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Ten simple rules for passing an examination
I was a university lecturer for ten years; I've been a student of some sort all
my life. I've sat dozens of exams, set hundreds, and marked thousands. So I
guess I'm about as familiar as anyone with what goes on in university
examinations. When I was marking exams, I was disheartened by the number of
candidates who let themselves down in ways that could easily have been avoided.
There is, of course, no substitute when it comes to passing exams for a
commanding grasp of the subject. However, since few of us have the good fortune
to be able to devote all our time to study, or the innate talent that would
allow mastery of the subject without study, we have to get by with a modest
grasp of the subject, and whatever other skills we can bring to bear on exam
This article is not intended to be a cynical guide to manipulating the
process in your favour — you'll find those elsewhere. Its
more modest objective is to
suggest ways in which students can optimize their exam performance, taking
account of their limited time, resources, and — let's face it — subject
knowledge. It is based on insider knowledge of the exam system, but nothing I
write here is secret or arcane (so far as I know).
For the record, I have bachelor's degrees in engineering and law, and a
PhD in medical sciences. My own teaching and examination experience is
mostly in mathematics, computing, business, and pre-clinical
medicine (yes, I know it's an odd mix). Consequently,
what follows is somewhat biased towards these subject areas.
I don't know much about the arts, languages, humanities, or classics,
and for all I know the exam process might be different in these areas.
I should also point out that I am only familiar with what goes on
in UK institutions.
Know your enemy
Let's start with a bit of background information on the typical university
examination process. Please be aware that this does differ a bit from
one institution to another, but the basic principles should be
Most university examinations are set by the person or people who
teach the subject. Very likely, where a particular course or subject is
taught by a group of academics, one of the group will set the exam.
Sometimes each member of the group will set a question or two. The
important point here is that it is quite unusual for exams to be set
by people outside the immediate institution. Most likely you
would at least
recognize the examiner if you met him or her in the street. This arrangement
is totally different from that for school-level examinations, which are usually
set and marked nationally: the examiner and examinees are unlikely
ever to meet. As a university student, you must never lose sight of the
fact that the examiner wants you to pass,
and with a little encouragement will fall over himself or herself
to make sure that you get every mark that can be found on your answer paper.
Even the most cynical and debauched academic — the rare kind of person who
takes pleasure in showing contempt for the inadequacies of his students — knows that every student he fails is one he has to mark a re-sit paper
In many institutions examinations are set
before the course starts. There are both didactic (educational)
reasons and practical reasons for this. The didactic reasons include that
it should be possible to say at the outset what skills and knowledge
a particular course is
supposed to provide the student, and setting the examination is a good
way to focus on what these skills and knowledge are. The
practical reasons include the fact
that setting and moderating exams is time-consuming,
and if the examiners don't start early enough they won't have time to do
it properly. The larger a particular course is, the more likely it is that
examinations will be set in advance.
After writing and collating the questions, the proposed paper is usually
moderated, both by other academics in the same institution, and by
people from outside the institution. The first, internal, stage of
moderation is intended
largely to eliminate obvious mistakes from the examination; the second stage
is intended to ensure that examination standards for a given subject are
approximately consistent between institutions. However, it is sadly not
uncommon for mistakes to remain in the paper right up to
The exam paper will then usually go to an editor and a typesetter to be made
ready for distribution. Editors and typesetters do sometimes introduce their
own mistakes into papers, particularly in those subjects that use
jargon and symbols. So the person setting the exam is supposed to check the
proof copy for accuracy before printing; sometimes this happens, and
sometimes it doesn't.
University examinations themselves are not usually directed by academics.
That is, the examination hall itself will be in the charge
These people are carefully chosen for their incorruptibility and general
hardness of heart. They won't usually know anything about the subject, so they
can't be drawn into giving hints to students during the exam. In many
institutions the examiners are expected to be present in the exam, at least
at the start, to deal with any mistakes in the paper that have survivied
the moderation and scrutiny process. However, the continued presence of
academics in the exam room is discouraged, because examiners generally have
an all-too-human desire to see their students do well.
