Making a silly mistake on an exam is one of the most frustrating things in college.
If you miss an answer because you forgot to study it or the question went right over your head, you can deal with it.
But when you make a dumb exam mistake while knowing better, that’s hard to get over.
Plus, some exams are difficult enough on their own that there’s no wiggle room to make a dumb error and leave points on the table. And even if the exam is only mediocre or easy in difficulty, you want all the points you can get.
That’s why I created a list of 11 dumb exam mistakes that happen way too often with college students.
I admit that some of the mistakes on this list are obvious. So the point of this list is to serve more of a reminder to you than a never before heard revelation.
And this is why dumb exam errors are called silly mistakes. You know about them, but you accidentally commit them under the pressure of the test.
But, when you read this list you will gain a fresh memory of what mistakes to avoid and thus improve your exam scores.
Dumb Exam Mistakes
Mistake 1: Show up late
Whether you sleep in past your alarm, forget how far away the test room is, or some other reason, showing up late to your exam puts you at an immediate disadvantage.
First, you have less time to take the exam, which could cause you to leave questions unanswered if you run out of time. Second, your mind is now in an anxious state and doesn’t perform as well as it does when it’s calm.
If you don’t have class immediately before, aim to show up 10 minutes early on exam days. This way, even if you’re late, you have a 10-minute window to still be on time.
Mistake 2: Stress out
High test anxiety does nothing but hurt your chances of doing well on an exam. Some students will study hard to know all the test material, ace the practice test, and then freeze up when it comes time to perform.
So stressing out causes students to do worse than their true ability, and their grades suffer because of it.
One solution to curb high test anxiety includes writing about your values—like friends and family—10 minutes before the exam. And another option that could work for you is to stretch and focus on your breathing, similar to yoga, leading up to the test.
A relaxed brain is less effective in fight or flight mode, but does better on college exams.
Mistake 3: Skip a question without marking it
Rather than get stuck on a question and waste value minutes, it’s a good strategy to move on to other exam questions and come back to it.
But, this strategy only works if you mark the question you skipped. Because if you don’t circle it, star it, or underline it, then the odds are higher that you’re going to forget about it and get the question automatically wrong.
To be extra careful, I’m a believer in marking the test sheet and the Scantron sheet. This improves your odds of coming back to the skipped question.
Mistake 4: Leave a question unanswered
Dumb exam mistake number 3 leads to mistake 4: not answering a question. For a multiple choice test, at least give yourself the benefit of guessing A, B, C, or D.
Guessing a couple of these questions correct can improve your test score a whole letter grade.
And for a short answer or essay exam, even if you don’t know the answer, I bet you have enough relevant information to make up something logical to get half-credit. Write what you know, and pray the professor likes you.
Mistake 5: Go too fast and misread the question
In the adrenaline rush to do well and finish on time, students often zoom through the question to start thinking about the answer. Yet, this causes them problems as they can misunderstand the question and get stuck on the wrong train of thought. Of course, this results in the wrong answer.
For example, you would answer the question, “Which one of the following is not true about the earth’s rotation?,” much differently than, “Which one of the following is true about the earth’s rotation?”
So slow down, read the entire question, and then do your thing.
For this same reason, you’ll probably write a better essay if you take a minute to slow down and organize your thoughts. The people who rush immediately into the writing portion have problems with establishing a main point and giving appropriate structure to their writing.
Mistake 6: Get the answer correct, then bubble it wrong on the Scantron sheet
Assuming you have a Scantron test, the meticulous task of transferring answers from the test sheet to your Scantron sheet is another opportunity to mess up. And under the circumstances, the letter C bubble can be mistaken as the letter D bubble.
What’s a solution to protect yourself from this? When I took Scantron exams and picked my answer choice, I would do this three step process:
- Put my left finger on the test sheet answer and say it in my head.
- Repeat the letter in my head again as I filled in the Scantron bubble with my right hand.
- Looked back at my left finger on the test sheet to confirm the answers match.
Mistake 7: Second guess a right answer and change it to a wrong answer
In most cases, I believe it’s best to go with your gut because there’s a reason you picked it in the first place.
Even scientists make the case that trusting your gut is best when compared with slower decision-making techniques.
And as you will see in mistake 8, there’s a difference between going over your work for accuracy, and second guessing your answers.
Mistake 8: Forget the questions on the back of the last page
With the clock running against you and high-nerves, you may forget to check the back sheet of the exam. This huge error can force you to miss around 6 questions and around from 12 to 18 points right off the bat.
Often that can cause you to fail the exam, when you otherwise would have passed if you saw those questions and received those points.
This mistake is another reason to slow down, because the extra second it takes to check the last page during the test is worth it.
Mistake 9: Turn in the test before checking answers
I understand the urge to finish the test and be done with it forever—or until the material comes back on the final exam. But, come on guys and girls, checking your answers for accuracy and diligence takes around three to five minutes.
This doesn’t mean you’re second-guessing your entire exam, which would lead to mistake 7. But you’re confirming you read all the questions correctly, answered all the questions you skipped, and didn’t forget to answer any questions.
Mistake 10: Run out of time
I preached about slowing down throughout this list, but there’s such a thing as taking an exam too slow.
Don’t let yourself get stuck on a question and spend five minutes trying to get started. Mark it in some way, and come back to it later. Plus, you can often pick up a context clue in a following question that can help you answer the question you skipped.
And if you do run out of time as the professor says they need all the exams turned in, use your charm to say you’re almost finished and could really use an extra five minutes to do your best work. This tactic helped me more than once.
Mistake 11: Forget to turn in the exam
I saved the worst silly mistake for last, but this occasionally happens. If you’re out of it, it’s not impossible for you to finish the exam and accidentally put it in your backpack and leave.
Since every other day in this class you pack up everything on your desk and go, your habit could take over and cause you to do the same routine with your test. People are creatures of habit after all.
And if you don’t catch the mistake in time, this move could cause you serious problems like getting a zero on the test and failing the class.
There’s no way you commit all 11 stupid exam mistakes. But, I bet one or two elements on this list have been a thorn in your side before on a college test.
For example, slow test takers probably need to focus on moving past questions they don’t immediately know and to stop second guessing themselves. Fast test takers probably need to slow down for accuracy and to stop giving up easy points based on things they can control.
Keep in mind whatever exam mistake has troubled you in the past so you don’t repeat it, and do big things on your next exam. I believe in you.