Top 20 Mistakes Students Commit When Attempting A Test Or Exam Paper, And How To Overcome Them
How many times have you walked away from a test or exam paper thinking or saying aloud:
- I wish I had more time!
- Oh, now I know the correct answer! Why didn’t I think of it just now?
- I shouldn’t have spent so much time on that question!
- How could I have missed the last page of the paper?
- Why didn’t the questions that I prepared so hard for appear in the paper?
If the above sounds familiar to you, then you are not alone.
Top 20 Mistakes
Here, we describe the top 20 mistakes that most students make when attempting a test or exam paper, and how to overcome them.
- Spotting Questions
- Cramming Too Much Information Into Memory
- Panicking Before Or During A Paper
- Arriving Late For A Paper
- Failing To Scan Through The Questions Once
- Failing To Allocate Time For Each Question
- Starting With The Most Difficult Question
- Jumping Straight Into Answering A Question Without Proper Planning
- Misinterpreting A Question
- Producing An Incoherent Answer
- Poor Writing Style
- Not Sure How To Start Or End An Essay
- Writing Too Much Or Too Little
- Failing To Answer All The Unanswered Questions In The Last Few Minutes
- Writing Illegibly
- Reading And Writing Too Slowly
- Forgetting To Answer Unanswered Questions
- Failing To Check Your Answers
- Failing To Bring Along Required Stationery Or Items
- Forgetting To Write Down Your Names And Other Personal Particulars
1. Spotting Questions
Spotting questions is by far one of the most common mistakes many students make when preparing for a test or exam paper. It is also the worst mistake you can commit before sitting for a paper.
For subjects that require much memory work, such as History, Geography, Biology and Economics, many students try to take the easy way out by trying to spot what questions would appear in the paper. Such students believe that they can read their teachers’ or examiners’ minds. Are you trained in telepathy or fortune-telling? We don’t think so.
Spotting questions is a problem that is at times made worse when the teachers themselves actively encourage their students to spot questions. As students who had sat through GCE "O" Level and GCE "A" Level papers ourselves, we can attest to that.
Some teachers are also known to deliberately drop hints to their students before a test or exam paper about what types of questions to expect. That happens quite often in the local polytechnics and universities too. We know because we, our friends and our siblings have studied at the local universities and polytechnics. Sometimes, the questions actually came out in the test or exam papers. Sometimes, they never did!
Instead of spotting questions, you should spot topics if you must. For example, instead of trying to prepare for a History question that reads, "Why did Singapore break away from Malaya?", you should prepare for the History topic "The breaking away of Singapore from Malaya".
That means you should know the why, when, how, who and consequences of the breaking away of Singapore from Malaya. This would ensure that, should you be asked about "What were the consequences for Malaya after Singapore broke away?", you would still be able to answer it.
2. Cramming Too Much Information Into Memory
You have memorised every word in all the chapters from your textbook that you would be tested upon. You see a question in the paper that begs an answer you know is found on page … Oh, no! You can’t recall the page! And so, the answer escapes you!
As you try fervently to recollect that page, you realise it becomes harder! Meanwhile, the minutes pass away and you lose valuable time!
If you are one of those students who try very hard to memorise everything in your textbooks, stop! Unfortunately for most of us, our brains can often only retain 10% to 20% of the information that we read. More unfortunately, we cannot control what will be that 10% or 20% of information that we will remember!
So, instead of trying to recite every word from page 1 of your textbook to its last page, you should concentrate on understanding what is written in those pages. If you can understand what each topic in your textbook is about, why would you even need to memorise all those pages? You should be able to explain them in your own words!
You can improve your understanding of any topic, reinforce what you have previously read and increase the amount of information that you can remember by:
- Taking part actively in classroom discussions and activities about the topic.
- Discussing the topic with your friends.
- Reading alternative books or chapters about the topic.
- Watching video tapes and video compact discs about the topic.
- Listening to audio tapes about the topic.
This is because our brains can remember what we have said and seen more vividly than what we have read.
