paper 2 Challenges in the Human environment - June 2022 Accessed 21/2/24

AQA GCSE Question Paper: Paper 1 Living with the Physical environment - June 2022 Accessed 21/3/24

Ordnance Survey (2020) Thematic Mapping Technqiues. Accessed 21/3/24

Author's profile picture

Peter R


Experienced Geography Teacher and Examiner.

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