How to avoid common exam mistakes

by Anita Naik

No matter how much revision you do, the stress and pressure of an exam situation can lead to mistakes that cost you marks. It is why good exam technique can make a huge difference to your grade. Here's what you need to know to avoid those common errors.

Learn to handle your exam stress

High-pressure environments cause stress, and when you are stressed, memory retrieval lowers and panic sets in, leading students to answer before they are ready. However, research published in Anxiety, Stress and Coping found that stress can boost cognitive function as long as you know how to keep the pressure at manageable levels. The way to do this is to understand how to calm yourself down and use stress to your advantage.

The first thing in an exam is to control your breath. When we experience high levels of stress, we either hold our breath or start taking quick and shallow breaths, where minimal air is taken in. Both of these can make anxiety and panic worse. If you feel you are doing this, take a deep breath in for three counts. Hold each breath for one count, then slowly exhale for four counts, and you'll start to calm down.

Next, read through the entire exam to reassure yourself that you know the subject studied; this gives your brain a chance to calm down and think before you start answering anything.

Read the question properly

If you don't read a question carefully, it's easy to think examiners are asking you something that they are not. This leads you to either give the wrong answer or not fully answer the question. And if you don't answer the question, you'll lose marks. To combat this, read the question twice reflecting on what it's asking you. Note down the critical parts of the question and break them down, so you remember to answer every part of the question fully.

The mark scheme will also help here as it provides clues about how much information the examiners are expecting to see from you. A short paragraph won't be enough for a 15-mark question, so make sure your answer fits.

Plan your time

Before you write anything, check the number of questions and your time. For example, if you have three essays to write, plan 50 to 55 mins for each one so that you can go back at the end and check you have answered the question fully and check for simple errors that will lose you marks, such as the wrong date, or a missed number or spelling mistakes.

GCSE and A-level marking schemes include a few marks that can be allocated for good spelling and grammar. If your answer paper is littered with Spag mistakes, you'll miss out on a few extra marks that could mean the difference between grades.

Another classic student mistake is to spend too long on the first few questions and not leave enough time to finish. Timing is crucial in an exam, so plan your time out from the beginning and pay attention to the clock as you work.

5 ways to perfect your exam technique

Always take the first five to 10 minutes to read through the paper and plan the questions you're going to answer in order of how confident you feel in that area.

During revision, practice with past papers to perfect your timings for each paper. The more you practice this way, the better your time management will be in an exam.

If you need help with your exam technique, ask your teachers for help or consider a tutor who can help you with everything from technique to timing to working on your exam style.

If your mind goes blank, and you can't think of anything to write, go on to another question, or note down anything that you can recall on your notepaper to help stimulate your mind.

Don't look around the room to see what other students are doing. Seeing someone scribbling away when your mind is blank will only panic you. Put your head down and only focus on what you are doing.