3. Panicking Before Or During A Paper
Do you worry that you would not have enough time to complete a paper, even before it starts? Are you very afraid that you would not be able to answer most of the questions in the paper, even before it starts? Does your heartbeat increase when you enter the exam hall and your hands sweat when you receive the exam paper? Are you at a loss of what to do for the rest of the paper, when you realise that there is one question that you cannot answer?
If you experience any of the above, or other symptoms of anxiety and panic, you need to check yourself. One of the worst things that you can do before and during a test or exam paper is to panic. Once you panic, your mind is in a frenzy and you cannot think properly. How can you attempt the paper calmly when you cannot even think properly?
Always tell yourself not to worry too much before a test or exam. Below are some good ways to reduce or eliminate your anxiety and worry:
- Clarify all your doubts at the end of each lesson, so that they will not snowball into a big bag of questions before your test or exam.
- Always prepare for a test or exam well in advance.
- Don’t study every minute while you are awake. Busy yourself with some mundane household chores to take your mind off the upcoming test or exam.
- Have a good night’s sleep before the date of the test or exam.
- Keep reassuring yourself that you can do it. Once you stop doubting yourself, you will stop panicking.
If all else fails, comfort yourself that it is only a paper. It’s not the end of the world even if you don’t do well for just one paper.
4. Arriving Late For A Paper
Most of us are punctual, especially for important occasions. However, some of us may have a habit of being late. Even if you are a punctual person, there may be times when things just suddenly crop up and you end up late for an appointment.
Late comers are the norm rather than the exception for many major examinations. Just ask any examiner. If you are the unfortunate latecomer, you may sometimes be barred from sitting for that particular paper. Even if you do get to sit for the paper, much precious time would have been lost. On top of that, your mind would still be reeling from the rush. You would not be calm enough to attempt the paper before you.
What can you do to avoid being late for a paper? Be there early! Give yourself enough time to travel to the venue of the test or exam. Spare yourself at least half an hour at the venue. Use this time to familiarise yourself with the place and setting, so that you know what to expect when the paper starts.
For example, if you could know in advance that the air-conditioning is very strong, then you would be mentally prepared for the cold. If you have brought along a sweater, you could then wear it and be able to sit through the paper comfortably.
5. Failing To Scan Through The Questions Once
You receive the paper. The teacher says, "You may begin now!" Do you immediately turn to the first page and answer the first question straight away? If yes, stop! You are making another common mistake most students make!
Always scan through a paper before you begin writing. Give yourself about 2 to 5 minutes to read through all the questions. Put a tick against the easy questions and a cross against the difficult ones. Check every page of the paper to make sure that you do not miss any question.
Then, proceed to answer the easy questions first! Always leave the difficult questions to the last. This ensures that you would have answered most of the questions in the paper should you run out of time. It also gives you more time for the difficult questions, as you would need relatively less time for the easy ones.
6. Failing To Allocate Time For Each Question
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." So wrote George Orwell in "Animal Farm". The same holds true for test and exam questions. Some questions deserve more time than others. Some questions require less time than others. And some questions don’t even need to be considered if you have a choice! This happens when you can choose your questions, say 3 out of 5.
Always allocate your time to each question based on the number of marks it is worth. For example, if a question is worth 2 marks out of 100, while another question is worth 10 marks, you should allocate more time to the latter question.
In addition, if a question requires much drawing or graph plotting, and if you are slow at it, then you should leave it to one of the last questions that you would attempt.
And remember to bring along a watch or clock to time yourself. But make sure your clock does not tick loudly or ring its alarm suddenly!
7. Starting With The Most Difficult Question
Some students attempt their test and exam papers in a less efficient way. They start with the most difficult questions.
"What is wrong with that?" you may ask.
For one thing, attempting a tough question is a bad start to a paper. Your mind gets stumbled at the very beginning of the paper. You rack your brains trying to come out with the answers for that agonising question. You begin to feel exasperated. You mind loses its calm. You cannot think properly. And you lose precious time while you are stuck with the tough question.
Before you know it, you only have half of the time left. Now, you rush to answer the other questions. But your mind has got so entangled with that tough question that it cannot think properly. You have forgotten the answers to the easy questions! You can’t believe it! And we can’t believe why you even began with that tough question!