The other human failing which the exam process must guard against is bias.
University education is a process that is carried on between consenting adults,
lecturers will respond to their students in the same way as they would to
other adults. Sometimes there is good rapport between lecturer and student;
other times there can be fierce antagonism, even utter loathing between
them. I have to confess that, as a lecturer, I did occasionally have to deal
with students whom I thoroughly despised. I'm not proud of my lack of
equanimity, but I am at least prepared to acknowledge my weaknesses. It would
clearly be tragic if the examiners' personal feelings were allowed to influence
the outcome of examinations. The problem is compounded by the fact that bias
often exerts its effects subconsciously.
In any case, most
institutions now implement, or at least try to implement, anonymous marking.
The exam candidate does not provide any identification on the answer paper
except for a candidate number, so (in theory) the marker will be unaware of the
candidate's identity until all the marking is complete. In practice, these
schemes are rarely foolproof, particularly in institutions where examiners, and
not administrators, are responsible for collating the marks after the event.
Consequently, it pays to be nice to the person who will
be marking your exam. You might not be able to manage that — after all,
lecturers have the social skills of a hatstand — in which case you should at
least be civil. Engaging your examiner in social interaction is OK, but
you should probably stop short of actual flirtation (unless you're very subtle
about it.) Academics, for all their faults, are rarely stupid, and know
when they're being manipulated. By flirting with your examiner, you are
effectively saying: ''You are the sort of loser who is desperate and
unsophisticated enough to
respond to my
crude manipulative advances'', which isn't a message that will appeal
to anybody, even computer science lecturers whose sex-lives generally don't
involve another person. Rapport with professional detachment is the key — you probably can't (and shouldn't) influence the marking of the exam, but
you'll want the examiner on your side if things go wrong.
Similarly, you won't get the examiner on your side if you constantly act
like a smartarse in classes. It's OK to engage your tutors on their level — unless they are very immature or insecure — but repeatedly challenging
their knowledge and competence won't make you any friends. There's a world
of difference between being asked searching questions and being made to
look a fool in public.
Most institutions now operate at least a modicum of mark moderation. That is,
at least some papers will be looked at by more than one marker, to ensure
that the marking is fair, or at least consistent. It is exceptionally
difficult to do rigourous moderation of exams in large classes; the
people who are likely to be competent moderators will have their hands
full marking their own papers, and won't want to spend too much time
moderating other people's. What this means in practice is that your
mark will most likely be derived mostly from the scrutiny of your paper
by a single individual, for better or worse. Even those institutions that
claim to do true 'double marking' rarely do blind double marking, in
which one examiner is totally unaware of the marks awarded by another. Most
institutions that claim to double-mark really have a single marking
followed by a cursory check.
After all the marks have been collated, there will usually be a meeting to
finalize or ratify all the marks. This is the stage at which the examiners
will consider such matters as whether to make allowances for students' personal
circumstances (illness, for example). In order to save you a bit of time, I
should point out that your personal circumstances will have to be absolutely
catastrophic to have any influence on your marks. This is because, in a
large group of students, there will inevitably be a number who really are
severely disadvantaged. I can remember dealing with students who had lost their
entire families in wars, or were so ill that they didn't know whether they
would survive until graduation day, so your complaint of 'flu or hay fever will
cut you no slack at all. Examiners are sympathetic to students who find it
difficult to study because, for example, they have to work outside of classes
to make ends meet; but they won't make allowances for this in marking
because nearly all students are now in the same situation.
Institutions differ in the extent to which they will offer explanations for
students' marks. Some will say nothing at all; some do at least allow students
to look at their papers after the exam. Looking at your paper is likely
to be uninstructive because, at institutions that allow this, the examiners will have been coached to avoid making any comments on the papers they
are marking. British universities live in a perpetual terror of any student's
being able to bring a complaint about the examination process that will be
upheld by a court. It is generally believed that as soon as one student
succeeds in getting a judge to interve in the exam process, the floodgates
will be opened and every disappointed student will seek redress by litigation.
