Sitting an exam

Ten common exam mistakes to avoid

The point of higher education, aside from the subsidised student bar, is to attain qualifications, so ace-ing those all-important exams means swerving a few common but potentially disastrous mistakes.

1. Cramming

You've spent days scrubbing limescale from the bottom of the toilet and finishing all those other jobs that miraculously become really important when its revision time, then suddenly you realise there are only 48 hours left until The Big Day.

While cramming might save you from an F, unless you have a photographic memory it's unlikely to get you top marks. Most of us humans only have a concentration span of 45 minutes, so pulling an all-nighter is actually pretty pointless as only about 20 per cent of what you've read will go in - and you have no control over which 20 per cent.

Obviously, the first order of the day is not to procrastinate. Then, adopt a distributed practice schedule a few weeks before your exams.

"I always suggest that any texts are re-read in their entirety three to four weeks before an exam and/or to obtain practice papers which are usually available online for a particular examining board or from a university faculty," says Kay Stevens, an A-level English tutor from Kent.

"Being familiar with past papers could be your salvation. Even if the questions are worded differently, if you know all the answers the chances are you'll sail through. The key is to draw up a revision timetable for a few hours each week and stick to it."

Taking a more active approach to studying also reinforces what you have previously read and increases the amount of information you can remember. So reading around topics rather than just sticking to lecturers' notes, watching related documentaries and movies and, of course, revising with friends in order to generate ideas is also a goer.

2. Arriving late

Unbelievably, turning up late for exams is actually the norm rather than the exception.

"There are pragmatic issues about turning up to the correct exam at the correct place at the correct time on the correct day. It's amazing how many students fall foul of this," says Dr Alistair Irons, Head of the Department of Computing, Engineering and Technology at Sunderland University.

Arriving late means you'll have an even tighter deadline to get it all down, as you won't be allowed any extra minutes. Unless your tardiness is due to circumstances out of your control - like sudden sickness or a transport breakdown - your hastily completed paper still might not be accepted.

Even worse, unless you're good friends with the senior invigilator, if you're more than 30 minutes late, in many education establishments you won't even be allowed to sit the exam.

The blindingly obvious solution to this customary gaff is to design an exam timetable and store it somewhere you'll see it, like your smartphone. Adhere to a revision deadline the day before, get at least six hours sleep and your chances of waking up to get to the correct venue in time are pretty much guaranteed. Even better, you might even be early which will give you some breathing space.

3. Poor question planning

When the starter gun goes off it's vital that you don't jump straight in. Give yourself at least ten minutes to scan through the paper properly.

"Exam rubrics will indicate to students the number of questions that have to be answered, whether any questions are compulsory or whether they have choice," says Dr Irons. "Students will often ignore or not apply the rubric. The impact of this is that if they don't do the amount required, then they can't get full marks, or if they do too much then they won't spend appropriate time on questions."

Planning the questions you're going to answer in order of how confident you feel and answering the easiest questions first not only secures marks but also boosts your overall confidence and gives you more time to tackle the harder ones.

4. Not reading a question properly

There may be several questions you feel confident about, but steaming into an answer without careful consideration most definitely will result in bungling it.

The best bet is to reflect upon the question and highlight the most important words to ensure that you are absolutely sure of what it is asking. Making bullet-point notes and grouping them to form main points also helps you structure the answer properly. Scrawling forgotten points in to page margins and reordering paragraphs by numbering them does not make for a good read, even if the eventual outcome is brilliant.

"Not sense-checking calculations can also be a problem," states Dr Irons." In numeric or calculation-based questions, there should be a rough idea of the range of answer. Often students fail to check that their answer is in the correct ball park."

5. Length of answers vs. marks

Each question will have a marks value indicated which is also a guide to the complexity or difficulty of the questions. But how many words should you ascribe for each answer?

"Often students will write two pages for a question worth five marks, then do half a page for a question worth 20," says Dr Irons. "It is not always the case that quantity equals marks, but it's a good indicator."

This is especially true if it's for the higher-marked question and includes all the main points an examiner is looking for. Examiners set aside a certain number of marks for a specific list of main points, so writing reams for a low marks question won't garner you any extra accolades.

6. Parroting answers

Regurgitating everything you have learnt about a subject won't fool your examiner in to thinking you understand it.

"If a question requires a student to critically evaluate a particular problem, then he or she lists everything they know about the situation, it won't answer the question asked," says Dr Irons.

Taking the time to analyse and thoroughly engage with a particular subject should provide you with the means to come up with original ideas and evidence to back them up. The examiner may be informed, but will definitely be impressed by your ability to throw a few new formulations into the mix beyond what you've learned in class.

7. Running out of time

"In terms of time management there are two main errors that students commonly make: they either run out of time or they don't spend enough time," Dr Irons says."Running out of time is often because the students spend too long on the early part of the examination and are not strict enough in 'cutting off'."

Being enthusiastic is all well and good, but not if it means ignoring other questions. Learning to rein yourself in is something you can practice while revising. This also applies to getting stuck on a question. There's no point in trying to best yourself. If the answer won't come, it's better to leave it and get to the answers that will garner you marks.

8. Forgetting to answer questions

If you have left tough or half-deliberated questions to last always remember to actually go back and answer them or you'll lose credit that otherwise would have been easily gained. This may sound stupidly obvious, but candidates forgetting to finish hard questions, for no apparent reason, is a frequent occurrence.

"Leaving questions unanswered, particularly when there are several sections with multiple questions each, happens quite a lot", says Stevens."I've even had students fall asleep resulting in them not being able to complete all the questions!"

The easiest way to avoid being caught out - aside from getting enough kip - is to highlight these problematic questions with a different colour pen during your question-planning session at the beginning of the exam. Always checking that the total marks of the questions you have answered add up to the maximum for that paper will also ensure that you spot them.

9. Illegible handwriting and incoherent writing style

Even if you are a genius, lengthy paragraphs comprising convoluted sentences that resemble an army of ants crawling around a page are unlikely to curry favour with a weary examiner. Likewise spelling and grammar.

Practising simple techniques like writing essays in introduction, main body and conclusion form will aid in presenting an easy-to-read writing style. Also, UK universities require you to write in a standard academic English which you can pick up simply by reading and noting language and tone in academic books and journals.

10. Answer checking

Finishing before the bell may get you to the pub earlier, but it's probably more expedient to think in terms of points not pints.

"If a student finishes a paper half an hour before time, it's pretty important to spend those 30 minutes reading through all your answers to correct mistakes, add additional information if necessary and ensure that your paper reads well," advises Stevens.

"There is nothing more frustrating for markers than to see that a student has left the exam early and they have not put the requisite effort in to the questions," adds Dr Irons.

Checking that you've written your name and index number may not take much effort, but could mean the difference between a good mark and a great mark.

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