10 Exam Mistakes That Lose Easy Marks and How to Avoid Them

Image shows rows of green exam desks.
Exams subject us to an uncomfortable amount of pressure, making us feeling as though the entire sum of our education is leading up to this one chance to prove ourselves.

The stress and pressure of the exam situation can lead you to make some silly mistakes that cost you marks, but by remaining calm and planning carefully, you can avoid losing precious marks and give yourself the best chance of achieving the top grades. Good exam technique can make the world of difference, and you can greatly improve your marks by not falling into the traps we discuss in this article.

1. Not reading the question properly

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Make sure you read the paper thoroughly.

Human brains have a habit of seeing what they want to see, and this is especially true in the high-pressure environment of the exam room. If you don’t read a question carefully enough, your brain can easily trick you into thinking that the question is asking you something that it’s not – leading you to write a completely different essay that doesn’t answer the actual question you’ve been set. The essay you write might be brilliant – but if it doesn’t actually answer the question, you won’t be receiving many marks for it. Read the question very carefully, and then read it again. To help you thoroughly absorb exactly what the question is asking, you can circle or underline important words to keep you on track – instructional words such as “compare and contrast”, for example.

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2. Writing the essay you want to write, not the one you’ve been set

Even if you’ve understood the question, it’s still very easy to fall into the trap of writing the essay you want to write, rather than the essay you’ve been set. This is a particular problem if you’ve over-revised a certain topic area and know it inside out, but it ends up not coming up in the exam; you want to show off all that you’ve learned, and it can be tempting to shoehorn it into an essay whether it’s relevant or not. While it’s undoubtedly frustrating that you’ve had to learn lots of material that hasn’t even come up in the exam, it’s crucial to remain focused on the question and choose the material you refer to carefully. That’s not to say that the material you’ve revised might not still be relevant to the question in some way; but you’ll have to be very careful to make sure that it does support the point you’re making.

3. Not writing an essay plan

Image shows a young man holding a map in a forest.
Your plan is vital so you don’t have to stop halfway through and figure out where you’re going.

To answer an exam question effectively, it’s important to have a structure for your essay in mind before you begin. If you don’t write a plan beforehand, you risk losing your train of thought, forgetting what you were going to say, or writing things incoherently and in the wrong order. What’s more, you could be writing up to four essays in an exam, and you’ll be moving swiftly from one to the next, to the next, and then to yet another one. This is a bit of a tall order, and requires the mental agility to switch quickly from thinking about one topic to another. Writing a plan for each essay serves as a sort of ‘barrier’ between each essay, allowing your mind a little breathing space to shift the focus of your thinking from one topic to the next. You don’t have to write a detailed plan – there isn’t time for that, in any case – just enough to jog your memory and keep your writing on the right track. A very brief bullet point list, with one or two words summarising each area you want to cover, in the right order, will suffice. Here’s an example of what an essay plan could look like if I were to answer the subject of this article as an exam essay:
i. Introduction
ii. Reading questions/planning
iii. Timings
iv. Multiple choice
v. Checking, spelling/grammar
vi. Conclusion
As you can see, this plan provides a rough structure of the areas to be covered, without going into detail. It’s enough to jog my memory about what I’m going to write about, and I can come up with specific points as I write. It took less than a minute for me to write this plan down, having spent a couple of minutes prior to writing this article thinking about what points I was going to cover. Spending too long planning is another potentially costly mistake, of course – so be equally disciplined in only allowing yourself a couple of minutes for this task.

4. Leaving the easiest questions until last

However sensible it might seem to try to get the difficult questions over and done with first – leaving the nice easy ones as a reward to finish with – this is not always a good idea. If you’ve identified questions you think you can answer relatively easily, do them first. This way, you quickly pick up marks ‘upfront’. If you start with the difficult questions, you may not answer them as well as the easier ones, therefore gaining fewer marks, and you may end up spending too long on them, meaning that you run out of time for answering the ones for which you could have got more marks. So, work through the exam paper and get as many marks as you can from the questions you find more straightforward, and tackle the trickier ones later.

5. Running out of time

Image shows a pocket watch with leaf-veined wings, surrounded by stars. Everything is a dreamlike blue.
Watch the clock and try not to run out of time.