Always start with the easy questions. First, it makes you feel good about the paper and boosts your confidence. Second, you are assured that you will get the marks allotted to these questions. Third, if you manage the easy questions properly, you will be able to answer them quickly and allow yourself more time for the difficult questions. Last but not least, you may be able to attain the answers to the difficult questions after you have solved the easy ones. It has happened to many people many times!
8. Jumping Straight Into Answering A Question Without Proper Planning
You read a question and you know the answer. Do you immediately raise your pen or pencil and start writing away? If yes, how many times have you encountered the following scenarios?
- You are halfway through your answer and then you realise that your answer is wrong!
- You are penning a new paragraph when you realise that it should have come before a previous paragraph!
- You are halfway through a point you are trying to make before you realise that you have already written it in a previous paragraph!
- You are writing about a new idea and then you realise that it should have been discussed together with another idea that you have already written!
- You realise you have left out an important point in a previous paragraph but there is no space for you to insert it! Therefore, you are forced to write this point in the margin of the paper or somewhere away from the paragraph. Then you draw a long line to connect this sentence to the paragraph.
- You have finished the answer but realise that the paragraphs need to be rearranged! Therefore, you resort to numbering the first paragraph as (1), the second paragraph as (5), the third paragraph as (2), and so on so forth.
If you have encountered any of the above scenarios, and are still running into such situations, would you want to avoid them in future?
The solution to the above problems is proper planning. Proper planning ensures that you have considered all the major aspects of the question before you start to write your answer. It would save you much time later when you write the answer. A carefully planned answer would also get more marks than an unplanned or poorly planned answer.
Below are the suggested steps in planning an answer to a question:
- Always spend a minute or two thinking through a question.
- Underline the key words in the question and ask yourself what kind of answer the question demands.
- Make quick notes in point form as you brainstorm for all the relevant points and ideas that come to your mind.
- Group all the related points and ideas together into main ideas.
- Ask yourself whether you have enough main ideas. A long question typically requires at least three main ideas in its answer.
- Ask yourself whether you have too many or too few points for a particular main idea.
- If more than half of your answer is about one main idea only, while the other main ideas make up the rest of your answer, you are most likely paying unequal attention to each main idea and your answer will be lopsided.
- Finally, plan how you wish to approach the question and structure your answer accordingly.
9. Misinterpreting A Question
"What are the consequences of a poor diet?"
Imagine you are answering the above question. A quick definition of what make a good diet and a poor diet in your first paragraph would make a good start in your answer. You should then dive into the specific results of a poor diet.
Had you written more about the examples of what make a good diet and a poor diet, including the calories count and nutritional values of various foods, you would be writing something that is uncalled for.
Had you proceeded to talk about the importance of having a good diet, the disadvantages of a poor diet, the reasons why widespread poor diets exist in some countries, or the circumstances leading to a poor diet, you would be writing out of point.
All that could happen because you have not understood the question, or you have misinterpreted it. Misinterpreting a question can cost you dearly in a test or exam. This is especially if the question is worth 10 or 20 marks out of 100. You would be spending precious time producing an incorrect answer at the possible expense of other questions.
The only way to avoid misinterpreting a question is to read through the question at least twice. Underline the key words in the question. Make sure you understand what those keywords mean. Some examples of keywords which some students have problems with are:
Where a question contains a few parts, and your answer to two of the parts are similar, you must immediately realise that you have misinterpreted at least one of the partial questions. Proceed to correct your answers.
In case of doubts, you may try to ask the teacher or examiner what the question is asking for. Although teachers and examiners are often not allowed to explain the questions in a test or exam to students, some teachers and examiners are very kind and may help you.
10. Producing An Incoherent Answer
One of the worst things you can do to put off the teacher or examiner marking your paper is to write incoherently. That is, your thoughts and ideas are badly expressed and very difficult for the marker to understand. In short, your writing does not make sense.
Imagine that you are the person who has to mark hundreds of test or exam papers. You could be very tired by the time you reach for another paper to mark. Then to your horror, you realise that this particular student’s answers are incoherent. You have to read and re-read each of his or her answers before you understand what he or she is trying to say. Worst of all, you may not even understand what he or she is trying to say!
