Sometimes it only takes the deathly pallid stare from a blank sheet of A4 paper to get our knees a’knocking; confidence crumbling into nervous dust as the tick-tock of a booming clock counts down on our future…


Yes, it’s exam time again and the annual panic has set in among parents and students as the value of decent results continues to be held in the highest regard.

It’s down to you to do everything you can to prepare for your exams, but there are some common mistakes that students make time and again that can be kicked to the floor before they rear their ugly heads – check my list of the top ten avoidable exam and essay mistakes, you know it makes sense:

1) Misreading the question: It’s an oldie but a goody, I know I’ve done it – the classic error made by countless pepped-up students as they sit down raring to fire off a few well-rehearsed lines. Try to look objectively and thoughtfully at the question being asked – though it may have a few key words in common with practice questions you’ve been revising, resist the urge to go into autopilot, so many marks are lost every year in this way. Time spent reading and reflecting on the question is as valuable as time spent writing the answer to it.

2) Laziness: Tighten up on silly textual errors such as getting events, places or character names wrong when referring to key texts. Conveying confidence in your knowledge base and showing keen attention to detail are highly desired attributes in further education and employment, and it won’t go unnoticed.

3) Sloppiness: As important (if not more) as its sister above, high standards of English and grammar are expected by whoever is marking your paper. The dire standards of Facebook chat language are not welcome habits to fall into – spend time reading academic journals and books in your subject areas paying particular attention to the detail, tone, manner and way that sentences are put together. Use this as a guide to develop your own style. You should practice writing as often as possible, even if it’s just a little a day to keep sharp. NEVER rely on spellchecks to learn spellings and grammar!

4) Being swayed by others: Tempting as it is, one of the worst things we can do in the exam hall is pay any attention to what the person next to us is doing. When we look up and see that they’re on the last question, or on their fourth sheet of extra paper we so often panic and start scribbling away until our pen nibs glow red-hot. Relax – there’s no saying what they’re doing is right and you need to run your own race at your own pace.

5) Procrastinating: The build up to key exams is always an intense and nervous time, so much so that when we finally sit down to face the paper a mental block can descend like the fog. Easy as it is to say, try to relax, take a deep breath and get some initial questions answered or some early thoughts down on paper and the rest should flow.

6) Didn’t plan: You need to take time (the first 5-10 min) to plot your way through the test or paper and plan the questions you’re going to answer in order of how confident you feel in that subject area. Bag some marks on the questions that you find easiest to answer first and then move on to the trickier ones. If you try to tackle the tough ones first and hold the others in reserve, you’re liable to lose confidence and vital time if you can’t overcome them.

7) Leaving it blank: As shown above, there’s no shame (and often even an advantage) in skipping over some questions and coming back to others later on. What is vital, however, is that you get at least something down – leaving questions unanswered or blank is only ever going to lead to a zero. Is there something, anything relevant you can put in the answer box? Take a punt, there’s nothing to lose.

8) Taking it for granted: Sometimes (rarely, I concede) we can be so confident ahead of exams we breeze through the paper with time to spare. Don’t rest on your laurels – use that extra time to check through thoroughly in case you’ve missed any questions, forgotten any salient points or just to correct spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s an advantage, don’t waste it dreaming of the after-exam party.

9) Give too much credence to word count: Though word count is important, it’s there as a guide and shouldn’t be taken too literally. Too many students substitute quantity over quality because they’re panicking about not making the count. Shorter, pithier, more relevant answers pull more marks than waffle. Good essays demonstrate personal reflection, not accurate word count.

10) Relying on too few sources: Particularly rife with university students, focusing in-depth on one or two sources and spending all your time trying to memorise them parrot-fashion doesn’t convey confidence and knowledge of a subject like wholesome reading around the topic. This takes time and can’t be done in a few short days leading up to the exam. The more you read, the deeper your understanding and the more prepared you’ll be for a wide range of questions.

Cheers for taking the time to read my top ten tips on avoiding common exam and essay mistakes – I hope it helps at least one of you in your quest for success!

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.