Avoiding Common Exam Mistakes That Cost You Grades

common exam mistakes

I have mentioned before that there is no magic ingredient or one thing that will suddenly rocket your grades through the roof. The secret to top grades is avoiding common exam mistakes and improving a little in several areas. If you do that, then it can add up to a huge improvement. This is good news as most people don’t need to make drastic changes, and it is far easier to make small changes than bigger ones.

Assuming that your mindset is now ok or you are working on it, the last two pieces of the puzzle are subject knowledge and exam technique. Without increasing your subject knowledge, you can immediately improve your grades by saving marks and learning to solve problems.

If someone I am tutoring comes to me with a grade C or worse, they have definitely made many mistakes that can be quickly rectified.

You have probably heard people say they just “made a silly mistake”. This is the most common problem people have with exams, and there are normally a number of reasons for the silly mistake.

Slow Down

The biggest exam mistake is undoubtedly that most students, especially at school, rush the exam. They are scared that they will run out of time. But if they have prepared properly, then time isn’t the problem. It’s really a confidence issue.
They are not confident that they are good enough to do the exam in the time given.

So, please try to slow down. By slowing down, I mean stop writing for a minute! Most mistakes are made mentally immediately after reading the question or whilst reading the question.

Students make assumptions, go off on tangents, don’t read the question properly and don’t answer the question.
I am not saying to slow down for the whole exam. Just stop writing a bit longer than you would normally to allow yourself time to think, clear your head, take in what the question is asking, and allow logic to kick in. If you make a mistake before starting to write, then there’s not much you can do about it.

In those initial seconds, the marks are either won or lost. The writing part should be the easy part.
I have seen very clever students throw away around seven marks on questions by assuming something very quickly and writing an amazing answer, but they have answered the wrong question!

It’s a cycle of going slow at the right time, then fast again. Once you know how to answer the question and have mentally formulated an answer, you can write as fast as you like.

The Magic Technique

I always say that there is no magic ingredient. Well, if there is one, then this is it. I learned this from the most clever person I have ever met.

the magic technique

A fellow student at my school was one of those genius types. I was sitting next to him in an English exam, and he didn’t write anything for about 10-15 minutes. I couldn’t believe it; I thought, what’s he doing?

Everyone else was sitting there like a sprinter waiting for the “gun” and then frantically burning themselves out in half an hour. I asked him after the exam, and he said that he reads the paper from cover to cover before he answers any questions properly.

I was gobsmacked, but I then started doing it too. As you read through the paper, if any of the answers are obvious to you, write down one or two words on the question paper as you go through it. It’s like having a ready-made answer sheet for later on. You may even answer a lot of questions in this first glance.

When doing this, it is just glancing through each question. You are not taking your time and reading closely. If you don’t know an answer, then don’t stop; keep going.

It’s a genius technique, as you feel like you haven’t even started yet, so you relax, which normally means that answers come to you easier than if you are trying hard. I’ve had exams where I’ve almost answered the whole thing like this in 5 minutes.

The other major benefit is that you become familiar with the paper. You are getting a feel for the questions, a feel for what they are testing you on, and you know what is coming. This might even influence what order you do the questions.

Imagine if the last question in the paper is worth a lot of marks. If you leave it until the end, you will be tired and possibly in a hurry. How well you do on this question could make or break your result. Instead, you could do it first and leave easier ones until last. But you only know this if you have had a look first!

Most people do exams in a linear way. By this, I mean starting at question 1 and finishing with the last question. You don’t have to do it this way. You can do it in whatever way may is most advantageous to you.

Finally, you can dilute this technique a bit. It takes a lot of confidence and maturity to sit there doing nothing when everyone else is frantically writing. So, I recommend doing this one question at a time. For example, if question 1 has parts A to E, read all of question 1, then answer it. Do this for every question instead of reading the whole paper.

Leave Time At The End

You may have heard the phrase ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. When you do an exam, another source of silly exam mistakes is that you cannot see the blatantly obvious when it’s right in front of you. This is just human nature and not a fault.

So the next quickest way to save marks is to leave time at the end of the exam where you can check over your answers as mistakes will jump out like a sore thumb that you didn’t see before.

When you are in the middle of a question, because you are so caught up in what you are doing, you just can’t see mistakes easily, but when you go back to them later on, they are normally very obvious. That’s why people get books proofread; they can’t see the obvious mistakes.

This means that you have to finish the exam before the time is up, ideally leaving around 10% of the exam time to check over answers. Now, I know what you’re going to say; this means that you have to go even quicker! Well, kind of, but the aim is to work efficiently and at a level higher than expected in your exam.

As part of the preparation, you need to practise timing so that you are not rushing and know how fast you are going or need to go to finish on time. Remember to avoid common exam mistakes, you must practise everything, including time management, which most people won’t do.

Avoiding Common Exam Mistakes – Further Help

If you’re studying A-level Chemistry and would like further advice and support on how to achieve top grades, then please get in touch to find out more details about our online chemistry tuition.