In situations like this, how would you grade the student’s answers? Would you want to spend more time on his or her other similarly incoherent answers? Probably not.
The thing about incoherent writing is that students who write like that do not realise that only they themselves understand what they are writing about!
The only way to make sure that you do not write incoherently in a test or exam paper is to write more often. Below are the suggested measures:
- Write an essay on any topic you want.
- Check through your essay at least twice to make sure that you yourself understand what you are writing.
- Ask somebody who has a better command of English than you (e.g., your friends, classmates, teachers or family members) to proofread your essays for you. The more persons you can get to proofread your essays, the better.
- Find out which parts of your essay they have understood and which parts they have difficulty understanding.
- Ask them how you could have rewritten those parts that they do not understand.
- Ask yourself whether their suggested rewriting of those parts is easier to understand than what you have written.
- Discover where you have gone wrong in your initial write-up and try not to repeat such mistakes again in future.
- Proceed to step 1 above and repeat the process.
11. Poor Writing Style
What is your writing style in a typical test or exam paper?
"What writing style? I don’t even have enough time writing!" you may say.
Well, think again. The reason why you may experience insufficient time for your test and exam papers could be because you have a poor writing style. Or because you have no writing style at all.
That could also explain why a classmate got a higher score than you did for the same question when both of you had similar answers. It’s a matter of style.
An easy-to-read writing style makes good reading.
A complicated manner of writing, made up of many long paragraphs each containing long convoluted sentences such as this sentence you are reading, with each sentence consisting of more than one idea and replete with unnecessary bombastic words (and sometimes with long sentences in brackets as well), full of commas, semicolons while the full-stop is far away, often also containing at least two conjunction words such as "and", "but" and "so", makes reading very tough for the reader.
A simple writing style suitable for use in a test or exam paper may consist of:
- A short introduction of not more than 50 words in one paragraph. You could use this paragraph to
- define the keywords in the question,
- grab the marker’s attention,
- state your stand on the topic in question, or
- briefly summarise what you will be writing about in the rest of your essay.
- A main body consisting of two or more paragraphs. Each of these paragraphs should be about a main idea that you are trying to convey.
- A conclusion of not more than 50 words in one paragraph. You could use this to
- summarise your essay,
- affirm your stand on the topic in question, or
- pose related questions to the reader as food for thought.
12. Not Sure How To Start Or End An Essay
This sounds good, "What is a poor diet?"
No, that’s too common. How about, "How many people really bother about their diets?"
Nah, I’m sure I can come up with a better introduction than these!
How much more time are you going to waste trying to figure out a superb start to your answer? Just get to the point! Remember this is a test (or exam) paper! You are not taking part in a story writing competition. Time is precious!
While having a good writing style is important, the emphasis here is about the flow of your ideas. As long as your paragraphs are coherent, they connect to one another smoothly, and they are easy to read and absorb, it would suffice.
"But in the end, how am I going to end the essay?" you may wonder.
Again, the marker is not going to judge your essay squarely on how well you have written your last paragraph. As long as your last paragraph ends your essay nicely, it would not be a problem. Simply put, if your entire essay is out of point, incoherent or lacking, how much difference could your essay ending make?
13. Writing Too Much Or Too Little
A certain question was worth 1 mark out of 100, and a student wrote about 80 words in his answer. Was that too much?
Another question was worth 25 marks out of 100, and a student wrote about 80 words in his answer. Was that too little?
Depending on the subject and the nature of the test or exam paper,
- a question worth 1 mark out of 100 may require only a 10-word answer.
- a question worth 25 marks out of 100 may require at least a 1-page answer.
Some students write too much for questions that do not require long answers. As a result, they do not have enough time left for the other questions. Some students write too little for questions that require long answers. Consequently, they may have missed important points or not devoted more effort to expound on an idea. Invariably, these students lose valuable marks.
Unfortunately, nobody can give a definitive guide to how many words is enough for a question worth 1 mark or 25 marks. Instead of looking at the number of words, you should look at the number of main points included in your answers.
