14 Jan 2020


Every year, the internet abounds with examples of mistakes made in exams. Some of these are very amusing, and many are unique. Most relate to misunderstandings about the meaning of specific words or phrases. Many mistakes in exams, however, are made time after time. These mistakes can be avoided by taking relatively simple steps either at the time or beforehand.

  1. Not answering the question

There are two main reasons for this:

Not reading the question properly, or

Wanting to answer a slightly different question.

The first is easier to manage: Always read the question fully. Then go back and read it again to check that you have understood. Only then should you start to answer it, once you are sure you have understood it fully.

The second often arises from a mistake in preparation or revision. Some students prepare set answers, either because they are doing practice questions, or because they have panicked and not left enough time to revise fully. If you have done this, there is a tendency to use your prepared answer and hope that you will get enough marks for doing so.

You won’t. Examiners are looking for evidence that you can think and work under pressure, not that you can learn an essay off by heart.

The real answer to this mistake is to ensure that you have learned your subject well, and read around it.

There is no substitute for plenty of time spent revising. This will enable you to respond to any question in a more considered way. By all means, do practice answers, and draw on these in your exam, but make sure that you answer the question that has been asked and not the question you wanted.

  1. Not looking at the mark scheme or the space provided

Both the mark scheme and the space provided (if there is one) will provide clues about how much the examiners are expecting to see. A one-word answer is not going to be enough for a 15-mark question. Check the marks available, and make sure that your answer fits. That said, if you are able to condense your analysis into a shorter space, then do so. You should never write solely to word limits. If your answer is much shorter, be aware that you may have missed something. Check back and make sure that you have really answered the whole question.

  1. Panicking

Faced with an exam paper, it is easy to panic, especially if your first reaction is that you are unable to answer any of the questions. Take a deep breath and count to ten, slowly. That will help you to calm down. Remember that you will get no marks if there is nothing written on your answer paper.

It sounds obvious, but it is important to provide some answers, even if they are not very good. Even if you are really struggling, you should be able to find one question that you can answer, or make a reasonable attempt to answer. Start with that, and when you have finished it, go through the same process again. Do not be tempted to leave halfway through the exam, because you cannot think of anything else to write. That will earn no marks at all.

  1. Failing to plan your time

Before you start writing, check the number of questions, and the amount of time you have. This will tell you roughly how long you have for each question. Try to spend no more than that much time on each question. You can always go back later if you have time leftover, but it is better to make at least some attempt at each question. For example, in a three-hour exam, if you have to write three essays, you should plan to spend an hour on each. As you get to around 55 minutes in, start to draw your first essay to a conclusion, and then start your next one. Do the same after another 55 minutes. The same goes for multiple choice exams. Try to be aware of the time, and the number of questions completed, and ensure that you have left enough time to complete the paper.

5. Cramming! Sound Familiar?

For many students, the concept of study brings to mind the mythology of late term cramming efforts and all-nighters. Getting set to study can sometimes be a matter of realizing if you don’t get started right away and use whatever time remains you may well end up failing the exam. For the next few days you frantically compile and study your notes until you feel you have a grasp on the information, undertaking intense study sessions only to feel frustrated at your results later on. Sound familiar? The strategy of cramming at the last minute often fails because you have to assimilate and integrate vast quantities of information in too short a period of time. You are likely to feel overwhelmed and overloaded with details and ideas that do not seem connected.

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