Consequently, universities strive to give as little information as they
possibly can to students about their exam performance.
So, that's the background. Now let's move on to what you need to do to
optimize your success.
1. Get a curriculum
You've only got a certain amount of time to study, so make sure you're studying
the right topics. This is not cynicism — you've got your
whole life to develop a broad and deep
knowledge of your discipline — in the few months of a typical university
course, you should be developing the knowledge you need for the exam.
It is now extremely unlikely that any university-level course will not
have a formal curriculum. It's also extremely unlike that any question will
be set that requires the canditate to range far beyond the formal
curriculum. Sometimes you'll find that the curriculum is defined
by a set textbook, in which case you need to buy, borrow, or steal that
textbook. There can be radical differences between the exam curriculum
for a particular subject as defined by different institutions, even where the
broad content of the course is set by some governing body (Law Society,
General Medical Council, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, or whatever).
Don't assume that, if a particular textbook is recommended for a course,
every topic in the textbook is fair game for the exam. For example,
many lecturers in criminal law recommend Smith and Hogan's textbook on
the subject, but this contains a large section on motoring offences, which
is hardly even examined at undergraduate level (but don't take my
word for this — check it yourself). At the same time, don't assume that
because a particular topic is not covered by your textbook, it isn't
important. Get a curriculum, and make sure you know exactly which topics
you need to master.
2. Get past papers
Unless your subject is an entirely new one in your institution, past
papers are by far the best guide to the content of next year's exam.
Institutions constantly warn students about relying too heavily on
'question spotting', but in practice the same sorts of question
do repeat year after year. Remember that academics hate setting exams,
and usually do the minimum necessary to satisfy institutional standards.
The easiest way to create a credible exam paper is to take last year's
paper and modify the wording a bit.
Some university lecturers provide this stuff as part
of the course materials (I always did); if yours don't, ask whether they
might like to start doing so now. It's very likely that the university will
require its examiners to produced worked solutions as part of the moderation
process, so it's probably not a huge amount of work for them to give last
to this year's students. Some institutions are so large and/or
popular that they publish worked answers to their past exam papers
in book form and, if they do, you should certainly try to get sight
of a copy. Having got all this stuff, you should then read it! The
first week of a course is not too early to read past papers, even
if you find them frightening at first. At least you will know what
the standard you should be aspiring to, even if that standard seems
unattainable at first.
3. Prepare early
It's never too early to start preparing for the exam. In the
first week of a course you should be in possession of a curriculum,
as many past exam papers as you can set hands on, examiner's reports
if you can find them, and at least one set of worked answers to
You should, even this early in the course,
already have an idea about which subject
areas are both (i) good examination material and (ii) to your taste.
This will give you an idea how much emphasis to place on studying
the various course areas as they are presented.
By selecting examination subjects early, you are in a better position to
benefit from classes. You can focus your attention, and your tutors',
more on those areas that will help you to succeed.
As you study, or attend classes, or whatever,
keeping asking yourself How does this fit into my examination strategy?
If, for example, you attend a lecture where the speaker wanders off
into a long digression about some subject that he or she happens to
find interesting, but does not appear to be something that will help you
succeed in the examination,
consider how meticulous you need to be in following it up. If a
subject appears to be regularly examined, but is treated only superficially
in classes, consider why that might be. If necessary, press your tutors
to explain the subject in more depth.
A word of warning — don't follow this strategy too rigorously.
Some examiners do change the content of examinations regularly and
radically. And, of course, there is
more to life, even university life, than exams. Classes are, or should
be, more than just a part of your exam preparation. If you don't enjoy
attending classes, you've probably picked the wrong subject to study.
4. Accept that revision for examinations cannot possibly be enjoyable
Good-quality revision hurts. However fascinated you are by the subject,
you won't enjoy the rigours of exam revision. If you do, you're not doing
it properly. In my experience, there are three
main ways in which students let themselves down
by trying to minimize the pain of revision.
