Exam Writing Strategies

March 28, 2018

So it's right about time for midterm exams now, and a lot of students are hammering away studying hard order to do well on the exam. I've written a guide to studying efficiently in the past, but after writing that, I realized that studying is only really half the battle. The other half, of course, is actually writing the exam.

After all my terms at Waterloo, I've noticed a consistent trend in how exams are graded and formatted, and I've developed a strategy for writing the exam itself, which I will be sharing with you guys today. This strategy to actually writing an exam has helped me a lot on collecting my thoughts, optimizing my time, and also being able to answer questions to the best of my ability. I've tried to group my overall strategy into tips that I hope will be useful and provide some insight for anyone reading this. Do note that this article is catered mostly towards social science exams with a mix of questions (multiple choice, short answer, long answer).

Tip #1: Go through the whole exam very quickly at the beginning of the exam

The moment you see your exam, you should go over quickly the whole exam and make sure you have every page, while also quickly checking out the longer answer questions. That way, you have the time to come up with some first thoughts on those essay questions, and also are able to come up with points for the long answer questions while you churn through the rest of your exam.

But of course, you're asking me now how one is supposed to think of answers to a question as they're answering another question. Here's my take on this: think about all the times you've written a paper. The hardest part is thinking about what to write, rather than the actual writing. The actual writing can be done pretty easily, and your mind doesn't need to entirely be on topic to do so.

Sometimes, I'll be writing a response to a completely different question and a thought that would be useful for a long answer question randomly pops up in my head. By going through the long answer very quickly at the beginning, you're allowing yourself the full time of the exam for coming up with ideas to write here and there. This strategy is most useful for midterms that have a short answer component and a long answer one, as you're able to collect ideas while writing your short answers, which tend to be more straightforward.

Tip #2: Do not focus on grammar, punctuation, spelling, aesthetic writing, or even (mostly) form/structure

The key intuition here is that you have limited time. You might have two hours or so to churn out four short answers of half a page each, and two long answer questions of one to two pages each. The last thing you should be focusing on is your spelling, grammar, or writing prose. Numerous professors have told me that they do not care at all about grammar or spelling or writing style in an exam. They too understand that you're highly pressured for time and are stressed out due to the large amount of work required to be done in those two hours or so.

So the key here is to get your ideas out. Push your thoughts and ideas down on paper as fast as you can, making sure that each question can be answered with as many relevant points as possible. Stuff like punctuation, grammar, and spelling are expected only in an essay assignment, but in a time-sensitive test environment, that's your last priority. It's a hard thing to let go if you're a perfectionist and want to make your answer as pretty as possible, but spending the extra time trying to pretty it up will only harm you in the long run.

Tip #3: Skip questions that are not immediately known. Go back to them later onward

This tip is pretty commonly stated - the key intuition here is two-fold. Firstly, you would want to save as much time as possible. The more time you have, the more time you would be able to spend on other questions that you could immediately solve. There's to point in spending time on a question you don't immediately know. It would be better to start focusing on the other questions, and come back to it when you have time. Furthermore, you might suddenly find the answer or have a spark of thought while writing your answers to other questions.

Secondly, skipping a question means that your balance won't be thrown off. Oftentimes, professors put a very difficult multiple choice question smack in the middle of the midterm and that might throw a student off for the rest of the midterm. They could start doubting themselves or they could start panicking because they know for sure they messed up something already.

Tip #4: For multiple choice questions, always remember to choose the most correct one

This one's a hard one - I'll admit it. Everyone's been there. You through the multiple choice and you notice that all the answers look the same and any one of them could be correct. Here's when you have to think about what is most correct, or what is most applicable in this scenario. It will require some careful reading, but here was a tricky example that always helped me.

Think about the following question: Saturn (the planet) is unique in our solar system in that it has _______. The potential answers are A) a ring system, B) a composition of gases, C) 62 moons, D) a rocky core. Now one might easily get tricked and answer A, because Saturn is most known for its ring system. But actually, the other 3 gas giants in the solar system also have ring systems so it would not be the correct answer. Similarly, B and D are not correct through the same intuition. What does that leave us? The 62 moons.

Tip #5: Never ever leave a question blank. Always answer everything, even if your answer will be bad.

This is pretty common intuition, but I have seen in some cases where people leave a question completely blank. When I ask them why, the response is often "oh I didn't know what to write". This is not a legitimate reason to leaving a question blank at all. If you know very little, try to bring together at least some related concepts. From my experience writing essay questions in midterms and exams, the marking scheme oftentimes for essay-type questions is very generous up until the 50% range. You could write absolute junk and still get away with 50%, maybe even a 60%. The key here is to scavenge whatever marks you can, on the questions you don't know, and hope the other questions will boost your grade.

Sometimes, people say "oh I ran out of time". While this is a more legitimate reason to leave a question blank, it shows a deeper problem of flawed time management strategies. The most efficient way to tackle exams when your time is limited is to answer each question as best as you can with the time available, even if you cannot answer a question perfectly. Perfectionists have a lot of difficulty with this, as they will try to give a glowing answer for each question before moving on, and this bites into the time that they have. However, this results in having perhaps 70% of the questions done perfectly, while the other 30% is entirely incomplete. The 30% incomplete will bite heavily into your mark.

Let's compare two scenarios, with the principle that the higher one's mark is on a question, the more difficult it is to increase it further (i.e. getting a 60% to a 70% is far easier than getting a 70% to an 80%) In the first scenario, someone who is keen on perfecting their answers spends all the time of the exam answering four questions perfectly out of six. That's a 67% at best, generously assuming that each perfect answer got a 100%. In the second scenario, someone else spends the time to answer all the questions, with some answers being good (80-90%) but some being terrible (40-60%) due to not knowing anything. However, as this person answered everything, their mark might be somewhere closer to 75% or even 80%, with the strong answers balancing out the weak ones.


I hope that this guide has helped everyone who read through it! The transition from high school to university is always a tough one, and optimizing my test-taking strategies and adapting to the style of university exams is something that has helped me greatly during my time here at Waterloo