• Ian Gibbs

Exam Tip #22: Get The Balance Right

Being able to make the right decision under stress is an important skill.

After all, making the wrong decision in a crucial situation can have severe consequences.

So how about the following decision?

You’re nearing the end of your exam. It’s tough and you’re running out of time. You only have 10 minutes left and you’ve still got two questions to answer—let’s call them Question X and Question Y. As you’ve quite correctly left the hardest until last, both are really challenging questions.

Question X is worth 5 points and you reckon it will take you all of the remaining ten minutes. Question Y is worth 7 points but would take more time than you have.

Which is your best course of action to guarantee getting optimum marks?

a) Leave them both and go over your previous answers

b) Try to answer X for 5 marks

c) Try to answer Y for 7 marks

d) Try to answer both X and Y

To arrive at the correct answer, it is important to remember your objective is to score the highest mark you realistically can in the last 10 minutes.


Good. Let’s consider your options.

a) Leaving both questions unanswered and revising your previous answers might score you an extra mark or two but you’re unlikely to pick up more. So this is unlikely to be your best option.

b) If you answer Question X and do it perfectly, you’ll get a maximum of 5 marks just as your time runs out. But as it’s a tough question—full marks are unlikely.

c) If you answer Question Y, you might get more than 5 marks. After all, the maximum is 7. But Y is also a tough question and you simply don’t have the time.

What about d)?

You certainly don’t have time to answer both fully. But what if you spent five minutes on each?

The first few marks of any question are the easiest to get. It could be stating a few facts, remembering a quote or a statistic or sketching and labelling a simple diagram.

The practical result of this is you can often get more than 50% of the marks in less than 50% the time and without even finishing the question.

So without finishing either X or Y, you could spend five minutes on each and still realistically pick up 3 points from both questions, a total of 6 points. Better than options a), b) or c).

It’s very important to remember that the marks you score in the first few minutes are relatively high. As you continue, the points you can get for each minute spent goes down until even spending a whole 10 minutes on a question gets you minimum extra points.

Leaving an answer unfinished doesn’t mean you’ll get no marks for it. It just means you won’t get all the marks.

In fact, some say you can leave every question unfinished and STILL PASS (I don’t recommend you try this).

But it is important to understand that to get the highest grade, you must avoid spending too much time on any individual question. That time will simply fail to earn its corresponding weight in marks.

Is this something you tend to do?

Have you ever got carried away and spent more time than necessary answering a question simply because you could think of lots to write about (even if the question didn’t ask for it)?

Have you ever left an answer partially unfinished and moved on to another question to optimise the time you had remaining?

If so, well done. It’s not an ideal situation to be in, but it’s the best thing you can do if you see you’re running out of time.

When answering questions, it’s very important to get the balance right between time spent answering and marks being scored.

Tip 22: It’s better to leave a question unfinished and move on to the next one than to waste time on it.

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