First, students tend to revise those subject areas they know well, and
neglect areas which they find difficult. This is a terrible waste of
time, because the more you know about something, the harder it is
to improve your knowledge and understanding. This principle is where the
'learning curve' comes from. When you know little or nothing about a subject,
each day you spend studying it yields an approximately equal increase
in your level of understanding. As your understanding builds,
you can expect to learn a bit less on each successive day you spend studying.
Eventually, a point will come when it takes many days to improve your
knowledge and understanding even a small amount.
This wouldn't matter if you had unlimited time to prepare
for the exam; but you don't, and to make good use of your limited time
you have to be working in
the 'linear region' of the learning curve. That is, you need to be
working at the stage where each day you spend studying gives approximately
the same increase in your knowledge. If you already feel reasonably confident
in a particular subject, you are probably outside the linear region of
the learning curve already. You should probably be concentrating on
those subjects in which you don't have this level of confidence.
Second, students often revise in unproductive ways, even if they are spending
the right proportion of time on each subject. Of course, what is productive
will vary from one person to another; but you have to accept that productive
revision is likely to hurt, whoever you are. Gentle reading of textbooks
and lecture notes is very unlikely to be productive for anybody, but students
do it because it is painless. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen
students sitting with a textbook, painstakingly underlining what are though to
be important words with a marker pen. For my part, I know that
I can easily spend a whole day
reading a textbook and learn absolutely nothing. In my experience,
students who do best are those who revise by working through past exam papers,
in as near exam conditions as practicable. For myself, I find this form of
revision very uncomfortable; I suspect most other people do too, but that's
no reason not to do it if it works. You only have to do it for a few weeks, and
you have the rest of your life to reap the rewards.
Third, it is very easy to slip into displacement activities when revising. An
of this kind of behaviour is to spend so much time meticulously constructing a
'revision timetable', that you don't have any time left for real revision.
Fans of Red Dwarf may remember that this is why Arnold Rimmer failed
his engineering exam eleven times.
Displacement activities, in short, are ways to avoid doing something, in a
doing-it kind of way. There are many more subtle examples than Rimmer's
exam timetable. For example,
to do well in an examination on English constitutional law you must
have a good grasp of current political issues. You might find that reading
(some) newspapers is a good way to obtain such knowledge. However, reading the
newspaper is much easier and less painful that studying exam questions, so it's
easy to find yourself spending a whole day reading newspapers. You'll
feel that you've been working hard, but all but the first half and
hour will have been wasted. The only way to
avoid displacement activities or, at least, the only way I have found, is to
schedule a fixed time for revision, in a place which is free from all
distractions. It is a sad fact that many exam candidates work extremely hard at
their displacement activities. I have heard students complain about how tired
they are after a hard day's revision — maybe they've been busy for twelve
hours or more without a break — but when questioned it is clear that little
benefit has been achieved. Revision is difficult and unpleasant enough that you
ought to ensure that what you do offers maximum long-term benefit, and not
minimal short-term unpleasantness. It's better to schedule a short period of
productive revision, than to waste a much longer time in displacement.
You might think that these various strategic failings are exclusively
encountered in the less competent students, but you'd be wrong. I've
seen smart, capable people fall into all the same traps.
5. Make sure you know the exam drill
Find out well before the exam what format it will take, if possible.
That is, find out how many questions you have to answer, in how much
time. Found out whether the questions carry equal marks, or whether
some will have a higher weighting. If the questions are divided into
sections, find out whether you can expect each section to carry equal
marks, or not. Find out whether you are permitted to read the paper
before the official start time. Most importantly, find out how much
choice you will be allowed in selecting the questions to attempt.
If you expect to have a wide choice, you should concentrate on
learning a relatively small part of curriculum really well. If all the
questions are compulsory, you may have to sacrifice depth for breadth
to make best use of the time you have to prepare.
