Avoiding Common Exam Mistakes

See also: Top Exam Preparation Tips

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.

This page therefore explains the most common mistakes made in exams, and how you can avoid them.


Common Mistakes in Exams

1. Not answering the question

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Not reading the question properly, or
  2. 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.


2. 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.


3. 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.


4. 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 left over, 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.

Top Tip!


If you are running out of  time in a multiple-choice paper, and you know you will not have time to finish, it is better to mark an answer for each question than leave any blank.

Even just going through marking A, then B, then C and so on will be better than nothing, because some of the answers may be right. Even if they are wrong, you have lost nothing.

Do this with a few minutes to spare before the end, and you can then go back to the point you reached and start to work through them again properly, knowing that you have at least a chance of a mark.


5. Failing to plan your answers (particularly for essays)

In writing an essay, which includes a shorter essay-type response to a question, it is important to get the structure right. An essay usually needs to make an argument, and have a reasonable flow from start to finish. This requires planning.

Before you start writing your essay, take five to ten minutes to plan what you are going to include in each section, and how you will structure your argument.

When you’ve finished the essay, go back and check that you have included everything you intended, and then cross out your plan with a single diagonal line through it.

Top Tip!


Plan your essay in pencil at the top of your answer sheet.

For each section, make brief notes on the main things that you intend to include.

That way, if you don’t have time to finish the essay, you should still get some marks for what you were planning to write.


There is more about this in our page on Planning an Essay, so it is worth reading this as part of your revision if you are doing essay-style exams.


6. Over-generalising

It is best to be as specific as possible in whatever you write. You should show that you understand the limits of your statements.

If you can, it is best to back up what you say with evidence, but nobody really, seriously, expects you to be able to provide detailed references under exam pressure.


7. Regurgitating your teacher or tutor’s notes

This is particularly important at university, when it may well be your tutor or lecturer who is marking the paper, but it also applies elsewhere too.

It is important to express things in your own words. It shows that you have understood them, and also that you can put a coherent argument together. Learning your teacher’s notes by heart and then repeating them is usually a sign that you have not really understood, and it will show. As a rule, examiners want to see that you have understood a subject, and that you can think around it.


8. Making basic spelling and grammar errors

It is admittedly much harder without a spell check.

You do, however, need to be able to write basic English well, without spelling or grammar errors.

Just as a basic check, read back over what you have written at the end, and make sure it makes sense.


In Conclusion...

Most of these errors stem from either insufficient or incorrect preparation, or getting stressed under exam pressure.

There is no substitute for adequate revision (and you may want to read our pages on Revision Skills to help with that). Equally, if you have done your revision, there is no need to get stressed in an exam. Relaxing, though difficult, will help you to answer the questions better.

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