It’s a classic student mistake: spending too long on the first few questions and not leaving enough time to finish, meaning an incomplete final essay. Timing is crucial in an exam, and must be carefully rationed, as you’ll have a lot to get through in a very short space of time. You’ll probably have seen some past papers prior to going into the exam (if you haven’t, make sure you do!), so you’ll know exactly how many questions you can expect to get. From there, you can calculate how long you have to answer each question, including factoring in a couple of minutes at the start and end for planning and checking. There should be a clock in the exam room, so play close attention to it and stick rigidly to the time you have available for each question. If you happen to complete the answer to the question before the end of your time slot for it, move onto the next question anyway. This gives you more leeway for answering trickier questions; alternatively, extra time can be used to check over your answers (we’ll discuss leftover time in more detail in point 9, below).

6. Trying to write a full essay when you’re running out of time

Ploughing on with answering a question as an essay when you’re rapidly running out of time is another common mistake that can lose you easy marks. If you’re about to run out of time, quickly jot down in bullet points (in more detail than your plan, ideally) what you would have said in the remainder of the essay. That way, the examiner can see that you’ve thought about the question, and they’ll know what you would have written if you’d had time. You may gain some more marks this way, while if you run out of time mid-flow on the essay, the examiner will have no idea about all those excellent points you might have made.

7. Leaving multiple choice questions blank

Image shows a path under a bridge, which forks into two possible directions.
If wrong answers don’t lose you marks, always make a guess if you’re stuck on a multiple-choice question.

Multiple choice questions are one of the easier styles of exam, as they give you a finite number of possible answers that can sometimes mean that even if you don’t know the answer, you can deduce it by working out which answers are less likely to be the right one. However, some students lose out on easy marks by not putting any answer at all for the questions they don’t know the answer to. You’re not going to lose marks for an incorrect answer, and the chances are one in four (or however many answer options you have) that you pick the right one – so you may as well make a guess at the questions for which you don’t know the answers. You’ll often be able to rule out some of the answers, which could narrow your choice down to one of two possible answers – so there’s a 50/50 chance that you’ll get an extra mark, which is definitely a chance worth taking!

8. Other multiple choice question conundrums

It’s all too easy to overlook the fact that you’ve already answered a multiple choice question and answer it again with a different answer, leaving two boxes ticked and an examiner who has no idea which you meant to mark as the correct answer – and no choice but to give you no marks for this question. It’s also easy to circle one answer when you know that you meant to circle a different one. If you’re sitting a multiple choice paper, it’s important to allow enough time at the end to check through all your answers to make sure that the correct ones are circled. If you change your mind and want to cross out an answer, make sure it’s very clear that this is not your answer by putting a big cross through it, just so that there’s no possible ambiguity.

9. Leaving the exam room early

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Tempting as it is to leave early, your celebrations can wait for an extra half hour.

If you’ve worked very efficiently, or found the exam easy, you may steam through it with time to spare. At this point, some students make the mistake of leaving the exam room. Once you leave it, it’s too late – you can’t go back in for something you thought of including in hindsight. So, even if you finish early, use that extra time at the end to read through your answers and make sure that you’ve answered them to the best of your abilities. As you read through what you’ve written, you may find that additional points occur to you that would be worth including. If this happens, write an asterisk in the place where your point should go, and continue writing on a separate sheet of your answer booklet, which should also be marked with an asterisk. It may not be the neatest solution, but it’s better than missing out on the extra marks you could gain with your extra information. You can also use this extra time to proofread your answers, for the reason given in our next and final point…

10. Poor spelling and grammar

GCSE and A-level marking schemes generally include a few marks that can be allocated for good spelling and grammar. If your answer paper is littered with errors, you’ll miss out on an easy few extra marks that could mean the difference between two different grades. Even if you consider yourself to be a grammar fiend, you’d be amazed at the simple mistakes it’s possible to make under pressure – writing “write” instead of “right”, for instance, or similarly elementary errors that you’d never make under normal circumstances. If you have enough time at the end of the exam (ideally, try to plan to have enough time), you can spend it checking through your essays to ensure that your spelling and grammar is impeccable. If your handwriting is difficult to read, this could lose you marks as well, so if you spot words that could be clearer, strike through them and write them out more clearly just above.
When it comes to exams, sensible planning, careful timing and a diligent approach to each question is all it takes to pick up a few marks here and a few marks there. One or two marks here and there may not sound significant, but if you’re close to a grade boundary, it could mean the difference between an A and an A* (for example). And that could prove incredibly significant when it comes to your university application and the courses that will be available to you based on your grades. As you can see, though, there are numerous ways in which you can pick up extra marks in the exam room simply by avoiding common pitfalls.


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Image credits: banner; read the paper; map; clockchoice; cupcakes