Many institutions impose exam format standards on its examiners, so even
if a particular examiner won't tell you, you may be able to find out
from the university administration. Don't assume that the format will
be the same as last year's exam — find out for certain. Finding this stuff
out in advance of the exam doesn't mean that you don't need to check
the instructions on the front of the paper, but it does mean that in your
preparation you can practise answering the right sort of questions in
the right amount of time. It also helps to reduce nervousness on exam
6. Know the type of question you are good at
Most examinations will present questions of different types:
you may be asked to write
essays, solve problems, calculate things, design things, or
whatever is appropriate to the subject. In most disciplines
it's quite unusual
to find that all the exam questions are of the same type. If
your subject traditionally poses different types of question in
its examinations, and you expect to have a choice in the questions
you attempt, then you should be realistic about the type of
question you do well at. For example, I have found that I am relatively
good at problem-solving questions, and relatively bad at writing
essays. I'm not sure why this should be, as I've been writing professionally
for over a decade (in fact, perhaps that's the reason). In any case,
if you have found in the past that you do better in one sort of question
than another, then you may need to make a tactical decision to answer a
question on a subject you know less well, but which is in a format
7. Practice writing in general
Remember that your examiner is human, and will favour a paper
that is easy to mark. The examiner may be marking several
hundred papers to mark in a few days, so anything that makes this task
easier will help your cause. My heart always sank when I
opened a paper and found it full of illegible scrawl, spelling
mistakes, bizarre grammar, or slang. Of course these things
shouldn't matter in an examination on, say, quantum theory. But
they do, believe me. It is just no fun marking an illegible exam script.
It is particularly important in these days of
word processors that examination candidates practise writing
with a pen — if your examination is the only time in a whole year
when you've had to wield a pen, you're unlikely to write very
clearly. Remember also that your examiner is probably from a
different sub-stratum of society from you. Unless you are a perpetual
student like me, the examiner will most likely be older than you, perhaps
two generations older. He or she will very likely be of a different
ethnic group or different social background. What all this means is
that your writing style should be as neutral as possible.
That way what you write is unlikely to give offence, or be incomprehensible,
even if it isn't very exciting.
8. Read all the questions before you start writing any answers
Unless your exam is very short, you can almost certainly afford to spend
ten minutes reading the paper all the way through, in detail. Not only
will this allow you to rank the questions in terms of how competently you
think you can answer them, but it will help to ensure that you have understood what each question is asking. In most subjects, you won't get more than one
question on a particular curriculum area or topic, because setting even
a single decent question on a particular topic is difficult enough, and
setting more than one is purgatory. So if your scrutiny of the
paper reveals two or more questions that appear to cover the same ground,
consider whether you've understood the questions properly. It is best to
figure out that you don't know what a question is asking before you get
half an hour into answering it.
9. Pace yourself
This is probably the most important piece of advice anyone can offer
about examinations. Work out the time you have available to answer
questions (after taking off the initial time spent reading all the questions),
and divide it by the number of questions you have to answer. Then
make sure that you spend no more than that time on any question.
In general, if you have 30 minutes to answer a question, you'll get most
of the marks you're likely to get in 10-15 minutes. If you spend an
hour on a thirty minute question, you probably won't get many more marks
than you would get in twenty minutes, and you'll have wasted 30 minutes.
It is extremely difficult to follow this rule in practice. If you feel you're
doing well at answering a question, and you get to your time limit,
it is very difficult to stop and move onto the next question. But you have to: it's essential. If you have time left at the end of the paper, you can always
come back to the question and finish it. If you don't have time, you will be
trading the easy marks you can get on another question for the difficult ones
remaining on a question you have already done your best with.
10. Don't waste any time during the exam
Over my years of marking exams, I noticed a number of common practises that can
only have served to waste the candidate's time and throw marks away. For
example, many students liked to start answering a question by restating the
question itself. In some cases the question would be repeated verbatim.
Other times students summarised the question. Why? It's just a waste
of precious time, and gives the marker the impression that you don't know
what you're doing. Similarly, many students had a tendency to over-introduce
their answers; I'd find sentences beginning, for example, ''In order to
answer the question [whatever] I will begin by [blah, blah]...'' This
verbiage takes time to write, and adds no useful content. In examinations
where students were permitted to refer to textbooks or reference materials,
I often found students copying huge swathes of text out of the books.
