What to Do in the Last 10 Minutes of an Exam

The last 10 minutes make all the difference in an exam. This is when you catch the mistakes that – sometimes – make the difference between passing and failing. Here’s what every student should be doing in the last 10 minutes of any exam:


Sweating the Small Stuff

It’s quite possible for mediocre students to excel in exams, while genius students lag behind. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the most common is simply a poor eye for detail – all it takes are a handful of careless mistakes to plunge an A to a C.

Here’s a simple checklist for any student to remember. These should be done in the last 10 minutes:

  • Break and return
  • Align Optical Answer Sheets
  • Go back to “marked” questions
  • Backward reading
  • Revise the use of certain words
  • Improve answers with diagrams


1. Break and Restart

It’s advisable to take a quick “break” of around three minutes, before checking your answers. This allows you to come back to the paper with a (somewhat) refreshed perspective.


If possible, request a break to wash your face or stretch. Come back and check your answers afterwards. Do this even if you don’t feel sleepy or tired. Mental fatigue creeps up on you, especially if you were cramming the night before – most of us don’t notice when our level of attention drops.


2. Align Optical Answer Sheets

The optical answer sheet (OAS) is the piece of paper with circles for you to shade. People have complained about OAS for ages, because of the alignment issue. Miss a line by accident, and all your answers after that are shifted out of alignment.


So grab a ruler, and use it to check each line of the OAS. If you happen to miss a line, you’ll have to start erasing and re-shading everything below it. But do not do this in a rush, as this is when the next series of mistakes happens (i.e. forgetting which circle you were supposed to shade, after erasing and changing the previous line).


3. Go Back to “Marked” Questions

This process starts during the exam. Whenever you encounter a question that meets one of the following criteria, be sure to mark it. Put an asterisk next to it, or scribble down the question number:


  • Questions that seem unusually difficult
  • Questions that seem unusually easy
  • Questions that are not phrased in a typical manner (these often appear in comprehension sections, to test your reading skills)
  • Questions to which your answers are suspect (e.g. concluding from a maths problem that the height of a chair is 20 centimetres)

Instead of double checking every answer in order, go to these marked questions first. These are the questions in which you’re more likely to have made a mistake, or missed a critical piece of information.

It helps to stay informed of tricky or unusual questions, which examiners sometimes introduce to test students’ depth of thought. At Lite Tutors, our private tutors chew their nails making sure students are braced for these.


4. Backward Reading (for Poor Spellers)Read essay length answers backward. When reading backward, you are forcing yourself to check each individual word.

Otherwise, your mind will follow an instinctive tendency to “skim” text that it thinks it already knows. Reading backward draws your attention to spelling errors, ambiguous pronouns, or misplaced modifiers.


5. Revise the Use of Certain Words

When writing essays and compositions, you are never finished. There is always a better choice of word, or a smarter turn of phrase, that you can use. Here are a few basic tips to follow:


  • When you spot a word ending in “-ly”, there is almost always a better alternative. James angrily punched the wall is stronger when replaced by James slammed his fist into the wall.


For tertiary level students (especially in business or English), remember that redundancies annoy lecturers. If James punched the wall then it’s common sense he’s angry;  you don’t need to pad your word count by writing “angrily”.


  • When you spot onomatopoeia (a word that imitates a sound, like “woof” or “ring”), try to replace or accompany it with a description. So instead of I heard a loud “bang!”, try I heard the screech of twisting metal.


(Before you ask, yes, that does require a good vocabulary.)


  • Focus on adding visual descriptions to things. If there is a dog in your composition, you may want to add “A dog with mangy patches, and a small nick in its ear.”


For more on how to write well in language exams, like us on Facebook. We’ll give you new tips all the time.


6. Improve Answers With Diagrams

If you have time and space, then by all means back your answers  with diagrams. If you’ve just written an answer about the process of photosynthesis, and you still have some white space, go ahead and draw the cycle.


You may not get extra marks for it. But if you made a minor error, your diagram might show you understand the process anyway. An examiner might let you off the hook for that.


What is the common careless mistake you make during exams? Comment and let us know!

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