11 mistakes students make with tests and exams (and how to avoid making them)

Exam mistakes and how to avoid them

Mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process.

But if you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, this can be incredibly disheartening.

When it comes to taking tests and exams, there are some common pitfalls students fall into.

Below I share 11 common mistakes students make when it comes to preparing and taking tests/exams – and how you can avoid making them.

1. Cramming


Without a doubt, this is where most students go wrong with exams. They don’t give themselves enough time to learn the content properly.

The thing about your brain is that it needs time to digest ideas. You need to revisit ideas for them to stick.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Start preparing for exams when you can still think properly.

Even if one month out from exams you’re just doing 10 minutes of flash card revision each day, that will make a difference. All those little bits of study add up to something really solid.

2. Freak out!

stressed student

A little bit of stress is okay and can be motivating. But if you’re struggling to stay focused and feel like bursting into tears, your stress levels are too high! Dial it down.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Start preparing early (see point 1).

Other strategies you can use to decrease exam nerves:

• Use this simple reframe: Think of exams as being just like big tests.
• Power pose before the exam: Strike a boss style pose for 2 minutes.
• Practice visualisation: See yourself taking the exam and walk yourself through the process (from start to finish).

Student tip:

“Be calm and know that you can do this.”

3. Lack of practice

Taking exams is a skill. Whether you go well or not isn’t so much a reflection of your intelligence. It’s more a reflection of your exam technique and how well you can prepare for exams.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Practice doing lots of exams under timed conditions. Treat it like you’re training for a marathon. Perhaps initially you just want to do a 30 minute ‘exam’ workout. As you build your strength and stamina, build it up to 45 minutes, then an hour. Eventually attempt the full 3 hours.

This takes grit and determination. But it will be time well spent.

4. Easily distracted

Distraction is the enemy when it comes to learning. If you want to be able to learn information you need to be able to focus.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Before you start studying, create a focus force field. Put your phone away. Install an Internet blocker app. Get someone to change the password on your social media accounts. If you know you tend to get hungry when you study, set yourself up with some healthy snacks before you get started.

In short, deal with distractions from the outset.

Student tip:

“Put your phone and other distractions away while studying as this will benefit you in the future … however phones will destroy your future.”

5. Syllabus? What syllabus?

Work with your syllabus

The complex terms, jargon and the text heavy nature of your syllabus can make it scary to look at.

But don’t let those things put you off looking at this document.

Your syllabus is too important to ignore.

It will save you hours (possibly even weeks) of time. You just need to know how to navigate through it.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Bypass all the jargon and head straight to the unit content section. This section tells you exactly what you’ll be assessed on.

Then choose a syllabus point and use an effective study strategy to make it stick (see point 6). Aim to cover at least one syllabus point every time you sit down to study.

6. Using ‘feel good’ study strategies

Feel good study strategies

Reading your books and notes over and over again is not an effective way to prepare for exams. Highlighting your notes isn’t going to help either.

The research shows what feels good and easy when it comes to study rarely is effective.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Make a commitment to learn and use the most effective study strategies out there (you can read about these strategies here).

A little time spent learning effective study strategies will save you so much time later on. You’ll get that time back plus better grades and a more satisfying learning experience.

7. Sacrifice sleep for study

Sleep deprived

Entering the exam room in a sleep deprived state is a recipe for disaster. You’ll struggle to recall information. You’ll find it hard to concentrate. You’ll feel fatigued. Probably a little depressed too.

In short, everything is going to feel so much harder.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Make getting 8-10 hours of quality sleep a non-negotiable part of your daily routine. If required, throw in a power nap.

Student tip:

“Sleep the night before. Don’t cram.”

8. Running out of steam

Running out of steam

You’re feeling over it by your final exam. You’ve lost all motivation to study. You don’t really care how you go. So you do the bare minimum to prepare for it. You go in with a plan to … wing it. But winging isn’t an effective strategy.

How to avoid this pitfall:

If you’re running out of steam, you need to engage in little activities to recalibrate. What do I mean by this? Do things that will help you feel normal again and restore your energy levels.

One student shared this piece of advice:

“Study early, study late, and somewhere in the middle treat yourself to an $11 Medium meatbox from Kebab Lads. “

Perhaps an $11 meat box isn’t the greatest way to restore your energy levels. But that’s beside the point.

The point is this:

Do things to keep your spirits up.

And then hit the books again!

Repeat this process until your final exam is over.

Student tip:

“Don’t get demotivated by the time your last two exams come round. Divide your time and effort well.”

9. Same old, same old

boring study

If you keep using the same old study methods (e.g. passively reading), then expect things are going to get a little bit boring at some point.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Apply Fun Theory to you studies. Experiment with different ways to make studying the subject a little more fun and interesting for your brain.

10. Avoid the Debbie Downers

Stress is contagious

Stress is contagious. If you’re hanging around people who are freaking out about exams (“I’m going to fail!”), don’t be surprised if you start to feel anxious, too.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Keep away from anxious people before your exams so you stay calm and composed.

Student tip:

“Get in, do it, and get out!”

11. Read and answer the question properly

Answer questions

When you don’t read and answer the question properly, it’s like going into an Italian restaurant, ordering a pizza and the waiter serving you a bunch of kale. How would you feel? Slightly frustrated?

This is how the examiner feels when you don’t answer the question properly.

How to avoid this pitfall:

Read the question carefully. As you read the question, look for clue words such as explain, discuss and compare. These words have different meanings. They determine the approach you need to take to answering the question. Some students find it can help to rewrite the question in a way that makes sense to them.

Not sure what the difference is between discuss and explain?

No problem! Use effective study strategies to understand and remember the meaning of each clue word. This will be time well spent.

To sum up

Which mistakes do you keep making? My advice is this: pick one area to focus on. If you need to get more sleep, then now is the time to establish better sleep habits (e.g. no technology 30 minutes before bed). If you need to learn better study strategies, spend a few hours testing out some different strategies.

It’s amazing how a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle and study habits can dramatically lift your game.

So what are you waiting for? Close this browser and go do something your future self will thank you for!