A short answer encompassing all the important main points would be worth much more than a long answer deliberating on just one main point only. This is because examiners who set the questions for any test or exam paper, usually set aside a certain number of marks for the list of main points that they are looking for in students’ answers. Beyond the predetermined number of marks for any given main point, you would not be awarded extra marks even you write non-stop about that point. So, be concise in your answers as far as possible.
14. Failing To Answer All The Unanswered Questions In The Last Few Minutes
"You have 5 minutes left. Please check through your answers and …"
"What!" you exclaim in sheer horror. "5 minutes left! Oh my, how am I going to answer all the remaining questions?"
This is quite a common situation many students have come across at least once in their schooling experience. If you have 5 minutes left, and another 10 non-multiple-choice questions worth 30 marks altogether to go, what would you do? Should you pick the question that is worth the most number of marks, and start penning the first paragraph? Or should you attempt the other short questions, even though you do not know their correct answers?
In such an event, this is what you should do:
- Pick the easiest questions that require the shortest answers, and answer them quickly.
- Then, proceed to the remaining questions that require longer answers and answer quickly.
- Forget about writing style and proper paragraphing. You have no time for that.
- Write your answers in point form if possible.
- If you have previously jotted down some notes to a question on a separate piece of paper, submit it together with your main paper.
Although the above is not the ideal way to answering questions in a test or exam paper, it would at least gain you some precious marks should you run out of time.
15. Writing Illegibly
Illegible handwriting is a common cause of low test and exam scores for many students. Terrible handwriting makes reading more difficult and sometimes causes misunderstanding.
In the broader sense, illegible handwriting comprises:
- Very small handwriting that typically resembles an army of ants.
- Too little spacing between words.
- Very big handwriting such that the height of each word spans two lines or more.
- Single line spacing, which makes reading tougher when the student tries to insert additional lines of text in between the already congested lines.
- Too many words being inserted in between and above other words on the same line.
- Too many arrows and lines pointing to other sentences that should belong to the current paragraph, but that are written far away on the page or on another page.
- Writing in light-coloured ink, such as light blue, light black, light green, pink or yellow.
- Writing in red, which confuses the marker since the marker is also using red ink to mark the paper.
In the narrower sense, illegible handwriting comprises examples such as:
- An "a" looks like a "u", so that "tack" becomes "tuck" (vocabulary error).
- A "v" looks like a "u", so that "van" becomes "uan" (spelling error).
- A small letter "c" looks like a capital letter "C" (punctuation error).
All of the above make reading extremely tough and slow for the marker. It can even put off the marker. Some markers give up beyond a certain point and skip parts of the writing. This means that your answers may not be completely read and graded accordingly. You lose precious marks.
Good handwriting should avoid all the above-mentioned instances of bad handwriting. In particular, you should:
- Plan your answers, so that you do not have to resort to inserting lines of text and arrows.
- Leave a blank line after each line of text, so that you may insert additional words where necessary.
- Write in black ink or dark blue ink.
16. Reading And Writing Too Slowly
Suppose you are given a 1-page comprehension passage to read. Can you read it faster than most other students? If not, then you may have to increase your reading speed.
Do you know that being able to read fast can save you valuable time in a test or exam? If the average student takes 3 minutes to read a 1-page passage, while you take 10 minutes, you are already spending 7 more minutes than other students. Imagine how many questions you could have answered within those 7 minutes!
So how can you improve your reading speed? Well, you can try to read more often and time yourself each time you read. With constant practice, you should be able to read faster.
Now, suppose that you are given a 1-page passage to copy. Can you copy it faster than most other students? If not, then you may have to work hard on writing faster.
The ability to write fast, just like the ability to read fast, can save you precious time in a test or exam. If the average student takes 5 minutes to write a 200-word essay, while you take 15 minutes, then the average student would have written 600 words’ worth of essay in those 15 minutes while you struggle with your 200 words!
One way to improve your writing speed is to write more often and time yourself each time you write. Another way is to experiment with your writing technique. Try using big handwriting and small handwriting. Which way works faster for you?
A third way is to experiment with different types of pens or pencils. Some pens are smoother to write with, and therefore, would help to increase your writing speed.
