How to be Rubbish at Exams

How to be rubbish at exams

Exams… Everyone hates ’em… You’ve probably found your way here because you want to know how to be good at taking exams, right?

So if I tell you How to be Rubbish instead, would that be OK? These anti-tips are designed to help you spot the common mistakes you’re making, and to offer tips on how to overcome them. And at the end of the article is a printable check list so you can remind yourself what NOT to do…

Don’t revise

Exams are about knowledge and technique, meaning if you don’t revise you’ll never have the correct level of knowledge.

I’ve got an article describing how to be totally rubbish at revising, which is worth a read if you haven’t already…

Don’t worry about logistics

There is no worse preparation for an exam than turning up late. You have put yourself at a psychological disadvantage compared to other students due to being stressed and harassed.

Make sure you’ve planned your exam day route in advance, and have left yourself enough time to get there. I always aim to have at least 30 minutes spare in my journey ‘just in case’.

Stationary doesn’t matter

What happens if your pen runs out? What happens if your calculator runs out of batteries or stops working? Make sure you have plenty of spare pens/pencils, and at least spare batteries if you need a calculator. Also make sure that you know the rules – i.e. some exam boards demand black ink and only allow certain models of calculator (which is true of CIMA – the last set of exams that I did).

Don’t worry about the format of the paper

Do you know how many sections there are in the paper, and what the mark split is between each of them? Do you know whether there is any choice between questions, or if you have to attempt all questions? These are really important facts that you must know the answer to. There is no better way to fail an exam than to either miss a mandatory section out, or to attempt two questions you’re supposed to choose between.

I’m a bit of a stickler for practicing papers, and this is a really good way to ensure that you know what you’re supposed to do in the exam hall. This helps you learn what the format is, so you intrinsically know it, meaning you don’t need to waste valuable exam brain space thinking about which questions you need to answer.

Stay up all night cramming

One of the most important contributions to exam success is a good nights sleep. If you cram until 2am you are very unlikely to get any quality sleep – your mind will be racing. Try and give yourself at least 30 minutes unwinding time before diving into bed to help you get good deep sleep.

I’ve mentioned this before but I hate cramming as a technique. You only need to cram if you’ve not put enough time into your revision, and this happens if you don’t give yourself enough time to revise or have a proper plan… Whew, rant over…


If you get caught cheating in an exam, there can be serious implications. You’ll probably fail the exam and get a black mark against your name. Future university or job applications may be impacted too. Also – can you be sure that the guy you’re copying from has got the answer right anyway?

Don’t answer the question asked

In the heat of the exam it’s really easy to skim read the question and dive straight into writing your answer. You’ve got loads of past paper questions swishing around in your short-term memory and you feel you know what the examiner wants.

This approach may lead you into the trap of answering the question you want them to ask, rather than the question they HAVE asked. The usual outcome for this is to gain zero marks – which is especially dangerous if it there are loads of marks allocated to the question.

My advice is to read questions twice before diving in. Granted, this is using up your valuable exam time, but I would rather lose a minute of writing time but gain a full understanding of what the examiner wants.

Don’t split your exam time by marks available

Every exam has a marking scheme – often this is clear in the paper itself. You need to allocate the same amount of time to each mark of the paper. If you spend the same amount of time on a 5 mark question as a 20 mark question then you’re not getting the balance right. You’ve either written too much for the 5 marker, or not written enough for the 20 marker.

In my CIMA exams we had 1.8 minutes per mark (3 hours paper giving 100 marks). My trick was to write down the actual time that I should start answering the question – e.g. Q1 09:00, Q2 09:10, Q3 09:35. This meant that I stayed in touch with the mark allocation and used my time in an efficient manner.

Leave the exam hall early

There are two reasons why people leave exams early

  1. They’ve decided that they’ve screwed the exam up
  2. They’ve decided that they’ve nailed it – and want everyone in the exam hall to know

Both are rubbish reasons to leave early. If you think you’ve mucked the exam up, then use every last scrap of time to try and eek another mark or two out. If you think you’ve nailed it – why don’t you have another read of the questions again, checking that you really have answered the question fully?


Exams are tests of your technique and knowledge and you need to make sure you’ve given yourself the best chance of passing. If you don’t think about the technique of exams then you are giving yourself an uphill struggle – no matter how knowledgeable you are in the subject matter.

If you enjoyed this latest post in my How to be Rubbish at Everything, then please share this with your friends. There are other articles in my How to be Rubbish series such as How to be Rubbish at Revising, How to be Rubbish at Interviews, and How to be Rubbish at Presentations which I hope you find useful.

The check-list below is a useful way to remind yourself what you need to not do to be great at exams – best of luck!

How to be rubbish at exams

Author: Oliver Gearing

Oliver Gearing is a beatboxing, acoustic looping, 38 year old father of 3. Sounds like an electrocuted version of Elbow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *