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Sure, you have to be prepared when it comes to exams. You have to have put in the long hours of study. If you’re doin’ it right, you’ll probably get to the point where you want to throw your laptop out the window.

But once exam day arrives, it’s time to play a new game. Once you’re staring down the barrel of your exams, it’s absolutely crucial to have an in-exam strategy, and to stick to it.

Too often we hear about students who have studied their guts out, only to get an average mark in the exam because they did something during the exam that cost them marks. Too. Sad. After all those hours of studying, something tripped them up at the final hurdle.

To help YOU not to fall into this trap of studying hard but not having an in-exam strategy, here are 5 things you need to avoid doing in your exams.

1. Sitting an exam without a time plan

What’s one of the greatest enemies of your ability to do well in exams? Time. There is a very limited supply of it for most exams. There is nothing worse than studying so hard for so long, only to miss out on being able to give the fantastic answers you’re capable of because you’ve run out of time.

The reason running out of time in an exam is so devastating (mentally and to your grade)? Because no answer on the page equals zero marks for that question.

That’s why it is so important to have a time plan worked out before every exam. Simply put, you need to come up with a schedule for the exam itself.

The most important thing to figure out before the exam is how much time you have for each question, and to stick to that time allocation.

This can take discipline in an exam, when you’re desperate to write everything you know about the factors that led to the United States joining the Second World War, but you must resist this urge, and move on to the next question. Because the marks you would get for writing absolutely everything you know about the factors that led to the United States joining the Second World War are worth much less than what the entire next question is worth.

2. Answering the questions in order

Answering an exam does not have to be the same as reading a book. Front to back is not a necessary strategy, and in fact, it is often beneficial NOT to do this.

It can be tempting to want to figure out every answer before you move on to the next one, but this is often a mistake during an exam. As discussed above, time is the enemy, and every minute you spend trying to figure out or remember an answer to something is time you could have spent writing an awesome answer for a question later in the exam.

If you’re stuck on a question and you’re still blank after 30 seconds, move on to the next one.

Your brain will ‘warm up’ during the course of the exam, and chances are, the answer will come to you later on. At that point, you can go back to the question and answer it.

3. Not answering the question

You might have written something so insightful and poignant it’s enough to make Shakespeare jealous, but if you haven’t answered the question, you may as well have written nothing. Harsh but true.

When you get to a new question, read it at least twice. Seriously. Sometimes our brains think they have read something correctly, when in fact you’ve skipped over something crucial. Spending a little bit of time making sure you understand the question is always a worthwhile investment. There is nothing worse than getting half way through a long-answer question only to realise that you’ve gone off on a massive tangent that the examiner can’t give you marks for.

4. Not skimming through the exam paper first

You may be tempted to get stuck into the first question of the exam straight away. Please do not do this. Take a minute before you start writing, and flick through the entire exam before you write a single word.

By doing this, you will understand what sorts of questions are ahead of you and you know how long the exam is. In other words, you’ll know what’s coming, which will allow you to adjust what questions you answer first and how much time you spend on questions, so you use your precious time more efficiently.

You do not want to be in the situation where you’ve only got 15 minutes left on the clock, you turn over the page, and discover that the mother of all questions is the last question.

Get yourself in the best position possible to nail the entire exam by finding out what’s in store right away. Forewarned is forearmed.

5. Giving answers that don’t have structure

Whether it’s an essay for an explanation for a chemistry question (eg discuss the differences between an ionic bond and a covalent bond), or a classic English essay on the symbolism of Animal Farm, the person marking your exam will love you so much more if your answer has structure.

Even the simplest structure will do.

If it’s an essay, for the love of all things sacred, make sure your essay has paragraphs, and an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion. You would be surprised how many students write an entire essay in one chunk of text without any hint of a structure. This is a sure fire way to make the person marking your answer hate you without even knowing you.

If it’s not an essay but still a medium or long answer, you can still give your answer structure. Separate different points by paragraphs, and start each paragraph with a statement about what that paragraph is about, followed by your explanation.


And there you have it. Take on board these five points and you will instantly put yourself at the head of the pack. Do NOT underestimate the importance of having an in-exam strategy. Yes, studying is the hard but, but having an in-exam strategy is the smart part.

Photo Credit: Xavi


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