Exam Myths

Bullet Points

If I run out of time it’s ok – I can just write lots of bullet points and the examiner will take out the bits that are relevant and give me good marks.

If you have had a time management disaster and you find that you have 5 mins to go, it’s better to write bullet points than nothing at all but make sure that they’re relevant.

It is much better to manage your time so that 15 minutes before the end of your essay time you decide whether or not you need to rush the last bit of your paper. If you give yourself 15 minutes you’ll have time to use all your relevant bullet points but to write in proper sentences, to make them part of your argument rather than a fragmented afterthought.

Bullet points are only to be considered if you’re desperate. Any credit given for them will inevitably be limited. Please manage your time so that you can avoid the need to jot down notes. Bullet points will weaken your essay by fragmenting it but if you’re desperate and your points are good then it’s better to write them down than not o be able to include them at all.

I have to show the examiner everything I know

No, you don’t. You should know far more than you can demonstrate in a mere 3 hours! You need to show the examiner that you can apply your knowledge and understanding to the question ie from your vast wealth of knowledge you pick out the bits that are relevant to the question you have chosen. That is one of the things the exam is testing – not just knowledge but the ability to apply it appropriately.

Think about it as a shopping basket. If you’re asked to get a basket of fruit and you come back with an enormous basket of cakes and biscuits, you haven’t done the job you were asked to do. The fact that your basket may be more attractive is sadly not relevant 🙂 and neither is the effort you have put into finding all the cakes and putting them into the basket. If the basket is supposed to have fruit in it, put fruit in it. If the question asks you about the representation of marriage in Jane Austen, do not write about how much you enjoyed reading about piracy in Defoe.

Biographical detail is important

Rarely. The examiner doesn’t need to know when writers were born or where. If you’re writing about crime in Defoe it would be good to point out that Defoe was himself a prisoner in Newgate for a time (and to explain why this is significant) but there would be no point telling us when he was born or what he liked to eat for breakfast.

Examiners give better marks if you have good handwriting

Nope. If a script is so poorly written that it is unintelligible then it creates the impression of being fragmented and disorganised but if the essay itself is brilliant every examiner I have worked with would mark it according to its content. They may curse the anonymous writer for making their job so hard and reach for a strong espresso 🙂 but they will not penalise for scruffy handwriting. What’s important is that your writing is readable so that the examiner can see what you’re trying to say.  Please try to write reasonably so that the examiner can decipher your brilliance but do not worry if you cross things out, smudge your paper or write a bit scruffily.

The examiner won’t notice

Whatever it is, she or he will notice – it’s their job. Do not try to pass off irrelevant material to pad out your essay. Just write a relevant coherent essay – don’t wreck it with material that will weaken it.

My essay is too short

Two relevant pages will get better marks than six pages which are full of repetition and irrelevance. Students understandably get stressed about how long an essay should be. Examiners just care about how good the essay is. It’s common sense: if you write one paragraph you’re in trouble but within reason a short essay (at a rough guess two pages) can be surprisingly good, although a four page version with more detail would be even better.

Perhaps the most important bit of advice I can give:

Examiners are human beings. Believe it or not we are looking for reasons to give you marks.

Help us to give you decent marks:

be relevant, support your points with textual reference and / or quotation, write as clearly as you can.



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