Why? Did they think that I didn't know they had these books with them?
In most 'open book' examinations, you should plan not to have to open
the book. If you have to refer in detail to a reference book in the exam,
you will be wasting time you should be spending writing your answer.
If you're allowed textbooks or reference books during the exam, pick books
that you've used for study and know intimately. Ideally you want a book
that will fall open at the right page when you pick it up — time spend
poring over the index is time you can't use for writing the answer.
Finally — and I know this is going to make me sound like your mum — make
sure you visit the lavatory before starting the exam. Most invigilators will
assist on candidates being escorted to the lavatory and back if they have to
answer a call of nature during the exam. This is not only undignified, it
considerably extends the time required to fulfil the purpose of the visit.
And another thing...
Some of the points discussed above may seem so blindingly obvious that they
hardly need stating; but they're not so obvious that students always
take note of them. There are a few other things that I hesitate to mention,
because they seem self-evident to me; but experience has shown me that they
aren't self-evident to everyone.
Take whatever equipment and materials to the examination that you think will be
useful. If you don't know whether you'll be allowed to use, say, a calculator,
take one anyway if you think it will help. The worst that can happen is that
you won't be allowed to use it. If you don't take one, the worse that can
happen is that your exam performance will be judged alongside the performance
of students who had the good sense to bring their calculators. This sounds mad,
but when I used to set examinations I always told students that they would need
calculators. Then I would visit the exam room with a pocketfull of spare
calculators that I had rounded up from my colleagues. Invariably I wouldn't
have enough calculators to go round. In every exam I marked I would read
answers that concluded ''I think the answer is about 3.2, but I forgot to bring
If you need to take medication, and your examination is a long one, bring
whatever medication you need. The last thing you need in a difficult
examination is an added dose of clinical discomfort. If you hardly ever suffer
from headaches, trust Sod's Law to give you a headache on exam day. When I
invigilated exams, I always made packet of paracetamol tablets available to
candidates with headaches, and often the packet wasn't large enough.
If you do badly in an exam, try to find out why — don't just assume that
the fault is all yours. Marks do get counted wrongly, pages fall out of
answer scripts or get stuck together, markers often overlook bits of answers
tucked away at the end of a script, and so on. It is very unlikely that
you will be able to engage the examiner in a discussion about why your
take on the subject is better informed than the examiner's. Why? Because
if an academic becomes known as the kind of person who will negotiate
about marks after the exam, he will never get any peace for the rest of
his career. However, most people are decent enough to look over the answer paper
to see if any pages have fallen out, or bits of answers overlooked.
It is at this point that the professional rapport you have established
with your examiners becomes important.
University examinations are difficult, and unless you're studying for
fun a lot depends on the outcome. The most important thing to remember
when studying and preparing for exams is this: you have to play
by the rules, but you don't have to play fair. Of course you
shouldn't cheat, or do anything dishonourable, but you should use
all the resources of planning, intelligence, and strategy, that you
can bring to bear. In university examinations, everyone can get a First — indeed, most insitutions would be overjoyed if this happened. It isn't
necessary that other people do badly so that you can do well, and you aren't
weakening other people's chances by strengthening your own.
Some people — usually other academics —
tell me that the advice I give to students is 'unfair'. But
why should students play the game the way we academics want them to?
The dice are loaded against them from the start: we make them pour
out six months of accumulated knowledge in a mere three hours or so,
in conditions unlike any they will ever experience again, then we
judge the results against standards which cannot possibly be objective
and which we cannot explain. We give them little or no redress if they
do badly because of our mistakes, even to the extent of
concealing the details of our marking processes so that they
cannot be challenged.
Against that sort of odds, why on Earth should students play fair?
No — any tactic that you wouldn't be embarassed to explain to
your mother (or your children) is fair game in this business.
Of course this doesn't mean that I am condoning cheating, or extortion,
or bribery — of course not. I merely advocate a sensible, considered
use of all the information at your disposal, deployed to its best effect.