17. Forgetting To Answer Unanswered Questions
"Forget to answer unanswered questions? This problem won’t happen to me!" you may think. Yet, this is a recurring problem in tests and exams. If everybody thinks it is a problem that won’t happen to him, then why does the problem still persist? It all boils down to carelessness.
Some students leave the difficult questions to the last, but they forget to return to a few of them later. Some students get stuck at a tough question and decide to skip it for the moment. Then they forget to skip back to the question.
Some students flip through a paper and one way or another, miss an entire page of questions. And, of course, there are rare cases of missing printed pages in a copy of a test or exam paper. And it so happens that the students who receive such papers never realise that, and so they never get the chance to answer the questions on the missing printed pages.
To avoid getting caught with the problem of forgetting to answer unanswered questions:
- Always check the number of questions in a test or exam paper the moment you receive it. Make sure their total marks add up to the maximum for that paper, e.g. 100 marks.
- Circle or highlight those questions that you cannot answer or choose to answer later. Remember to return to these circled or highlighted questions later.
- Always check the total marks of all the questions that you have answered add up to the maximum for that paper, e.g. 100 marks.
18. Failing To Check Your Answers
So you have finished a paper 30 minutes ahead of time. Do you
- look around you and sneer at those students who are still struggling with their papers,
- sit back and relax,
- ask the teacher or examiner whether you can leave early,
- wish fervently that time will pass quickly so that you can leave soon, or
- check your answers?
If you always check your answers once you have finished a paper ahead of time, good for you! Otherwise, you should start doing so!
What some students never realise is that, in their rush to finish a paper ahead of time, they may have inadvertently
- answered a question incorrectly or incompletely,
- left a question unanswered, or
- forgotten to fill in the blanks that resulted from their use of correcting fluids.
Always strive to complete a paper at least 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time. Then make use of this spare time to check through your paper at least twice. You may be pleasantly surprised that you can spot an error or two in your answers, and that you have the time needed to make the corrections.
19. Failing To Bring Along Required Stationery Or Items
You are sitting for a paper that requires the use of a calculator, compass and protractor, but you have forgotten to bring all of them! If you realise it in the midst of a paper, you will be stuck because you are not allowed to talk to the other candidates, and hence, you cannot borrow these items from them. If you realise it before a paper, you may not have better luck because your classmates will also need these items, and they are very unlikely to have spare ones. So what should you do?
First of all, list down the stationery and items that you will need for all your papers. On the day of a paper, look through this list and get the required stationery and items ready before you leave your house. Where possible, bring along at least two of each item and stationery you need, in case the first one malfunctions suddenly. This could mean bringing along two pens, two pencils, two erasers, two rulers, two protractors, two calculators and so on so forth.
In the event that you still forget to bring along a required item or stationery, seek help from your classmates, any teacher in your school’s Teachers’ Room or any staff in your school’s Principal’s Office if the paper is not due to commence yet.
If the paper has already commenced, don't just sit there and sigh, or try to get by without the use of the required stationery. Raise your hands and seek help from your teacher or the examiner immediately. They will try their best to help you.
20. Forgetting To Write Down Your Names And Other Personal Particulars
You have submitted your paper and your teacher has packed all the papers neatly. Suddenly, you realise that you haven’t written down your name, class and index number on your paper!
Fortunately, your teacher is the examiner in this case, and he or she can identify you and your handwriting. If you immediately inform him or her, he or she would be able to retrieve your paper for you, and you can quickly add in your name and other details on the spot.
But what if the examiner is not your teacher but a teacher from another school, and you inform him or her only after all the candidates have dispersed? In major examinations, such as PSLE, GCE "O" and "A" levels, and university exams, the examiners are usually not from your school. How would the examiner be able to verify if you are indeed one of the candidates who has sat for the paper?
Worst of all, what if the examiners have already left the school? The prospect of you getting zero mark for the paper is not unreal.
The only way you can prevent this problem from happening to you is to make sure that you write down your name and other personal particulars on every piece of your test or exam paper, and check that everything is in order before you submit your paper.
You should write down your name and other personal particulars on the inside pages of a paper as well, because sometimes a whole stack of papers may fall apart during transit.
With your name and other personal particulars on each piece of the test or exam paper, including the inside pages, you can feel safer and more secure.