Silly mistakes can make up to 5 or 6 marks in an exam – and losing those marks could stop you from getting the grade you deserve.

We asked examiners which mistakes they often see, along with some hints and tips on how to avoid them.

1)   Not reading the question properly

Our brains have a habit of seeing what they want to see, and this is especially true during moments of high-pressure – like sitting an exam. 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 answer a question that wasn’t asked. Even if the answer you leave is amazing, if it doesn’t answer the set question you won’t get any marks. Read the question very carefully, and then read it again to help you thoroughly absorb exactly what the question is asking. You could highlight or underline the main points in the question to easily re-check during your response.

2)   Not properly planning an answer

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, or you’ve already made that point;
  • 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;

The solution to the above problems is proper planning. Spending a short time (give yourself a time limit) planning the structure of your answer ensures that you have considered all the major aspects of the question before you start to write your response. Whilst the time pressure of an exam can make this feel like a luxury, planning will allow you to write the answer more quickly and in a better constructed way. A carefully planned answer is likely to gain you more marks than an unplanned or poorly planned answer.

3)   Carelessness

Getting characters’ names or other basic factual details wrong, especially when it has been given to you in the exam paper, shows not only that you didn’t plan properly but could give the impression that you didn’t understand the question.

A good tip during the planning phase is to write down the main points you want to cover in your response. Once you’ve written the answer, re-read the question and double check the facts you’ve given correspond with it.

4)   Over generalisation

Where possible give specific, and relevant, examples when you are making a statement. Not only does it get straight to the point, as it shows that you know what you are talking about – and makes it easier for the examiner to understand what you’re trying to say and give you the mark you want.  Those who mark your paper always prefer correctness and specificity.

5)   Illegible writing or writing in the wrong place

Near the end of the exam, when time is running short, most students’ handwriting will deteriorate. With many exam scripts now being marked on-screen, it’s even more important to have legible handwriting. Don’t miss out on marks for something as simple as poor handwriting. Take 30 seconds to stretch out your hand and fingers if they’re starting to suffer from your intense writing!

The same principle goes where it comes to where you write your answers. Avoid writing in the margins or at the bottom of the exam page as they can get cut off or obscured when marked online. Instead, always asked for another piece of paper and leave a note at the end of each page directing people to where you’ve written the rest of the answer.

6)   Lack of analysis

It can be tempting to parrot everything you know when writing essays and exam answers. But to demonstrate your understanding, you should engage critically with your source material. When you are writing your response, always assume you are writing to an informed reader — they do not need a plot summary or biographies of key figures. Whilst it can be frustrating not to be able to evidence all your knowledge, it is important to keep your answer relevant to the question asked – which is just as much about knowing what to leave out as what to include.

Before you sit your exam, read through the grade boundaries and past papers. You will notice some very telling words and phrases attached to the highest marks, for example: “originality of interpretation”, “astute engagement” and “critical thought” – most of which praise analysis.

When it comes to exams, sensible planning, careful timing and a diligent approach to each question may be all it takes to pick up those extra few marks that might be needed to push you up to the next grade.